Closing Uluru to climbers empowers Indigenous people to teach visitors about their culture on their own terms, which is more sustainable for tourism in the long run.
Uluru is a drawcard for international and domestic tourists, and is visited by over 250,000 people per year. A substantial number of these choose to climb the rock. On busy days, the number can be in the hundreds. This is despite being asked by the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to respect their wishes, culture and law and not climb Uluru.
The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions, which don’t involve planting feet on a sacred place. These activities including nature walks, painting workshops, bush yarns and bush food experiences.
This decision to close the rock to climbers comes after many years of conceding rights back to the Anangu, and is possibly one of the few times where Indigenous values have truly been prioritised over other interests.
Giving power back to Uluru’s traditional owners
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, declared in 1950, was handed back to the Anangu on October 26, 1985. While the agreement required the park to be leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services under a co-management arrangement, the handover was a symbolic high point for land rights.
In practice, however, aspects of the park’s operations were contrary to the traditional owners’ approach to conservation and management. For instance, park management models stated the need to place:
… emphasis on developing acceptable patterns of use of the physical environment and not on recognition of social and spiritual values of land to Indigenous people.
In 2010, the park’s management plan proposed to close the rock if the proportion of visitors who wished to climb Uluru was below 20%. An independent analysis of track counter data and visitor statistics undertaken by the Griffith Institute for Tourism over a four year period revealed that in almost all circumstances (and even with allowance for track counter inaccuracy) the proportion was under 20%.
Finally on November 1, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, consisting of eight traditional owners and four government officials, voted unanimously to close Uluru (Ayers Rock) to climbers. The local tourism industry supported the decision.
But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, getting involved in the tourism industry comes with its own set of problems. They have been tasked with juggling their heritage, customs, culture and traditions with government initiatives that prioritise economic over socio-cultural development. For example, as Quandamooka Dreaming “targets big dollars from tourism” in SE Queensland, the traditional owners are successfully balancing their socio-economic aspirations with cultural lores by determining that some sacred sites will remain accessible only to elders and initiated Indigenous Quandamooka people. But other sites will be open to eco-tourists.
Given the considerable pressure tourism places on local resources and places, the involvement of local communities and different groups within them is now considered critical for achieving sustainable tourism.
A recent report concludes that participation and empowerment of local communities are success factors to managing tourism growth. It’s the local community that looks after the destination, and it can make or break a tourist’s experience. The report finds developing tourism without input from the local people has often led to conflict.
Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.
And when reconciliation principles are practised not preached, traditional custodians of the land are afforded due respect. This then leads them to share their 60,000 year old knowledge of the management of the land we are privileged to utilise as tourism destinations.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management has announced that tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru from 2019. The climb has always been discouraged by the park’s Traditional Owners (the Anangu people) but a number of tourists continued to climb the rock on a daily basis. Below, in English and Indigenous language, Sammy Wilson, chairman of the park board, explains why his people have decided to ban the climb outright.
THE Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board has announced tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru, an activity long considered disrespectful by the region’s traditional owners.
Anangu have always held this place of Law. Other people have found it hard to understand what this means; they can’t see it. But for Anangu it is indisputable. So this climb issue has been widely discussed, including by many who have long since passed away. More recently people have come together to focus on it again and it was decided to take it to a broader group of Anangu. They declared it should be closed. This is a sacred place restricted by law.
It’s not just at board meetings that we discussed this but it’s been talked about over many a camp fire, out hunting, waiting for the kangaroo to cook, they’ve always talked about it.
The climb is a men’s sacred area. The men have closed it. It has cultural significance that includes certain restrictions and so this is as much as we can say. If you ask, you know they can’t tell you, except to say it has been closed for cultural reasons.
What does this mean? You know it can be hard to understand – what is cultural law? Which one are you talking about? It exists; both historically and today. Tjukurpa includes everything: the trees; grasses; landforms; hills; rocks and all.
