To show their concern for the environment, Woolworths (ASX: WOW), Coles, owned by Wesfarmers (ASX: WES) and other big supermarket chains recently stopped issuing free single-use plastic bags at the checkout.
Instead, customers must bring their own bags or purchase reusable bags along with their groceries.
Given the ever-increasing intolerance shown by those who are politically correct – helped by the ability of social media users to target companies they disagree with – this seemed like an easy (and correct) decision.
The big supermarket chains get to burnish their environmentalist credentials while avoiding being the target of environmental activists.
With Woolworths apparently handing out 3.2bn plastic bags each year, it seems the decision will also save the supermarket chains millions.
And with most supermarkets offering recycling bins for single-use plastic bags, there will probably also be material savings from no longer having to provide these bins and arrange for the bags to be subsequently recycled.
Who said being green was unprofitable?!
Consumers have however reacted with fury to the change, primarily due to the inconvenience caused. Both Woolworths and Coles have been forced to temporarily reverse their ban and hand out reusable plastic bags for free to try to alleviate customers’ anger.
Supermarkets may lose some business in the short term as some irate customers shop elsewhere. However, this is likely to be only temporary as consumers get used to the new regime and, after all, supermarkets by their nature are non-discretionary businesses.
Like many people, though, I utilise “single-use” plastic bags at least a second time, mainly for use as rubbish bin liners at home.
Unlike some of the commenters here, I still prefer to line my bin for hygiene and odour purposes, as well as for convenience when it comes time to empty it.
So I now need to purchase plastic bags to use as rubbish bin liners instead.
Although this is another way Woolworths and Coles profit from being green, how does this help the environment?
And if the problem is that most plastic bags end up as landfill, take far too long to break down, and often pollute the surrounding soil and water, isn’t that an issue for government and regulators to solve?
That is, don’t we pay taxes and rates to governments and local councils respectively that, in part at least, are supposed to be used to recycle or cheaply dispose of household waste in the most environmentally friendly way possible?
A bigger problem elsewhere
Of course, no sensible person wants to deliberately pollute the soil, water or air.
There’s no question that plastic bags – and plastic in general – can be bad for the environment if not recycled or properly disposed of. And large amounts of plastic end up in the ocean (although even that may not be such a big deal).
But I think facts and cost / benefit analyses should take precedence over appeals to emotion and virtue signalling.
If a recent study is accurate, more than 90% of the plastic that enters the ocean comes from ten rivers, namely: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; Nile and Niger.
I studied Geography in high school so I’m pretty sure none of those rivers are in Australia. As such, whatever we do here is going to have minimal impact at best when viewed in a global context.
For example, banning single-use plastic bags wont materially reduce landfill – they represent half a per cent of landfill use in the United States and I’d guess that they represent a similarly immaterial amount of Australia’s landfill use.
Moreover, 90% of “single-use” plastic bags are used multiple times.
And here are a few other (dare I say inconvenient?) truths:
- Reusable and paper bags take up more than nine times the space of a plastic bag in landfill
- Plastic bags produce fewer greenhouse gases per use than paper or cotton bags
- A reusable cotton bag needs to be used 131 times before it has a “greener” environmental impact than the typical single-use plastic bag
- Many reusable plastic or cotton bags aren’t recyclable – unlike single-use plastic bags – and require more energy to manufacture
Even so, I think shareholders of Woolworths and Wesfarmers should be happy with the decision to ban single-use plastic bags.
Not only will both companies likely save money as a result but it also gets the environmental activists off their backs.
At least, until those activists find something else to complain about.