BELMONT businessman John Yates is one of the veterans of the Australian bag and packaging industry, having opened his first bag factory at Wickham in 1959.
At one stage he was sending two semi-trailers a day of paper bags to Sydney for the likes of Coles and Franklins and Davids supermarkets.
When single-use plastic checkout bags were introduced into Australia in 1985, Mr Yates won a three-year contract with Franklins for bags that appealed to consumers because they were waterproof, and to retailers because they were cheaper and took up less space.
Today, his Favorite Plastics business is still supplying shopping bags among a vast range of sheet plastic products, and he is watching the rising movement to end the use of single-use bags with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution.
Enthusiasm because he backs progress on the environmental damage that plastics are doing to the environment, and caution because experience has taught him things are not always as straightforward as they seem.
As an example, he says bio-degradable bags sounded like a great idea, but they brought a number of problems with them.
“They tried to introduce them into supermarkets a few years ago but if the bags were left on the shelf too long they would have started to break down and so people would find their bags splitting and their groceries all over the floor,” Mr Yates said.
“And then they found they had to keep them out of the recycling chain, because even a bit of biodegradable material that made its way into other products would trigger a reaction so that the recycled product would start to break down.”
The Newcastle Herald sought out Mr Yates this week to hear his views on the growing environmental opposition to single-use bags. Although the NSW government has not matched other states by passing laws to ban the bags, Coles and Woolworths are ending their use this week.
As at Aldi, Coles and Woolies customers must now either bring their own bags or buy thicker reusable bags at the checkout. These bags are bigger than the familiar grey or white single-use bags, and Woolworths is charging 15 cents a bag, although customer anger has led it to giving them away for the first 10 days of the switch.
Despite the initial difficulties, Mr Yates says people will adjust to the changes.
He applauds the idea of keeping plastic bags out of the ocean, but says that checkout bags are only a tiny part of the volume of plastic that goes into retail packaging, and that the idea of promoting “a world without plastic” is not only fanciful, it would be counterproductive.
“People say they want a world without plastic but what they really mean is a world without plastic shopping bags,” Mr Yates said.
“Plastics are not going to go away. Plastic packaging is a very practical product. It’s essential to the way we live and it allows for huge gains in the efficiency and safety of the food chain, for starters.
“In Australia, very little food is lost in spoilage between leaving the producer and the supermarket, thanks to refrigeration and packaging. In countries without this, it’s not unusual to lose a quarter of what’s being sold along the way.”
He cites the humble potato crisp as another example, saying they go stale a day after being opened. But thanks to the multi-layered plastic in the bags, the crisps stay fresh for about nine months.
Improvements in plastics technology are not the only big change in the industry.
At its peak, Favourite Plastics employed more than 70 people at its factory in Carrington, but after years of facing rising production costs and other difficulties, Mr Yates said he followed others in the industry and shifted production to China in 2000.
“My passport says I’ve been there 55 times,” Mr Yates said of his trips to the country now widely viewed as holding our destiny in its hand.
Favorite Plastics has been at the Beresfield industrial estate since it shifted production offshore, and while the business is bigger than ever in volume terms it now only employs eight people in Australia.
“At one stage there were 400 companies making plastic bags in Australia, but now there’s three,” Mr Yates said.
But as an enthusiastic businessman and someone that still wants to put his country first, Mr Yates says he is working on plans for a plastic recycling plant he hopes to install at a new larger premises at Beresfield the firm is moving into in the coming days. If the project’s financials stack up – electricity costs are a pressing point at this stage of planning – he hopes to be able to recycle virtually any soft plastic products, including single use shopping bags, at the rate of up to 20 tonnes a day.
One recycling stream would be turned into diesel – all plastics are petro-chemical products, derived from oil – while the other would be “repelletised” for conversion into plastic building products.
Mr Yates says that recycling is already a major part of the plastics industry, but that keeping plastic rubbish out of the environment is as much an individual responsibility as an industry one.
Like many who visit the island state, Mr Yates is impressed with the cleanliness of Singapore, driven, he says, by littering fines that are much higher than those in NSW.
“It’s government action,” Mr Yates said. “All over the world you’ve got the same problem, but certain countries don’t have the problem, and that’s because they police it.”
At home at Lake Macquarie, Mr Yates says bait bags and plastic bottles are among the most common items he picks up on his walks along the Belmont shoreline.
He says he’s seen no reduction in plastic drink bottles despite the NSW government’s 10 cents a bottle recycling scheme.
Estimates of the numbers of single-use bags vary, but Woolworths has not contested claims it goes through more than 3 billion a year, meaning the total national use is likely to be three times that amount. Tens of millions a year are said to enter the environment.
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