We know plastic bags are terrible for the environment but most of us still use at least some. How hard could it really be to live without them? Greg Bruce and Sharon Stephenson attempt to go bag-free for a week.

Greg Bruce, married, three kids

My wife is such a good person. Not long ago she discovered I had thrown some cardboard boxes into the rubbish. After fishing them out, she told me off so gently it was like an expression of love.

She does the weekly shopping, which we sometimes get delivered, and she always requests boxes instead of bags. I would never think to do that. Boxes are annoying and difficult to get rid of. They make our house look messy and they require breaking down, which takes time I don't have.

Despite my wife's care, we accumulate bags apace. I'm probably to blame but it also seems increasingly like the world exists to foist them upon us. There's a casualness and inexorability to their appearance in our lives that strikes me as basically supernatural.

If I had noticed this before this week, it had not upset me. Plastic bags, in their vanishing light-ness, multifunctionality and vast convenience, have long offered me a sense of ease in this anxiety-inducing world. When I'm travelling, along with at least one good towel, I always like to have a good stock of plastic bags. There are few crises those two things together can't fix.


On the Wednesday when I started my bag-free week, I had with me, at work, three supermarket plastic bags — one containing my gym shoes, an empty one prepared to take my soiled gym clothing and another containing a sealed a tupperware container of soup. All of these were stuffed in my gym bag.

Later on that first day, I opened my brown leather work satchel and found two more super-market plastic bags, there for reasons unknown.

That afternoon, I called Nick Morrison, founder of the Bags Not campaign and my mentor for the week of the challenge, and I told him all this.

I thought he would berate me, or at least whimper sadly. Instead, he said: "It's really important that people who are further along the journey of change here are open and warm and not judgmental to people at the beginning of it, because I was exactly in that boat five or six years ago."

It's time to ditch the plastic. Photo / Getty Images
It's time to ditch the plastic. Photo / Getty Images

I liked Morrison and didn't want to let him down but that night I stood at the kitchen bench with my just-made sandwich for the next day's lunch and I whined to my wife about how difficult it would be to transport it without Gladwrap.

"Put it in a container," she said.

"We don't have any containers," I said.

"We've got heaps of containers," she said.


My point was not so much that we didn't have any containers but more that I didn't want to use one. A sandwich in Gladwap and a plastic bag fits unobtrusively in my work satchel, but a container bulges and corrupts the natural contours of the leather and makes closure of the magnetic clasps quite challenging.

Besides, I've got too much going on in my life to spend time looking for containers, filling containers and fitting containers into bags not designed to accept them. Where is the time for that when you have three preschool children? I accept the moral obligation to reduce plastic bag use but moral philosophers generally agree that obligation differs according to circumstance and nobody would be doing moral philosophy if they had three children under 5.

That night, after dinner, I thoughtlessly went to throw a recyclable plastic lid in the rubbish as I sometimes do and something happened inside me — an attack of guilt? A flash of goodness? The need for this story to have a turning point? Do the reasons matter? I closed the rubbish bin, crossed the kitchen and dropped it in the recycling.

The next day, I did not use a plastic bag for my sandwich.

Twelve years ago I saw An Inconvenient Truth at the Berkeley Cinema in Mission Bay. I was so affected by Al Gore up there on his cherry-picker pointing at graphs, that I came out into the Saturday afternoon beach sunshine and told my then-girlfriend how sick I was of not making a difference in this world.

"Do something then, if you feel so strongly," she said.

What could I do though? I boiled with latent action but action cannot boil latent forever.

On Saturday, I bought two pairs of shoes from Number One Shoe Warehouse. When the shop worker asked if I wanted a bag, I proudly said no. Next door at Briscoes, they asked my wife if she wanted a bag for our new rubbish bin and she also said no.

I congratulated her.

"I always say no," she said, a bit self-righteously, then added, "You've been using bags heaps."

Indignant, I said, "No I haven't."

She said, "I'm annoyed at you for not going the whole hog."

