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Approximately 900 million single-use lightweight plastic bags are used in Queensland each year.

The majority of these bags end up in landfill; however around 2 per cent of the bags are littered—which means up to 16 million bags entering the environment in Queensland each year.

Although they represent only a small proportion of the litter stream, plastic bags are a highly conspicuous source of plastic pollution that can be avoided. Whether littered or dumped in tips, lightweight plastic bags tend to be picked up by the wind – travelling great distances, causing damage to wildlife and impacting on the visual amenity of an area.

The size of the plastic bag problem

  • Australians use over 10 million lightweight plastic bags every day (4-6 billion per year)
  • Approximately 900 million single-use lightweight plastic bags are used in QLD every year
  • On average, every Queenslander uses 200 single-use plastic bags every year
  • Of the large number of bags supplied, less than 4% are recycled
  • Nationwide we dump almost 4 billion recyclable bags per year and approximately 50 million are littered.

Did you know? The average life span (the amount of time we use it) of a plastic bag is 20 minutes but a plastic bag’s components can last up to 1000 years in landfill or the environment.

Impacts of plastic bags on the environment

Recent CSIRO research has shown that plastic pollution in coastal waterways is killing and seriously impacting on marine wildlife, notably endangered leatherback turtles, vulnerable green turtles and seabird chicks.

Plastic bag debris often consumed by wildlife

The research notes that some marine turtles will preferentially eat plastic bags. When plastic bags break down in micro-pieces, the chemical additives and plastic compounds are able to more easily enter food chains creating cumulative risks for animals and humans.

The CSIRO studies suggest that by 2050, 95% of all sea birds will have plastics in their gut.

It is estimated that globally over 1 million sea birds and over 100,000 mammals die every year as a result of plastic. These creatures die through ingestion mistaking it as food or from entanglement in plastic items. Consumed debris may starve animals by preventing ingestion of food, reducing absorption of nutrients, mechanical blockage or impairment of the digestive system resulting in internal wounds and ulceration. When plastics are regurgitated as food to chicks by their parents, physical impacts and internal ulcerations are likely to lower survival rates.

A serious issue for Queensland

A substantial amount of research indicates that the Great Barrier Reef is suffering from the impacts of plastic litter pollution. Apart from discarded fishing gear, plastic bags are the most dangerous item of marine debris in terms of potential for wildlife to become entangled in or ingest the bags.

Leatherback turtles endangered by consuming plastic bags

The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014 identified marine debris and plastics as a major threat to the health of the reef. It was found that between 2008 and 2014, 683,000 items of marine debris were recovered within the marine park.

In addition, plastic bags break down creating microplastics that are so small that they have the huge potential to affect virtually all marine life. “When things get that small, it targets up for 96 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, which are invertebrates, to potentially start ingesting them. They can enter the bloodstream through the gut, and then they can circulate in the bloodstream directly entering cells and tissues of these animals”, says researcher Professor Emma Johnston, from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science.

Marine Biologist Dr. Kathy Townsend from the Moreton Bay Research Station, University of QLD, estimates that approximately 30% of the turtles she autopsies have plastics, including plastic bags, in their intestinal tract. Marine turtles are particularly vulnerable to floating debris as some species of marine turtles are thought to mistake plastic bags and other similar items for jellyfish prey.

Additionally, a significant number of dead whales and dolphins have been found to ingest sufficient plastics to have caused fatal blockages. According to the Boomerang Alliance, in August 2000, an eight metre Bryde’s whale died soon after becoming stranded on a Cairns beach. An autopsy found that the whale’s stomach was tightly packed with 6 square metres of plastic, including many single-use lightweight plastic bags.

The cost of plastic litter

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report in 2014, Valuing Plastics: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in the Consumer Goods Industry, which identifies that plastics finding their way into the world’s oceans costs approximately AUD$17.3 billion per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems; and the total natural capital cost of plastic used in the consumer goods industry estimated to be more than AUD$99 billion per year.

Examples of the impacts on the economy associated with marine plastic pollution include:

  1. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was AUD$1.6billion in our region;
  2. Local authorities have to bear the cost of cleaning up plastic litter from beaches, maintaining litter traps and bins etc. The cost on local government to manage litter in NSW is approximately $132 million per year. These costs are ultimately passed onto residents and businesses.
  3. Given the importance that tourism and eco-tourism play in Queensland’s economy and job market, the cost of plastic pollution is substantial.

 


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