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Australian Town Joins Global War on Plastic Bags

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 year.

"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 Ark.

But discarded plastic bags do more than just kill animals.

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 the problem.
"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 heaps.
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)

©heal toxics, 2003
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