Rethink the Bag is a campaign with a simple goal: Achieving a single-use plastic shopping bag free South Africa. This campaign was initiated in 2011 by Hayley McLellan, Environmental Campaigner at the Two Oceans Aquarium, who has worked tirelessly to take action against the increasing threat of ocean plastic pollution. The Aquarium fully supports a ban on single-use shopping bags and together with Hayley, much progress has been made in the past six years.

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Hayley at Tourism Indaba 2012 in Durban

Every person that Rethink the Bag can educate about the dangers of disposable plastic bags, and who can be inspired to make a change, is a win for the earth. Every business that sees the growing call for reusable alternatives and makes these offerings available, or compulsory, is even better.

“A plastic shopping bag free South Africa is certainly achievable in the near future. All role players, especially consumers, remain responsible for the approximately 8 billion plastic shopping bags we use every year in South Africa. Remember that demand drives supply, so let’s simply stop demanding and choosing them!” – Hayley McLellan

Let’s take a look at the current status of the Rethink the Bag campaign:

Teaming up with SPAR

Rethink the Bag’s message has started to be heard by large shopping brands. While nobody has yet enforced the use of reusable bags, all major supermarkets now offer reusable alternatives.

SPAR Western Cape and Namibia have been the most vocal supporters of the goal of a plastic shopping bag free South Africa, and are taking the first steps to a disposable bag free business model. Their annual bag exchange programme has been a huge success – removing hundreds of thousands of plastic bags from circulation and putting free reusable bags in the hands of their customers.

What do the consumers think?

Over the past few months, Rethink the Bag and SPAR have been working together to conduct surveys to gauge consumers’ attitudes towards reusable and single-use shopping bags. These surveys were conducted at six SPAR stores within Cape Town, targeting both high- and low-income areas.

The results of these surveys have been hugely positive: 86% of shoppers stated that they would continue to shop at their regular retailer should plastic shopping bags be removed from the store. Furthermore, 74% of these same shoppers said they would be in full support of a plastic shopping bag ban throughout South Africa.

Greyton: first town in SA to fully engage with the campaign

The Western Cape town of Greyton has embraced Rethink the Bag, marching the majority of single-use plastic shopping bags out of their town since 3 July 2014. Their total bag use has plummeted from around 50 000 per month to around 10 500 today.

Greyton was the first South African community to begin completely phasing out plastic bags, using novel approaches – such as finding the most affordable option of a reusable bag in South Africa, and educating poorer communities about the economic unfeasibility of purchasing disposable bags (easily costing a family more than R350 per year).

Rethink the Bag was there, guiding the community in this transition and doing its part to educate businesses and consumers about the dangers of plastics, and alternative options. This has set the stage for other communities, such as the Overstrand municipality, to begin taking action of their own.

Bargain Books bans the bag

Earlier this year, Bargain Books completely eliminated single-use plastic shopping bags from it 70 stores nationwide. Their support of Rethink the Bag has been an incredible catalyst that we believe will inspire other brands to do the same.

Every customer who gets told, “We don’t use disposable bags here, because they are bad for the environment. Would you like a reusable one?” is another person who may think twice the next time they are offered plastic bags elsewhere.

Schools taking the lead in bag bans

DF Malherbe High School in Port Elizabeth was the first school to officially become part of the campaign and ban plastic shopping bags from its premises at the start of 2016. The school launched this effort by breaking a Guinness World Record for the longest chain of single-use plastic bags ever: the chain was was more than 15km long!

DF Malherbe High School is the current Guinness World Record holder for the longest chain of plastic bags. Photo courtesy DF Malherbe High School

To accomplish this, the school collected over 55 000 single-use plastic shopping bags, which in turn were recycled. Since the success of the plastic bag ban at DF Malherbe, Rethink the Bag has begun work on similar projects at other schools around the country.

Ongoing outreach

Hayley’s effort to get the Rethink the Bag message into the hearts and minds of others is ongoing. She has been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with and deliver presentations to various organisations across Cape Town. These have included Rotary International, Women’s Club International, Friends of Tygerberg Hill, various retirement centres and the Cape’s botanical gardens.

“By consistently using reusable alternatives for all single-use plastic items (straws, bottles, bags, coffee cups, utensils), we tap into a deeper value-centric state of being that is ecologically driven, shifting us away from being the throw-away society we have become. Making better everyday choices naturally enhances our awareness of the footprint each of us has on this planet.” – Hayley McLellan

Hayley presenting the goals of Rethink the Bag at TEDxSeaPoint

Rethink the Bag supports and promotes the international #ChooseToRefuse campaign of Plastic Free July. During this time, our readers are encouraged to live the month plastic-free and share their experiences with others.

The Two Oceans Aquarium strongly encourages all South Africans to consider the impact that our “disposable” lifestyle has on the planet – there is going to be more plastic garbage in the oceans than fish by 2050 if we do not change our ways.

Make a difference

Rethink the Bag is one of many initiatives aiming to ensure we have a healthy planet to hand over to our children. Let’s show this campaign, and others like it, our support.

There are four easy things you can do to support Rethink the Bag:

  • Make a pledge stating your intention to stop using plastic bags.
  • Sign our petition to have single-use plastic shopping bags banned in South Africa.
  • Show us your bag! Follow Rethink the Bag on Facebook or Twitter and send us photos of yourself using your favourite reusable shopping bag.
  • Take our survey so we can better understand public opinions around this issue.
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