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Perspective

Tuesday 30 May 2006

Gay Hawkins, associate professor in cultural theory, School of Media, Film and Theatre, University of New South Wales

 

Plastic bags

The Productivity Commission's draft report into waste management in Australia hit the shelves a week ago and at 400 pages it's a blockbuster. It covers a vast array of issues concerning waste and how it's dealt with in Australia. Rather than give an overview of the whole document - impossible in 5 minutes! I want to focus on one recommendation only.

Recommendation 8.1 reads: 'Governments and retailers should not proceed with their foreshadowed plan to eliminate plastic bags by the end of 2008 unless it’s supported by a transparent cost-benefit analysis. The analysis should clarify the problems the ban would seek to address, the response of the community to a ban, and whether or not alternatives - such as tough anti-litter laws and a means for encouraging greater community participation in controlling litter -would achieve better outcomes for the community.'

Why focus on this recommendation? Well for a start it's the one that most captured the media's attention. The Australian ran a front page story on it with the headline 'Ditching plastic bags - no real use'. This piece then went on to explicitly endorse the recommendation, summarising the Productivity Commission's explanations as to why plastic bags weren't a problem - they don't kill that many marine things and they could possibly have a stabilising benefit in landfill actually 'minimising greenhouse emissions'. The article also quoted Sydney Beauty Therapist Lesley Greenwell who said she was relieved to hear that plastic bags weren't bad for the environment as this removed all the guilt she had been feeling about them.

As someone who has just written a book on the ethics of waste, investigating how we relate to waste in our daily lives and how we come to feel concerned or complacent about it, I'm interested in the assumptions that underpin this recommendation. Firstly, that cost benefit analysis is the best way to measure value and secondly that punishing people who litter is the best way to manage plastic bag use and disposal.

Cost benefit analysis is dragged out a lot when people want to challenge the value of various environmental practices. The claim is that all the supposed benefits to nature are undercut by the enormous economic costs of these practices. Take recycling, for example, when you consider the cost of transport, storage, and then turning waste matter into reusable resources it is economically inefficient. The costs of administering these programs far outweigh the profits to be gained or the benefits to the environment.

'Benefit' here means efficient arrival at an economic bottom line. Profit is the only value that matters. The problem with this kind of economic rationality is that it completely denies all the other forms of value that circulate in daily life and that motivate people to change their practices. What all the surveys of attitudes to recycling show is that people are encouraged to recycle not simply because they can see the benefits of finding new markets for their waste but because they want to do something for the environment, they care about the planet and want to do their bit.

For ordinary householders economic benefits are seen as thoroughly interdependent or mixed up with cultural and environmental benefits. Cost benefit assessments do not recognise the complex feelings people have about their waste, where it ends up and their desire to make a difference. They deny ethical benefit and value.

Changes in plastic bag use over the last 5 years are a good example of how a new ethics or set of values about waste emerge. The campaigns to reduce use of this ubiquitous item have been remarkably effective. The green bag is everywhere visible and it shows peoples' willingness to let go of a single use disposable item that takes years to decompose and embrace a reusable alternative. Using a green bag is not just a declaration of concern but also an indicator that habits are not fixed. They can be changed once people's ethical imagination is engaged and they recognise that there are other and better ways to live with waste.

Rather than recognising and building on this minor ethical shift this recommendation seeks a return to punitive anti litter campaigns that target the bad person rather than ways of life and everyday domestic practices.

More serious is the way this recommendation lets industry and retailers completely off the hook. As the producers and distributors of plastic bags their moral responsibility to the environment, to the mountains of packaging they generate, and to consumers who are willing and ready to change is completely dismissed.

Guests

Gay Hawkins  

Associate Professor Cultural Theory School of Media, Film and Theatre University of New South Wales