You have to think in these terms; to understand that country has meaning that needs to be respected. If you walk around here you will learn this and understand. If you climb you won’t be able to. What are you learning? This is why Tjukurpa exists. We can’t control everything you do but if you walk around here you will start to understand us.
Some people, in tourism and government for example, might have been saying we need to keep it open but it’s not their law that lies in this land. It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.
We work on the principle of mutual obligation, of working together, but this requires understanding and acceptance of the climb closure because of the sacred nature of this place. If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.
On tour with us, tourists talk about it. They often ask why people are still climbing and I always reply, ‘things might change…’ They ask, ‘why don’t they close it?’ I feel for them and usually say that change is coming. Some people come wanting to climb and perhaps do so before coming on tour with us. They then wish they hadn’t and want to know why it hasn’t already been closed. But it’s about teaching people to understand and come to their own realisation about it. We’re always having these conversations with tourists.
And now that the majority of people have come to understand us, if you don’t mind, we will close it! After much discussion, we’ve decided it’s time.
Visitors needn’t be worrying there will be nothing for them with the climb closed because there is so much else besides that in the culture here. It’s not just inside the park and if we have the right support to take tourists outside it will benefit everyone. People might say there is no one living on the homelands but they hold good potential for tourists. We want support from the government to hear what we need and help us. We have a lot to offer in this country. There are so many other smaller places that still have cultural significance that we can share publicly. So instead of tourists feeling disappointed in what they can do here they can experience the homelands with Anangu and really enjoy the fact that they learnt so much more about culture.
Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this. The government needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws. It doesn’t work with money. Money is transient, it comes and goes like the wind. In Anangu culture Tjukurpa is ever lasting.
Years ago, Anangu went to work on the stations. They were working for station managers who wanted to mark the boundaries of their properties at a time when Anangu were living in the bush. Anangu were the ones who built the fences as boundaries to accord with whitefella law, to protect animal stock. It was Anangu labour that created the very thing that excluded them from their own land. This was impossible to fathom for us! Why have we built these fences that lock us out? I was the one that did it! I built a fence for that person who doesn’t want anything to do with me and now I’m on the outside. This is just one example of our situation today.
You might also think of it in terms of what would happen if I started making and selling coca cola here without a license. The coca cola company would probably not allow it and I’d have to close it in order to avoid being taken to court. This is something similar for Anangu.
A long time ago they brought one of the boulders from the Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. From the time they brought it down Anangu kept trying to tell people it shouldn’t have been brought here. They talked about it for so long that many people had passed away in the meantime before their concerns were understood and it was returned. People had finally understood the Anangu perspective.
That’s the same as here. We’ve talked about it for so long and now we’re able to close the climb. It’s about protection through combining two systems, the government and Anangu. Anangu have a governing system but the whitefella government has been acting in a way that breaches our laws. Please don’t break our law, we need to be united and respect both.
Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don’t hold us to ransom…. This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing to close the ‘playground’.
The land has law and culture. We welcome tourists here. Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about but a cause for celebration.
Let’s come together; let’s close it together.
In Pitjantjatjara language
Anangungku iriti kanyiningi ngura Tjukurpa tjara panya. Tjinguru kulipai, ‘ai,ai, ah, nyaa nyangatja? What is Tjukurpa?’ Putu nyangangi panya. Palu Tjukurpa pala palula ngarinyi Ananguku. Ka palunya kulira wangka katiningi tjutangku. Kutjupa tjuta not with us panya. Kuwari wangka katiningi, wangka katiningi munuya kaputura piruku wangkanyi ka wiya, Anangu tjutangka piruku wangkara wangkara kati. Uwa ngalya katingu Anangu tjuta kutu. Ka Anangu tjutangku wangkangu palya, patila. Ngura miil-miilpa.
Not only the board meeting kutjuya wangkapai, meeting time kutju but meeting out in the campfire, waru kutjara. Waru kutjaraya malu paulpai tjana wangkapaitu still.
Uwa Tjukurpa wati tjutaku uwa… wati tjutangku patini, that’s it, Tjukurpa palatja patini.