I said, "My mentor is way nicer than you."

I cleaned out our garage on Sunday. There were plastic bags everywhere. There were bags full of bags. I looked at them and felt sad that they would, as Morrison told me on three occasions, be on the planet longer than my children's children's children's children.

Our household recycling accumulates in a box under our sink and when that's full we take it outside to the council wheelie bin. On Monday night, about 8.30pm, I took the box outside and found the wheelie bin full. I crammed the bin's contents down, although the council explicitly advises against it, but there was still not enough room and an empty olive jar tumbled off and smashed on the concrete.

It was dark so I had to use my phone's light to track down the broken shards. It took ages. I just wanted to be inside watching lauded new Netflix series Feud: Bette and Joan while eating what was left of my children's Easter eggs.

Once the glass was cleared up, I took a few seconds to think about moral obligations and leisure needs. Still in the recycling box was a 3-litre milk bottle, a few jars — not all that much stuff. And anyway, my challenge for the week was only to eliminate plastic bag use. As Morrison told me on two occasions: "We're not trying to land on the moon here, we're just trying to get into space."

Immediately next to the recycling bin, the rubbish bin still had plenty of space. No one could see me. I did think briefly about the dystopian hellscape awaiting my children's children's children's children, but you can't think about that stuff for too long — it'll drive you crazy.

Back inside, because my wife had made an insubstantial pasta dish for dinner. I made a second dinner of Weetbix with walnuts and raisins. I threw the empty Weetbix box in the recycling and then stood there thinking what to do with the Weetbix-branded plastic bag. It was so small. It wouldn't really kill a turtle, would it?

Tuesday was the last day of the challenge. I took to work a single plastic bag for my shoes but it was the same bag I had been using all week, so really I used one.

That night, I discovered a newly acquired plastic bag on the bench at home. Where had it come from? I had been vigilant in rejecting them all week but still somehow they flowed into my house unwanted and uninvited.

On Wednesday night, at 9.30pm, I was making my sandwich for lunch the next day.

"That is a crazy amount of noise," Zanna said, as I swept my arms through our plastics cupboard like a hungry octopus.

"Why is there nothing here that will fit a sandwich?" I said angrily.

"That is a sandwich container," she said, pointing at what I was holding.

"No it's not," I said. To prove my point, I tried to shove the sandwich in. It fitted, but I wasn't happy about it.

"When does your plastic bag-free week finish?" Zanna asked.

"It finished yesterday," I said.

"Awwww!" she said, delighted. "You've got a guilty conscience!"

On my way to work on Thursday morning, I stopped at New World and bought a box of Uncle Toby's oat singles. I pulled it out of my desk drawer after lunch and it was only then that I realised it was in a plastic bag.

Sharon Stephenson, married, no kids

And on the sixth day, God created plastic bags.

So pleased was he with his sturdy, waterproof creation, that he commanded people to use them as often as possible. Which they did, thrilled with the convenience and versatility of one of modern time's most ubiquitous consumer items.

Actually, I lied about the God bit. The person responsible for the estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags used globally each year was Swedish engineer Sten Gustav Thulin.

Back in 1960, Thulin was messing about in his Norrkoping office, trying to figure out ways to use high-density polyethylene — the stuff that's generally used to make supermarket plastic bags.

He was playing with the concept that a tube of plastic, laid flat, could be sealed at regular intervals to create the bottom of a bag and left open at the top to insert whatever needed to be packaged.

It was a good idea, but Thulin had a better one: why not seal the bottom of the tube but, at the other end, punch out a section to create handles? It was a Eureka moment that gave birth to the simple, strong plastic bag with a high load-carrying capacity — i.e. basically every plastic bag you've ever touched.

What I didn't lie about was how enthusiastically humankind embraced Thulin's design. Figures show that globally we use about one million plastic bags a minute and that a plastic bag is used, on average, for 12 minutes. What's more, on average only one out of every 200 plastic bags is recycled.

