The Secret Life of Plastic Bags: what do they cost?

Plastic bag use

Every year 4 million New Zealanders use 1 billion plastic shopping bags and 20 million Australians use approximately 5.6 billion.1

A person's use of a plastic check-out bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shops to their homes. Plastic bags however, can take between 15 and 1000 years to break down in the environment. 1


Environmental effects

Not all litter is deliberate. 47% of wind borne litter escaping from landfills is plastic - much of this is plastic bags.1

10% of the plastic produced each year ends up in the ocean3

Every square mile of ocean has approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic in it. After cigarette butts, plastic bags are the second most common type of ocean litter3

Plastic bags do not biodegrade; they photodegrade, breaking into smaller pieces that become toxic as they attract chemicals. This contaminates soil and water2,3. To put this into perspective, the pieces are so small that a single 1L plastic water bottle breaking down could produce a piece of plastic for every mile on every beach in the world. 4

In the marine environment plastic bag litter is lethal, killing at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles every year. This death is often slow and painful. After an animal is killed by plastic bags its body decomposes and the plastic is released back into the environment where it can kill again. 1,2

A Bryde's whale died on a Cairns beach after ingesting 6 square metres of plastic - including plastic bags. Such obstructions in animals can cause severe pain, distress and death. 1

On land, plastic bag litter can block drains and trap birds. They also kill livestock. One farmer near Mudgee NSW, carried out an autopsy on a dead calf and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500. 1

The amount of petroleum used to make one plastic bag would drive a car about 115 metres. The 6.9 billion plastic check-out bags we use every year is enough to drive a car 800 million kilometres or nearly 20,000 times around the world. 1


Economic cost

Plastic bags are not free to consumers - they are actually adding an estimated NZ$25 million a year to New Zealand’s grocery bills. 1

At least 16 million plastic bags end up as litter on our beaches, streets and parks. New Zealand local and State Governments spend $$ millions a year picking up litter. 1

Over 40,000 plastic check-out bags are dumped in landfills every hour in New Zealand. 1

In many council areas, plastic bags are the single main contaminant of kerbside recycling.1



NOT recycling: Only 5% of Australia's plastic bags are currently being recycled, despite recycling facilities being available at major supermarkets.1 Plastic recycling is downcylcing; it loses quality each time it’s recycle

NOT bioplastic bags: Bioplastics put pressure on global food crops and land use4,5 and bioplastics ONLY biodegrade in very specific conditions, such as specialised composting factories, and therefore still cause problems in the environment5

YES Plastic bag tax/bans: Since March 2002, Ireland has reduced its plastic check-out bag usage by 90% and in April 2003 Coles Bay in Tasmania successfully banned plastic check-out bags in all their retail stores. In the first twelve months, Coles Bay stopped the use of 350,000 plastic check-out bags.1

YES Reusable bags: need to be used only 5 times to equal the environmental impact of productionas a general rule, reusable is more sustainable than disposable.


Help us to make Auckland City plastic bag free! Sign the petition here.




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