Only Tjukurpa kutju, uwa Tjukurpa tjarala patini, miil-miilpa. If you ask some people, kutjupa tjapini ka, you know they can’t tell you, palu tjinguru patini, Tjukurpa.
Nyaa palatja, nyaa panya? You know sometimes it’s hard to understand panya: Tjukurpa nyaa? Which one? Ngarinyi tjukurpa, iriti tjinguru ngarinyi, Tjukurpa and he’s still there today. You know Tjukurpa is everything, its punu, grass or the land or hill, rock or what.
Palula tjanala kulintjaku, uwa kulinma nyuntu: ‘Uwa ngura Tjukurpa tjara’. Respect ngura, the country. You walk around, you’ll learn, understand. Tatini nyuntu munu putu kulini, nyaa nyuntu? What you learning? Pala palutawara; Tjukurpa. Ka we can’t tell you what you’re doing but when you walk around you understand. Kulini.
Some might be… you know, tourism, government-ngka, ‘no, leave it open, leave it’ Why? palumpa tjukurpa wiya nyangakutu. This is a very important place nyangatja panya. Not inka-inka, not to come and see the Disney land. Wiya come and learn about this place.
Rawangkula kulilkatira kulilkatira everywhere.
Ngapartji ngapartjila tjunu, to work together, but they gotta kulinma panya. Munta-uwa, tjana patini nyangatja, ngura miil-miilpa. Uwa. If I go some sort of country tjinguru ngura miil-miilpa, some place in the world they got miil-miilpa, I don’t climb panya, I respect that place. Pala purunypa nyangatja Ananguku panya. Ka tourist nganana stop-amilantja wiya; tourist welcome palu these things, nyangatja nyanga, panya.
Uwa, tour-ngkala ankupai. Visitors-ngku kulu kulu wangkapai, you know sometimes we was working with tourism panya, tourist-angka and, ‘why these people climbing? Kana, ‘Something is coming’. I always talk panya. Ka, ‘why don’t they close it?’ Ka uwa its coming always, ngaltu tourist tjuta, visitors. Some people, ‘I want to climb’ sometimes visitors climb Uluru munu ngalya pitjala on tour, why I climb? Alatji, why don’t they close it. Ka wiya, it’s coming now you know, nintintjaku, visitors kulintjaku munta-uwa. Uwa minga tjutangka wangkapai, always.
Uwa kuwari nyanga kulini, kulini, everybody kulinu, munta-uwa wanyu kala patila. Wangkara wangkarala kulini, munta-uwa.
Visitors-ngku panya kulilpai, ‘ai nyangatjaya patinu ka nganana yaaltji yaaltji kuwari? Nganana wai putu kulilpai’. Wiya, Tjukurpa ngarinyitu ngura, outside. Not only this park unngu kutju palu tjukurpa nganananya help-amilalatu ngapartji ngapartji ka nganana ngapartji katinyi visitors tjuta. Some reckon nobody living in the homelands but this good story to tell to the visitors panya. Ka nganananya help-amilantjaku kulu kulu. Government gotta really sit down and help. We got good places up here.
Ngura kulunypa tjuta nyarakutu ngarinyi but he got Tjukurpa tjara. Not Tjukurpa panya nyanga side but only this side, the public story. Uwa. Uwa. Ka tourist tjinguru kulilpai, ‘ah, I done nothing in this place’ but katira nintini, sit down and talk on the homeland, uwa. Nyinara wangkara visitors kulira kulira, they’ll go happy, ‘munta-uwa I learnt a lot about Anangu’.
Money is the land whitefella see, ka Anangu see the ngura, the land is Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa wiyangka tjinguru wiya. Culture kanyintjikitjala mukuringanyi. Culture tjinguru mala, another fifty years tjinguru panya, another hundred years, culture is gone, ma-wiyaringanyi. Nyara palula we gotta be strong. Ngapartji ngapartji panya government will understand, munta-uwa, what they saying. It doesn’t work with money. Money will go away, it’s like blowing in the wind, panya. Walpangku puriny waninyi. Culture panya Ananguku culture – Tjukurpa is there ngarinyi alatjitu.
