A boy brushes his teeth standing next to a polluted canal littered with plastic bags and other garbage, on World Environment Day in Mumbai, India last month. Pic: AP.

The port city of Freemantle in Western Australia has just banned single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags. It is the first city in Australia to do so. Shop owners failing to follow the law risk a single fine of $150, climbing to $2,500 for serial offenders. The Freemantle council wanted to take the anti-pollution/anti-waste initiative even further by instituting a mandatory $0.10 fee for environmentally friendly bags, but this was blocked by the Liberal-National Members of Parliament.

Both Australia’s Green and Labor Parties wish to see single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags banned in Australia. A 2012 proposal by Labor to ban the bags in Western Australia was denied by the Liberal-National coalition.

A member of WA’s Green Party is quoted in the Guardian:

It’s a testament to their genuine commitment that [Fremantle] persevered after being knocked back the first time.

It’s time to eliminate this easily avoidable waste. It is good that the Fremantle council recognises that the community is environmentally conscious and happy to shift away from pollution habits that aren’t sustainable.

—Western Australian Greens MP, Lynn MacLaren

Plastic waste in Burma. Pic: Michael Coghlan (Flickr CC)

Of particular concern in Western Australia is plastic waste that enters the ocean. WA’s coastal region is known for its high biodiversity and contains the most southerly coral reefs in the world. Plastic in the ocean eventually degrades into microscopic particles that resemble food to fish that feed on plankton. Not only does the plastic lack any nutritional properties, it also absorbs toxins, thereby poisoning the fish that eat it. Plankton-eating fish are in turn eaten by larger fish, which are eventually consumed by humans. In short: we end up eating the same poisons we put into the ocean together with plastics. This is all explained in greater detail by Professor Carlos Duarte, University of Western Australia Oceans Institute for Radio Australia here.

If plastic bags are a problem in Australia they are a plague in Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent. Policies for rapid economic development and industrialization in these regions have taken their toll on the environment. In addition to problems such as widespread deforestation, massive hydroelectricity projects and pollution from cars, power plants and factories, plastic waste is both a serious environmental issue and a public health hazard. India’s emblematic Ganges River is shockingly polluted, with high levels of disease-causing bacteria and “more plastic bags than fish,” according to some fishermen.

Pic: Paul Hamilton (Flickr CC)

In 2012 the city of Delhi banned plastic bags, instituting stiff fines for lawbreakers (the equivalent of US$1,807 or five years in jail). Yet reports state that the ban has not been effectively implemented by the municipality nor followed by merchants. A ban in Bangladesh, where plastic bags contribute to flooding by blocking sewer systems, has also been difficult to enforce. Restrictions on flimsy plastic bags in China and Hong Kong have proven to be more effective. 

We insist in wrapping up our food in plastic material, both when we purchase items from the supermarkets, but also even when we take our lunch to our office desk, we wrap it up in plastic, we put it in plastic containers and all of these plastics are sources of pollutants to humans and all of these plastics are sources of pollutants to humans, that’s well demonstrated in the blood of each of us contain traces of these pollutants, so it means that we are exposed and I think we should first do something about the daily large amounts of plastics that we consume in our daily lives and that will also help in reducing the amount of plastic that reaches the ocean.

—Professor Carlos Duarte, University of Western Australia Oceans Institute

As supported by the professor’s remarks, it is consumption-driven hyper-capitalism that is sending this absurd amount of plastic into the environment. Moreover, it is the actions of big businesses and the political parties they own — as is plain to see by the policies of the ruling right-wing coalition in Australia — that fuel this deadly environmental and human health problem. We should ban the plastic bags everywhere. People will easily adapt and the environment will start to recover.