Plastic bags

In 2007, Australians used 3.9 billion lightweight single use high density polyethylene (HDPE) bags. 2.96 billion of these came from supermarkets, while the others were used by fast food restaurants, service stations, convenience stores and liquor stores and other shops.

Plastic bags are popular with consumers and retailers as they are a functional, lightweight, strong, cheap, and hygienic way to transport food and other products.

Most of these go to landfill (rubbish tips) after they are used, and some are recycled. In 2002 around 50 to 80 million bags ended up as litter in our environment. While the number littered has probably been reduced since then, it is likely that a large number still enter the environment. Once littered, plastic bags can find their way on to our streets, parks, and into our waterways.

Although plastic bags make up only a small percentage of all litter, the impact of these bags is nevertheless significant. Plastic bags create visual pollution problems and can have harmful effects on aquatic and terrestrial animals. Plastic bags are particularly noticeable components of the litter stream due to their size and can take a long time to fully break down.

The Australian Government is working with industry and the community to reduce the environmental impact of plastic bags. However, everyone shares some responsibility for this problem - from plastic bag manufacturers and importers who sell the bags, shop keepers who give them away, and the customers who use them. It is up to all of us to help find the solution.

In recent years, many people have started to use reusable bags, such as the 'green bags' you can buy at most supermarkets. Because of these efforts, the number of HDPE bags used in Australia has fallen from around 6 billion in 2002 to 3.9 billion in 2007. However, there is a lot more that can be done.

Through the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC), Environment Ministers have introduced a range of initiatives including developing national standards, codes of practice and best practice guidelines.

More information is available on the EPHC web site at http://www.scew.gov.au/publications/archive

Plastic bag facts

  • Australians used 3.9 billion plastic shopping bags in 2007
  • Nearly half a million plastic bags are collected on Clean Up Australia Day each year. (source - CUA)
  • It takes only four grocery shopping trips for an average Australian family to accumulate 60 plastic shopping bags. (source - CUA)
  • Plastic bags are produced from polymers derived from petroleum. The amount of petroleum used to make a plastic bag would drive a car about 11 metres. (source - CUA)
  • In 2005, Australians used 192 HDPE bags per capita. (source - Nolan ITU)
  • 14% of HDPE plastic carry bags are returned to major supermarkets for recycling. (source - ANRA)