Which leaves a lot of plastic going into landfills, rivers, drains and oceans where fish, seabirds and other marine animals eat them or get tangled up in them. Scarily, the United Kingdom's Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates there will be more plastic than fish in the our seas by 2050. Even scarier is how long a plastic bag takes to decompose — about 100 years, apparently, and that's only if it's exposed to sunlight and air (which landfill rubbish often isn't). In other words, that plastic bag you chucked out last week is likely to outlast us all.

Naturally, I'm shocked by this. I'm not the world's biggest Greenie but I don't eat meat and haven't had children, I get irrationally excited about recycling and I walk/use public transport more than I drive my car. But — and here's the rub — I'm a chronic plastic bag criminal: I own more cloth bags than should be allowed by law, yet I always seem to forget them when I'm at the supermarket or Sunday vege market. I'm also slightly addicted to a certain supermarket's plastic bags for bin liners and for picking up my dog's number twos (I find the custom-made doggie poo bags too small and not terribly user-friendly).

So when Canvas' editor asks me to go plastic bag-free for a week, I'm not exactly dive-bombing into the happiness pool.

"How hard can it be?" she asks. "There are only two people and a dog in your household. You'll be fine."

Laurie Foon agrees. The Wellington Regional Manager of the Sustainable Business Network believes it will be easier if I focus on one area at at time.

"There's no such thing as perfect when it comes to ditching plastic bags," says Foon. "Instead, it's simpler if you take small steps, such as lining your bin with newspaper instead of plastic bags. Once you're comfortable with doing that, you can move onto other areas such as composting your dog's poo and re-using plastic bags already in your house by washing them."

The general rule for going plastic bag-free, she says, is the five R's: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle.

"The most important thing is to refuse plastic bags in shops — take your own cloth bags and containers and tell the shop assistant you don't need one."

My plastic bag fatwa doesn't begin well: at the supermarket, before I can find the cloth bag at the bottom of my handbag, the scowling assistant has already placed my shopping in three plastic bags. I forgot to use the critical R word — refuse — and when I tell her I'll repack the groceries in my own bag, her face contorts with such anger I smile meekly and slink out of the store.

Learn to proudly say no to plastic bags. Photo / Getty Images
Learn to proudly say no to plastic bags. Photo / Getty Images

Later, at the dairy, I meet further resistance when the owner insists on putting two iceblocks and a newspaper into a plastic bag. "It's all good, I have lots of them," he tells me when I try to give it back. For the second time that day, I feel like a prize dick. One in possession of four extra plastic bags.

Fortunately, I'm more on the ball when it comes to subsequent supermarket visits, as well as trips to my favourite bagel place, bookstore and vege market, whipping out the cloth bag before I get to the till.

Foon sends me a link about a pet waste composter. It costs $65, which comes complete with a dinky set of tongs. But I still have to get the excrement from where it's deposited back home to insert it into the composter (the website is strangely silent on how to do this). I don't have any biodegradable poo bags, it's raining, I'm on deadline and I can't be bothered walking to the shops to get some. Or spending $65 on something which, if I'm being honest, will probably never be used.

So I sigh and revert to supermarket plastic bags on dog walks.

I have more success with the rubbish bin, which I line with newspaper and empty straight into the outside bin. Sure, it's a little icky having to extract the contents, and it takes a few minutes to rinse out each time. I also learn that pesto is the stuff of the devil when I spend 15 minutes I don't have removing the oily mess from the sides of the bin. But this newspaper-at-the-bottom-of-the-bin lark is something I will be adopting once this week is over.

Foon suggests I take Ziploc bags I already own to bulk bin shops to fill them with flour, nuts, seeds and sugar. I feel virtuous, in a wartime rationing/mend-and-make-do kind of way. Until I realise how tedious and time consuming it is to wash each bag and hang it on the line.

By week's end, I estimate I've probably avoided using 15 or so plastic bags, which isn't a huge number, but it's a start. Mr Thulin would not be amused, but at some stage I'm hoping our household can become a plastic bag-free zone.