Phase out of single-use bags welcome but decades late

There’s a haunting description in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, about returning to his village after decades of imprisonment. The change he noticed most was plastic – littering the ground, blowing in the wind – a pox on the landscape that had not existed before he went to jail.

Anyone with a few years on the clock can cast their minds back to a plastic-free past. 

I remember the excitement in Canberra in the late 1960s when Tom The Cheap opened its first modern supermarket. What set it aside was the conveyor belts at the checkouts. It seemed so twentieth century. 

Yet the groceries you bought were packed in sturdy brown paper bags. Single-use plastic just wasn’t a thing.

Groceries unpacked at home and put away, the paper bags were neatly folded and reused for school lunches or as liners for the compost bucket.

Of course, a lot has changed in the half century since. Back then water came out of the tap and was not something you bought at the servo. Driveway service meant you rarely stepped out of your car unless you needed a fan belt, spark plug or light bulb. Ice creams were wrapped in paper, not foil. Coffee was generally had at home or sitting in a cafe – like baristas, single use cups simply didn’t exist. Even cling wrap was new on the scene.

As youngsters growing up in the ACT, we supplemented our pocket money by collecting drink bottles and collecting the deposit – yes, in those days, soft drink was packaged in glass. Our quest for wealth cleaned up the environment without us knowing.

Even that Aussie icon Vegemite came in a glass. One finished (and it was possible to get all the black stuff out), you washed it out and used it.

And when you went down to the corner store, you took a string bag to cart the bread, milk (in a bottle) and Mum’s pack of Viscount back with you. 

I offer all this nostalgia with a purpose. While we’ve made great strides in so many respects, when it comes to waste and unnecessary packaging we should hang our heads in shame.

So last week’s announcement Woolworths and Coles were phasing out single-use plastic bags was several decades late but welcome nonetheless. Some big behavioural changes on our part will also have to be made. Reusing the thicker bags is one.


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