By Sophie Hares, Reuters
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The tiny Australian seaside town
of Huskisson, perched on the edge of glittering Jervis Bay and
fringed by pristine national parks, has signed up for the global
battle against the humble plastic bag.
The former whaling settlement, whose waters are
a major draw for divers and dolphin watchers, is one of an increasing
number of Australian towns to outlaw plastic bags and help slash
the seven billion bags the country's 20 million people use each
"It was really about protecting our own backyard
for not only ourselves, but for the million-odd visitors that
come here each year. People just thought it absolutely made sense,"
said Matt Cross, coordinator of the project in Huskisson, population
750, about 112 miles south of Sydney.
Shoppers around the world use tens of billions
of plastic bags every year.
Environmentalists say normal plastic bags can take
up to 1,000 years to disintegrate, although industry groups argue
the bags make up only a small percentage of global litter.
But environmentalists say the growing problem posed by plastic
bag pollution can no longer be ignored.
Even remote Himalayan foothills are now strewn
with thousands of used bags and in South Africa they have become
such a common eyesore they are dubbed "roadside daisies,"
prompting a campaign to exterminate the "national flower."
Sacred cows roaming India's streets have died after
chewing bags containing scraps of food, while thousands of turtles,
birds and other marine animals are killed each year after mistaking
the millions of bags in the world's oceans for squid and jellyfish.
"We've had plastic bags since the 1960s and
initially they seemed like a great idea, lightweight, low energy
needed to make them. Then the dead animals starting washing up
on beaches," said John Dee, from environmental group Planet
But discarded plastic bags do more than just kill
In Bangladesh they were blamed for clogging drains
in the capital Dhaka, contributing toward deadly flooding in the
low-lying country. The government has since banned the 10 million
plastic bags used each day in the country in a bid to alleviate
"Disposal of bags is creating havoc in urban areas. Environmentally
speaking, plastic is more suitable for long life products like
pipelines," said Chandra Bhushan, associate director at India's
Center for Science and Environment.
The Australian government has urged supermarkets
to halve plastic bag use by 2005.
In addition to Bangladesh, other countries, including Ireland
and Taiwan, have slapped bans or taxes on bags.
Dozens of other countries from China, which is
fighting vast quantities of "white pollution," to Finland,
France and Britain are making efforts to cut the number of bags
used and find practical and cheap alternatives.
Slapping levies or charges on plastic bag use has
proved highly successful, with Ireland's tactic of imposing a
15 euro cent ($0.19 cents) per bag charge leading to a 95 percent
plunge in the number of bags used and raising millions of dollars
for the government to spend on environmental projects.
In Taiwan, where most stores charge T$1 (34 cents)
per bag, use has slumped by 80 percent after stores, fast-food
outlets and the food and beverage industry were gradually banned
from handing out free bags to consumers.
In Britain, where consumers use up to 20 billion
bags a year, major supermarkets are handing out biodegradable
alternatives, while Australian scientists are considering bioplastics
made of sucrose or grain which can eventually end up on compost
One alternative made by British firm Symphony Plastic Technologies
by mixing an additive to polyethylene has a stable shelf life
but breaks down to water, carbon dioxide and dust.
"The interest we're getting is global. Europe
has got a lot of plastic waste problems and there's a lot of work
being done in the EU. What you're seeing is the beginning of a
very big change," said Symphony Chief Executive Michael Laurier.
However, higher costs remain an issue for many
biodegradables and critics say some alternative products break
down into hundreds of flakes which can still harm wildlife.
Some countries are employing novel tactics, with India's southern
city of Bangalore looking to use a mix of bitumen and recycled
plastic to build roads.
But simple consumer education is one of the most
effective methods with Australian supermarkets reporting a dramatic
rise in fabric bag sales as an intensive campaign to urge customers
to shun plastic begins to catch on.
"The public are very concerned about plastic
bags, they know the problem and they're concerned about the impact
on wildlife, but as soon as they get to the checkout at the supermarket,
their brain switches off," said Planet Ark's Dee.
Not surprisingly, the plastic bag backlash may
prove serious for manufacturers, many already under pressure from
cheap Asian imports, as consumers switch from thin, single-use
polythene bags to alternatives made of calico, paper or thickened
plastic. One Australian plastic bag manufacturer has already been
forced to lay off staff as a direct result, said the Plastics
& Chemicals Industries Association.
"To ban an article which is part of the litter
stream will not solve the litter problem. An alternative will
then be found in the litter stream," said Axel Kistenmacher,
Plastics Europe director for environmental issues. "If it's
the plastic bag today, it'll be the paper bag tomorrow."
(Additional reporting by Sugita Katyal in New Delhi, Judy Hua
in Beijing, Tiffany Wu in Taipei, Edward Stoddard in Johannesburg,
Anis Ahmed in Dhaka and Laura Vinha in Helsinki)