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Plastic Bags and the Environment

Plastic bags caught in a tree © Planet Ark

  • Every year Australians use around 3.9 billion plastic check-out bags. That's over 10.6 million new bags being used every day!
  • A person's use of a plastic check-out bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shops to their homes. Plastic bags however, can take between 15 and 1000 years to break down in the environment.
  • In the marine environment plastic bag litter is lethal, killing tens of thousands of birds, whales, seals and turtles every year as they often mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish. After an animal is killed by plastic bags its body decomposes and the plastic is released back into the environment where it can kill again.
  • A Bryde's whale died on a Cairns beach after ingesting 6 square metres of plastic - including plastic bags. Such obstructions in animals can cause severe pain, distress and death.
  • On land, plastic bag litter can block drains and trap birds. They also kill livestock. One farmer near Mudgee NSW, carried out an autopsy on a dead calf and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500.
  • Plastic bags are not free to consumers - they are actually adding an estimated $850 million a year to Australia's grocery bills.
  • Approximately 30 to 50 million plastic bags end up as litter on our beaches, streets and parks. It has been estimated that it costs governments, businesses and community groups over $4 million a year to clean up littered plastic shopping bags.
  • Not all litter is deliberate. 47% of wind borne litter escaping from landfills is plastic - much of this is plastic bags.
  • Over 200,000 plastic check-out bags are dumped in landfills every hour.
  • Only 3% of Australia's plastic bags are currently being recycled, despite recycling facilities being available at major supermarkets. To find out your local plastic bag recycling locations, go to RecyclingNearYou.com.au
  • In many council areas, plastic bags are the single main contaminant of kerbside recycling.
  • Since March 2002, Ireland has reduced its plastic check-out bag usage by 90% and in April 2003 Coles Bay in Tasmania successfully banned plastic check-out bags in all their retail stores. In the first twelve months, Coles Bay stopped the use of 350,000 plastic check-out bags.
  • Planet Ark has also worked with the communities of Huskisson, Kangaroo Valley, Mogo and Oyster Bay in NSW and Birregurra, Cannon's Creek, Metung and Murtoa in Victoria to help them become Plastic Bag Free Towns.
  • Over 10 million reusable polypropylene 'green' grocery bags have been sold by Coles, Woolworths and Safeway stores. At only $1-2 each they're a cheap way to save Australia's wildlife!
  • Plastic Bags Factsheet (1.10MB pdf file)
    Information about plastic bags, biodegradable bags, handy hints to reduce plastic bag usage and more.

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