Iriti Anangu bin go and work on the stations. They work for the station manager he want his land, block of land and uwa munta-uwa nyangatja nyangatja. Anangu was camping there, putingka. Building their fence because its boundary. Boundary palyanu that’s the law, whitefella-ku law to look after cattle or sheep or whatever oh that’s the law, Anangu was building it, Anangu working and Anangu now is sitting outside, he can’t get in! malaku, ngura nyakuntjikitja. Putulta kulini, ‘ai? Why? nyaakula fence-ingka patinu? That was me! I built a fence for that bloke and that bloke don’t like me, I’m outside now. Munta nyanga purunypa, same, what I’m saying.
Tjinguru nyaa kulintjaku you know… I built a coca cola factory here. That coca cola factory might say no! Hello, close it otherwise he’ll take me to court. Pala purunypa is Ananguku panya.
Iriti they bring this rock without knowing. They bring the rock from Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. Palunya ngalya katingu ka Anangu tjutangku putu wangkara wangkara that tjinguru paluru iriti righta ‘wai! Why that thing from here is over here?’ Wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara, some pass away-aringu palu purunypa people understand, ‘hey we gotta take this back!’ Tjukurpa paluru tjana kulinu.
That’s the same as here, wangkara, wangkara hello, palya patinila. You know, ngura look out-amilani tjungu, still the same panya, government and Anangu. Anangu is the government too but this government, whitefella government, panparangu nguwanpa. Wiya, panparangkuntja wiya please, we gotta be tjungu. Respect.
Iritinguru Anangu nguluringanyi nguwanpa, nguluringanyi, ah! someone is watching us like with a gun: ‘Don’t close it please’… don’t point me with a gun. Pukularintjaku Anangu and piranpa, together, tjungu, uwa munta-uwa, patinu palya nyanganyi the playground.
On October 28, Australia ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Australia is the tenth country to ratify, joining others as diverse as Mali, the United Kingdom and Rwanda in a global commitment to dramatically reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the atmosphere. Once 20 countries have ratified the amendment, it will become binding.
HFCs were designed specifically to replace ozone-destroying compounds previously used in air conditioners and refrigerants. Unfortunately, we now know that HFCs are massively potent greenhouse gases – thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide (albeit released in far smaller quantities).
If the Kigali Amendment becomes binding, the hunt will begin for a replacement for HFCs and their uses in industry. In a strange twist, the least environmentally harmful option may well be carbon dioxide.
Where do HFCs come from?
HFCs are made of carbon, fluorine and hydrogen. They are exclusively synthetic, meaning they have no known natural sources. To understand why they came into existence requires a quick history lesson.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, another class of compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were widely used. CFCs are very stable, which made them ideal for many practical uses, including in refrigeration, foam packaging, and even aerosol cans for hair spray.
The Montreal Protocol was a global agreement developed to stop this harmful ozone destruction. The protocol mandated a time frame to completely abolish CFCs. To replace them, new compounds were developed that do not destroy ozone: HFCs.
But the solution to one environmental problem became the cause of another: these replacements are potent contributors to warming the climate.
Why are HFCs so bad?
All greenhouse gases work by absorbing infrared radiation, which would otherwise escape into space. But not all greenhouse gases are created equal. The potency of a greenhouse gas depends on three properties:
how long it remains in the atmosphere (its “lifetime”)
how much radiation it absorbs
whether the specific wavelength of radiation it absorbs would otherwise be absorbed by something else in the atmosphere (like water).
Combined, these three properties can be used to determine the global warming potential for each greenhouse gas. This is a measure of how potent the gas is relative to carbon dioxide (CO₂). By definition, CO₂ has a global warming potential of 1. Methane, commonly considered the second most important greenhouse gas, has a global warming potential of 34 – meaning that 1 tonne of methane would trap 34 times more heat than 1 tonne of CO₂.
