Erin Simon, director of sustainability at the World Wildlife Fund, said Europe’s ban was cause for celebration – and caution.
“A rapid pace of innovation and proliferation of plastic has outpaced our ability to manage it,” Ms Simon said.
“When this plastic ends up in nature, it doesn’t break down quickly.
“It takes hundreds of years. That has a really bad impact on those ecosystems and of course the people who depend on those. That’s wildlife and humans.”
By December 2018, National Retailers Association policy manager David Stout said Queensland’s retailers had reduced the number of plastic bags taken from their stores by 80 per cent.
University of Queensland’s Turtles in Trouble research team recently found two old Coles plastic bags in mangrove areas as they collected data from 45 sites.
In December 2018 the Turtles in Trouble research team found a Coles home brand plastic bag.
The bag’s old logo was used between 1971 and 1979, indicating it is at least 40 years old.
In September 2018 the team found a Coles New World plastic bag in mangroves at Wynnum that was used by Coles between 1987 and 1991, suggesting it was at least 28 years old.
Plastic bags are not easily biodegradable. Estimates for their longevity range from tens to hundreds of years, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Coles and Woolworths stopped giving away single-use plastic bags on July 1 last year and Coles started charging customers for somewhat stronger bags from August 30, after an initial policy shift in the face of criticisms.
Dr Kathy Townsend, Turtles in Trouble’s principal marine ecologist, said about 30 per cent of turtles dying off the Queensland coast starved after eating plastic bags.
She told the ABC last year that turtles who ate plastic bags floated and could not chase food.
“They get what is called gut impaction,” Dr Townsend said.
“Gut impaction is where the gut itself begins to die off and with that that dying-off process – it can no longer digest anything.
Plastics sit within the gut, mixed with organic matter and do not break down, causing gas.
“The gases move into the body cavity and make it buoyant,” she said.
“We call these ones ‘floaters’. Then they very, very slowly starve to death if they are not hit by a boat first.”
World Wide Fund for Nature, Australia chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said the two old plastic bags showed how long plastic remained in the environment.
He acknowledged recycling had advanced since the 1980s, but said Australia needed to follow Europe and ban single-use plastics.
“Whilst recycling is important, we will need to transition society beyond our reliance on single-use plastics and towards more innovative and sustainable solutions,” Mr O’Gorman said.
“The next Australian government should follow the EU’s lead and commit to targeting the top 10 worst single-use plastics.”
Australian political party policies on plastics
- Will ban single-use plastic bags and microbeads from 2021.
- Opposition Leader Bill Shorten welcomed Europe’s move, but said further study was needed quickly to stop any “unforseen consequences” of the ban.
- Has promised an Advanced Manufacting Future Fund to develop alternatives to single-use packaging.
- In December 2018 committed to a toughening of the national action plan to packaging and waste, including plastics.
- “These include reducing plastic pollution, supporting industry development, increasing demand for recycled materials through procurement” at a meeting of Australia’s environment ministers.
- It has set aside $20 million to investigate plastic recycling.
Tony Moore is a senior reporter at the Brisbane Times