Thanks to a wave of populist lobbying and feel-good environmentalist action, the Federal, State and Territory governments have a policy goal to phase out plastic shopping bags by 2008. Too bad a dispassionate and rational study of the issue finds they are just about totally wrong.

The Productivity Commission has sifted through all the garbage and quietly delivered its Waste Management Inquiry report that includes a most delightful chapter on plastic bags. You could use it as the script for a couple of MythBusters programs.

The Productivity Commission has long been a refuge for rational thought when populists of one shade or another have been at large. So it is with plastic bags.

Turns out there really is no evidence of plastic bags being much of a problem for wildlife – it’s other types of litter that harm marine animals, especially discarded fishing gear.

The Commission asked several organisations that have been active on plastic-bag issues to help identify an alternative study that demonstrates that plastic-bag litter kills at least 100,000 animals every year. None of the organisations identified such a study.

And that’s 100,000 animals anywhere. The people who have made an industry and a profile for themselves out of attacking plastic bags will try to cling to the Commission’s comment that the overall impact of plastic bag little on marine wildlife is likely to remain very uncertain – one picture of a dolphin carrying home fish in a bag will serve just fine for unscientific propaganda purposes.

And the concern about taking up landfill space? Rubbish – the placky bags are a tiny 0.2% of landfill waste. Only 0.8% of plastic bags become litter and it seems even those naughty bags are unlikely to come from supermarkets.

What you really have to love is the suggestion that plastic bags might even be helpful in the rubbish dump. The Commission quotes an EPHC study:

The environmental impact of plastic bags in landfill is likely to be low due to their essentially inert or unreactive nature. It appears that plastic bags may have some landfill management benefits including stabilising qualities, leachate minimisation and minimising greenhouse gas emissions.

Oh, yes, greenhouse gas emissions – about five times as much are required to produce paper bags. You want biodegradable plastic bags instead? Nah – by breaking down into little bits they’re more likely to harm wildlife, are harder to deal with in the litter chain and could stuff up the general plastic recycling business.

The report also debunks the claimed benefits of the Irish surcharge on plastic bags and finds that the big decline we have seen in supermarket plastic bags has had no impact on the number of bags in the litter stream. The bags you take your shopping home in are simply not a problem.

Getting rid of them in some half-ars-d government scramble for popularity also ends up costing the community many, many millions of dollars. Victoria, take note.

Basically, we’ve all been had by the anti-plastic bag lobby. It might have made some people feel good for a while, but any government with a brain should now wave them away and concentrate on the real litter and environmental problems.

And the anti-plastic bag crusaders will have to just get on their pushbikes and block traffic in Critical Mass rallies as a way of increasing pollution and harming society.

Don’t b-tch about it. Try reading the report and thinking instead.

Peter Fray

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