Are bag libraries sparking a trend that’s here to stay in the zero waste movement?

I met up with Sarah Bury, the driving force behind the plastic wise movement here in the greater Hobart area. It’s fascinating how a small idea, like creating a reusable bag culture through the bag library initiative, with a few driven people leading the way, can empower a community to change the way they think and act. Even a supermarket chain has changed their waste and plastic usage policies as a result of the work of the Plastic Wise Taroona team.

Waste is an issue. We are producing too much, and without viable reusable alternatives, we really can’t expect the community to stop using plastic at the click of the fingers, just like that. Plastic Wise Taroona is working on several projects across Hobart that are disrupting the disposable culture.

If you haven’t heard of bag libraries before, let’s get familiar with the term. They are a collection of reusable bags, like tote shopping bags, available to shoppers who may forget, or require additional shopping bags. The bags are provided for free (or for a small deposit) and are to be returned next visit. Bag libraries have been recently set up at Hill Street Grocers right across Tasmania.

There are so many things to love about this story. Sarah explained how they got their initial bag library started.

“A few friends and I started making bags in sewing bees. We took some to Hill Street in South Hobart to ask about running an initial trial for a bag library”.

A survey of customers, ran by Hill Street Grocer returned an 88% in favour of removing single use plastic bags from their stores (a reminder: your say matters!).

Sewing bees ramped up, and local schools got on board, making bags as a project. Fabric was donated from sewing cupboards, old family material collections and second-hand stores. An old 1920’s Singer sewing machine was donated anonymously, which the team got serviced and now cherishes. It’s all done with the generosity of local community members, friends and passionate leaders of Plastic Wise, who now meet up regularly each fortnight at the Picnic Basket in Taroona to sew shopping bags.

Schools got involved and classes sewed bags as class projects. Students from Lenah Valley, Taroona, Princes St and Taroona high all made bags from donated fabrics.

What has the reaction been to the bag libraries?

Surprised by the positive customer reactions, The Hill Street team have been inspired to reduce waste in other areas of their operation

“Our customers have positively embraced our banning of plastic shopping bags. Customers love the bag library totes – each one is unique and they are also very practical to use.” – Emma, Hill Street Grocer.

Offering a bag for ‘free’, however, doesn’t come without issues. Several bags have not been returned. In response to this, Plastic Wise Taroona and Hill Street implemented a deposit system onto the bags, so you pay a small fee to take the bag home and are returned your deposit when the bag is returned. Response to this new system suggests a deposit system may work, but there is room for improvement.

“For a successful deposit system, the deposit must reflect the item value”.

On the contrary, bags are being taken faster than they are being returned. Hill Street Grocer spoke to us about how many customers are choosing to keep the bags and reuse them rather than return them to the library but that is fine because the goal is to have less plastic bags being used and to encourage people to make sustainable choices.

Where can this concept of a bag library go?

“We’d ideally like to see it rolled out in more shops. We’ve approached some already and have had mixed responses. We want shops who are really committed to making a change.”

Hill Street Grocer’s comments were as follows.

“Education is really important so that customers understand the impact of plastic and lobby the supermarkets to make the change. It can also be expensive for a business to move away from plastic as plastic is cheap. For example, we are subsidising the cost of paper bags for our customers by 4 cents per bag (cost us 24 cents each and we sell for 20 cents); in contrast plastic shopping bags are only a couple of cents each to buy. So there is definitely a financial barrier there that is prohibiting many supermarkets from going plastic free.”

Both Plastic Wise Taroona and Hill Street Grocer commented on the biggest challenges with this project, keeping up with supply! Why not lend a hand and head to a sewing bee, or donate your old fabric scraps to the cause? [Link to PWT contact info]

The borrowed bag initiative brought out by Plastic Wise has saved over 700,000 bags just in the first 6 months. Imagine how many more we can save at that scale.

Along with the amazing borrowed bags, at the West Hobart Hill Street Grocer you can find other zero-waste products including our very own Sustomi beeswax food wraps.

Every small change CAN make a difference! Do it in Style.