“Plastic is fantastic” –  definitely  a catchy and convincing slogan when taken at face-value…. Plastic is cleverly designed to last so, with this in mind, why then do we use most plastic items only once and instantly throw them away, especially since there really is no “away” on planet Earth? Every piece of plastic that has ever been manufactured still exists in one form or another – either burnt into the atmosphere, sitting in landfill, floating in the ocean currents and rivers, or blemishing beautiful landscapes.

Photo supplied by Hayley McLellan of Rethink the Bag

The ever-present plastic shopping bag is wreaking daily devastation on our planet.  South Africans use approximately 8 billion of these bags annually. 96% of these bags end up in landfill where they can last up to 1000 years (absurd when you consider that the average plastic bag is used for only 20 minutes!) Being in landfill does not mean that the bags have been responsibly discarded. Their light weight ensures that they are easily carried away by the wind and this contributes to the large number of bags that are lost to the environment. Here they remain and continue to have harmful effects on natural systems.

Plastic shopping bags appear to be a modern day convenience yet, with little conscious effort, could easily become an obsolete item. We take this bag entirely for granted and, moreover, disregard the bigger picture of its overall impact. Why do we continue to manufacture, use and dispose of these bags when they are quite obviously detrimental to so much of life on Earth? Our association with this bag sadly seems to reflect our ‘state of mindlessness’ as a species. Looking around, it is easy and clear to see that South Africa has a sizeable problem with discarded litter. Banning the plastic bag could become a powerful educational tool for raising awareness of our excessive plastic consumption, littering in general and the responsible disposal of our personal garbage.

Photo supplied by Hayley McLellan of Rethink the Bag

I work for an incredible marine organization in Cape Town, The Two Oceans Aquarium. Rethink the Bag, or “RTB” as it has become affectionately known, has been adopted as an official Two Oceans Aquarium campaign.  Since the launch of the campaign in March 2011 the Aquarium’s behind the scenes workplace has been plastic bag free. This may sound astonishing, it’s also true. Staff members are not permitted to bring plastic shopping bags into the building and everyone embraced this with relative ease. Three years down the line and even some local Waterfront retailers have come to know our ruling and refrain from even offering uniformed Aquarium staff plastic bags! It’s brilliant how good news can spread, isn’t it?

Photo supplied by Hayley McLellan of Rethink the Bag

Encouragingly, the campaign has also been embraced by other organisations and companies. One that is definitely worth mentioning is the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Rethink the Bag was adopted as their official 2013-2015 conservation program and is currently being rolled out to all members in the animal care field throughout Africa, with some keen participation reported thus far.

There are alternatives to plastic shopping bags.  Long-life, reusable bags are available just about everywhere these days. Do be aware not to replace one problem with another. Ensure that you have a small collection of quality, locally sourced, community supported bags.  Then “train” yourself to remember to take these to the stores on every visit. Changing hardwired behavior is certainly not easy, but it’s also not a good enough excuse to continue harming our planet as we currently are. Compared to some of the incredible human achievements throughout human history, refusing plastic shopping bags must surely be easy! It’s all about making a choice and then following through to form a new, healthy, habit.

Photo supplied by Hayley McLellan of Rethink the Bag

All the animals I have worked with in the past 25 years have taught me an enormous amount about my environment. Simultaneously I have observed that people are intrinsically good at heart and want to be the change they wish to see in the world. Sometimes all one needs is a passionate individual to lead the way by sharing what resonates most strongly with them. These individuals are all around us.

Rwanda, in East Africa, banned the plastic bag in 2008. This law is successfully in place and being enforced today, six years later…what a fantastic example!

Taking the lead in South Africa, the small town of Greyton recently committed to becoming the first town to ban the plastic shopping bag. This is big news and will be made official on 3rd July 2014 which is International Plastic Bag Free Day.

Photo supplied by Hayley McLellan of Rethink the Bag

I have not used a plastic shopping bag for over 6 years and I really am doing just fine. If I can do it, anyone can! My choice to committedly refuse the single use plastic shopping bag served as a powerful catalyst to creating even greater environmental consciousness within me. If adopted by millions in South Africa, this choice could just be enough for us to make the difference we owe our only life support system, Mother Earth. Rethink the Bag is an established and successfully growing campaign and I invite everyone to join me on my exciting journey.

Photo supplied by Hayley McLellan of Rethink the Bag

The objective of the Rethink the Bag campaign is to ban the plastic bag in South Africa. Many other countries and cities around the world have already done so. We will not be the first, but certainly cannot afford to be the last.

Can you give up plastic bags in your life, and can South Africa take a stand and Ban the Bag? You can make this happen by signing the petition on  www.rethinkthebag.org . Visit  Rethink The Bag-South Africa on Facebook and @rethinkthebag on Twitter for more information.


Hayley McLellan, Environmental Campaigner

The Two Oceans Aquarium,

Cape Town

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