Plastic, plastic everywhere. Our supermarkets are full of plastic bottles containing milk, juice, soft drinks, and even water. We use plastic bags to line our bins, to contain our fresh fruits and vegetables, and to carry our grocery items. Plastic packaging is used for takeaway food orders and most of our manufactured grocery items such as biscuits, yoghurt, cheese, meat and poultry, frozen vegetables, ice cream, the list goes on.
Plastic is a great invention. It doesn’t break like glass, it is much lighter and less expensive to manufacture than alternatives, and it can made into a seemingly endless array of shapes and sizes. But it can be a real problem when the time comes to dispose of it, particularly if it is designed to be used just once.
Consumers do a very good job when it comes to sorting recyclable plastics from waste destined for landfill. Yet despite these efforts, plastic packaging and so-called single-use plastic items still make up 60% of all litter in NSW. These items take thousands of years to decompose and in the process, they are causing great harm to our natural environment and wildlife.
The solution to this problem is to use less plastic. We all took a significant step in the right direction when major supermarket chains around Australia stopped supplying lightweight plastic carry bags for our grocery items. You know the ones, horrible lightweight things which were barely adequate for getting your groceries home without breaking apart.
Now most of us now take our own reusable shopping bags, made from sustainable materials, on our weekly grocery shop. If we forget our reusable bags, or we buy more than we had planned, we can purchase a heavy plastic bag, designed to be used multiple times, from the checkout.
However, the dreaded lightweight plastic bag is still in use, particularly in retail businesses such as takeaway food stores, cafes, pharmacies, and many others.
That is why the NSW government has created new legislation which bans businesses and community groups from supplying these lightweight plastic bags from the 1 June 2022. They can’t even give them away for free after this date.
The ban will be extended on 1 November 2022, to include single-use plastic straws, stirrers, cutlery, bowls and plates as well as expanded polystyrene food service items, like cups and hamburger containers, single-use plastic cotton buds, and some personal care products containing plastic microbeads.
These bans will prevent almost 2.7 billion items of plastic waste from entering our environment as litter or landfill over the next 20 years.
The National Retail Association has been working hard over several months to educate businesses throughout NSW about the bans on lightweight plastic bags and single-use plastic items.
You may have noticed that some of your favourite takeaway food places have already made the switch from lightweight plastic bags to paper bags, from plastic cutlery to alternatives such as wood, from polystyrene hamburger containers to cardboard or from plastic straws to none.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is the sole regulator and is working to raise awareness, monitor and enforce the bans.
The NSW government is encouraging consumers to stop it and swap it. That means each of us playing an active role in changing the way we use plastic items in our daily lives. In practice, this might be as simple as taking one of your reusable bags when you go shopping for new shoes, "swapping" it for the store’s branded thick plastic bag. You might also choose to "swap" single-use plastic cutlery and plates with alternatives made from a sustainable material like a reusable party set for your next family picnic or birthday party.
These little individual choices add up to make a big difference for how society uses and manages plastic during its lifecycle.