Ordinary people are taking action on plastic - supermarkets need to follow suit

Opinion piece, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 2018.

Dear Coles, I would like to invite your executive team to join the many thousands of ordinary Australians who spend their free time picking up plastic waste. It’s hardly our first choice for a good time, but someone has to do it.

There are perks - like camaraderie and the glimmer of hope that the Styrofoam you’ve pulled out of your local creek won’t end up as a grey heron’s lunch. But there’s also the unavoidable realisation that it is not just a thankless task, it is an endless one – unless we reduce plastic pollution at its source.

I do get it that you have to listen to your customers. And as Wesfarmers wants you to "demerge", I also know you’re super sensitive about anything that might get in the way of a customer’s unimpeded pathway to the checkout.

But, until you reneged on the removal of free plastic bags, I was a regular Coles customer too. Like many others, I have contacted you on Facebook bemoaning the recent failure of corporate leadership. The end of thin plastic bags was great news, then you started giving even thicker ones away for free - and now you're going to do that indefinitely.

This might sound a bit melodramatic. What difference do a few hundred million thick Coles plastic bags make, when we’re drowning in plastic worldwide? Today, not much. But, tomorrow, a bit more.

Of all the plastic manufactured worldwide, we’ve only managed to recycle about 9 per cent. And, like "plogging" (the Swedish term for running while picking up rubbish) or "strawkelling" (an Aussie innovation - snorkelling while pulling plastic out of the ocean), when it comes to shifting policies and corporate practices, someone has to do it.

NSW is now the only state in Australia without a ban on thin, single use plastics bags. This puts us a clear decade behind China, which got rid of thin plastics bags in 2008 and imposed a levy on thicker ones, achieving a 60-80 per cent reduction in plastic bag use.

Scores of countries have already instigated some kind of ban or limitation on single use plastic bags. Bangladesh banned them outright in 2002, after devastating floods were exacerbated by plastic waste clogging urban drains.

A global analysis by the United Nations Environment Program concluded that plastic litter in the Asia-Pacific costs tourism, fishing and shipping industries US$1.3 billion a year ($1.75 billion). The economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastics is estimated at US$13 billion every year.

And, here in NSW we’re tearing our hair out at the checkouts over a 15-cent price tag on a plastic bag that is intended to encourage us to bring our own.

Consider this against the world’s strictest ban in Rwanda, where the manufacturing, use, sale and importation of all plastic bags is prohibited, with heavy fines for violations and even jail time. A 2008 base line study had concluded plastic pollution was threatening agricultural production, contaminating water sources and killing fish.

Rwanda’s ban didn’t work well at the beginning, but no one backed down. Kigali, the capital, was later nominated as the cleanest city in Africa. Which really does make our shrill Coles bag debate look very much like a first world problem.

Clara Williams Roldan