Plastic bags – the CON in Convenient!

Plastic shopping bags are the most sold line items in our supermarkets.  Along with the plastic bags offered by other retailers for purchases of clothing, stationary, electronics, hardware etc South Africans use billions of single use plastic bags every year.  Plastic bags are just so convenient!  But there is a CON in this convenience.  Currently most plastic shopping bags in South Africa are not recyclable – even though many have Recycle Me logos.   (Checkers has 100% recyclable Tuffy plastic bags)

In spite of recycle messages our recycler has to send these shopping bags to landfill..

In spite of recycle messages our recycler has to send these shopping bags to landfill..

It appears that the market for plastic bags is highly competitive and so producers add varying amounts of the cheaper calcium carbonate filler to keep costs down.  But the filler compromises the recyclability of the bags.  Retailers claim they only found out about the non -recyclability of their bags early in 2017.  Since then discussions at various forums including the Retailers Forum and an industry technical working group have debated how to address the non-recyclability.  Recyclers are being pressurized to find or invest in new ways to recycle the filler compromised bags.  In the meanwhile billions of plastic shopping bags produced and branded for the retailers are mostly only used once and then dumped. 

It is entirely possible to produce 100% recyclable plastic bags and without the expense of new machinery.  So why aren’t recyclable bags the default?  Recyclers can easily recycle 100% plastic bags into pellets that can be turned into new bags or products.   Instead of all retailers calling for an industry ban on the fillers there is talk that some retailers are looking to accept a lower percentage of chalk filler to make the bags easier to recycle.  Others are calling for a comparison of costs for 100% plastic bags vs bags with 8 or 9 % filler.  To avoid being accused of making false recycling claims, at least one retailer is removing the recycling branding on bags still produced with filler.  CONvenient!!  If this appears to be vague, it is because no clear public statement is being made by the retailers regarding the future of their plastic bags, apart from Checkers which committed to 100% recyclable bags made from 100% recyclate.

Why is it so hard for the retailers to do the right thing and place orders for 100% PE-HD bags made from increasing amounts of recycled PE as it becomes available?  Apparently without the filler the bags could cost between 4 and 10 cents more per bag.  This is a small price to pay to keep bags out of the environment.

The non-recyclability of our `National Flower’ has a long history.  The process of prodding and pushing the plastics industry and retailers to take responsibility for the life cycle costs of their bags goes back at least to 2000.  Concerned about the amount of plastic in the natural environment, Minister of Environment Affairs at the time, Valli Moosa initiated discussions with retailers, bag producers, labour and recyclers to design bags that would be recyclable.  Discussions focussed on increasing the bag thickness to make it more attractive for recycling and incidentally better suited to multiple use.  A levy was introduced to support recyclers to collect bags. This triggered retailers to charge the public for bags at supermarkets, both to recoup the costs of the slightly more expensive bag and to encourage a culture of reuse, or the use of alternatives.  Sadly the levy was not well managed and now it simply goes into government coffers.  In 2004 industry was given 5 years to retool so that they could increase the thickness of the bags from a minimum of 24 to a legislated standard of 30 microns.  It appears that 8 years after the deadline most shopping bags are still 24microns thick and more recently contain a chalk filler of up to 20%.  This makes a mockery of the government requirement that shopping bags need to be recyclable.

In a growing international move, other nations, most recently Kenya have banned plastic carrier bags.  This is a drastic step with immediate job losses in the plastic industry. Although with time jobs, but not necessarily for the same people, will be created to produce alternative carriers.  Banning plastic bags has an immediate environmental benefit in the reduction of plastic in nature.  But how eco-friendly are the alternatives?   Certainly there are serious environmental questions around the production of paper and while paper bags do compost they are still single use.   New `plastic’ made from starch or cellulose potentially competes with food production, a serious ethical problem.

The long term vision should be to move away from all single use bags and packaging.  Right now we need to address the non- recyclability of packaging starting with plastic shopping bags.  Non- recyclable plastic bags fly a flag for profit over the planet, and so also over people as our well being is directly linked to that of the Earth.  We need all the retailers to take the CON out of the convenience of shopping bags and shift to 100% recyclable plastic. If they won’t do it, the government needs to join the world wide move to ban single use non- recyclable plastic bags. 

Kim Kruyshaar 2017 09 01

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