Following a national campaign, Australia’s two major supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, announced they would stop providing single-use plastic bags by the end of June, replacing them with reusable, 80 per cent recycled bags for 15c. Since then, conservative commentators have been outraged, customers have stolen baskets and trolleys, and one Woolworths worker was reportedly assaulted. While Woolworths has maintained its green credentials, Coles announced it would give away reusable bags indefinitely, oscillating like a flimsy petrochemical sheath in gusts of public opinion.
Finally, pressure from environmental groups and recycling-loyalists prompted Coles to revert to its original ban. This idiosyncratic marketing exercise seems like mere greenwashing—creating the perception that Coles is environmentally friendly, when that’s not really the case. Given their current initiative to collect tiny plastic toy versions of popular products and the individually wrapped slices of banana bread in aisle three, Coles appears to value appearance over environmental consequence.
As I watched Coles flinch against complaints from customers and conservative commentators, I was struck by the alarming power of this vocal minority.
The insanity of anti-environmentalism is so entrenched in Australia that conspiracies often appear more believable than scientific expertise. The growing tendency for conservatives to spout their views without evidence recently came to light in Liberal Party sentiments over the national energy guarantee.
In conceding to Abbott and Co, last week Malcolm Turnbull dumped plans to embed emission reduction targets in the Commonwealth legislation. And not only is the conservative side of politics unable to address the severity of climate change, it also wants to go to war over plastic bags. Last week, the former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce said “people in the local Kmart” don’t care about the Paris Agreement. Our supermarkets have just become gladiatorial arenas for new culture wars.
The plastic bag ban is about conservation. But for plastic libertarians like Steve Price, conservation doesn’t matter, because plastic bags are only in oceans around “southeast Asia, not here”, perpetuating the erroneous idea that environmental degradation is a geographically distant threat. Alongside Andrew Bolt’s utterances that the ban is “an essentially useless gesture”, it is obvious that these anti-egalitarian white men are disheartened that public consensus on social and environmental issues has moved to the left.
With more and more people asking questions about the cost of convenience, and feelings that the environmental movement is a threat to the ‘Australian way of life’, cultural change is crucial. As Coles reinforces the idea that customers are always right, we must understand the strength of consumer power. None of us are perfect. I took a takeaway coffee in a disposable cup to my environmental politics tute the other day—the guilt! Like most households, my share house has an overflowing cupboard of single-use plastic bags, inundating the entire kitchen at the pull of a handle. But humans will adapt. We managed to adapt to the self-service checkout—at first outraged, but then appeased by the realisation of how much cheaper eggplants were when put through as potatoes.
The ubiquity of single-use plastic—in shopping bags, bottles, straws, takeaway containers—costs us millions to clean up. That’s particularly so in our precious coastal and marine environments, with a 2014 CSIRO Marine Debris Report revealing that three-quarters of the rubbish found along the Australian coastline was plastic. As the world’s population grows and earth feels more and more like a house of cards, one blow from caving in, it is crucial that consumers, business and governments stop drifting through the wind, and instead embrace viable alternatives.