The global warming potentials for the three most abundant HFCs range from 1,370 to 4,180. In other words, these gases trap thousands of times more heat in our atmosphere than an equivalent amount of CO₂.
What will replace HFCs?
The nearly 200 countries that signed the original Montreal Protocol have unanimously agreed that the climate risks posed by HFCs are too significant to ignore. Developed countries will begin phasing out HFCs in 2019. Developing countries will follow suit between 2024 and 2028.
So what will our refrigerators and air conditioners use instead? Several replacements are being considered.
Another option is to use mixtures of hydrocarbons such as butane. Hydrocarbons pose safety risks as they are highly flammable and may also adversely affect air quality. Ammonia is another alternative that has been used as a refrigerant for a long time but is highly toxic.
And, finally, there is the surprise candidate: CO₂. Although using CO₂ as a refrigerant poses technical challenges, it is non-toxic and non-flammable and a much weaker greenhouse gas than the HFCs it would replace. Strangely, from an environmental perspective, CO₂ may actually be the “best” refrigerant available.
A cooler future ahead?
The Montreal Protocol has long been considered one of the greatest environmental success stories of all time. It brought together the world’s governments and chemical industries to protect the ozone layer.
The adoption of the Kigali Amendment will be another feather in the cap of this important agreement. HFCs aren’t overly prevalent yet – but without Kigali they are expected to grow rapidly. By banning them now, we will avoid their impacts before it is too late.
The Victorian government is proposing to ban single-use lightweight plastic shopping bags.
First of all, for plastic bag devotees, don’t panic – there are alternatives such as paper, cloth and a range of other reusable bags (you can even use the cardboard cartons from the shop). For those who have been advocating for a ban, don’t relax – there is still more to be done.
While the details of the plan are still being discussed, it is good to see that the government has committed to consultation with businesses and the community. We can be assured that the government will not swap one issue for another – such as reducing the amount of plastic bags used for waste, only to increase the use of bin liners. We need to ensure that the alternatives proposed actually reduce environmental impact.
In fact, this is prime time for the government to take a step further. We can do much more than ban single-use plastic bags. We should expand the ban to cover more categories of plastic and actively move to manage waste and reduce plastic pollution.
Should the ban proceed, it will have one significant outcome. The three most common contaminants of the household recycling bin (representing 10-15% of the recycling stream, according to my own audits of kerbside recycling bins) will be banned:
plastic bags with recyclables
plastic bags with general waste
empty plastic bags.
But simply looking at the perceived issues associated with plastic bag disposal is not enough. We must also understand why people actually use plastic bags. What are their shopping habits? When do they shop? Have we considered tourists who buy groceries?
Plastics ban is not enough
Instead of just banning bags, we need to look at the issue of plastic in its broadest sense. On a recent trip to the supermarket, I estimated that almost 40% of the vegetables are wrapped in plastic packaging. Even if you wanted an alternative, sometimes there isn’t one. The packaging comes with the produce.
The Victorian government has claimed that it would be impractical to ban the packaging of fruit and vegetables. But why is it acceptable to focus only on the plastic in bags and not in other vessels? Packaging is another source of excess plastic that consumes resources and contributes significantly to landfill waste. Given that many foods (such as strawberries or tomatoes) are pre-packaged, shoppers will often buy more than they need and end up wasting food.
We have the perfect opportunity to address two significant issues at the same time. The question is: will we?
The Victoria government has acknowledged that thicker, more durable plastic bags have a greater environmental impact. Yet according to the proposed policy, the banning of these bags may be optional. This is why any consultation process must encompass all types of plastic.
We have the opportunity to get it right and lead the way, and it is important that all views are heard. If you would like to have your say, the Victorian government has a survey where comments can be provided.
What we can learn from other programs
When looking at programs that successfully changed our behaviour, such as “slip slop slap”, using seatbelts and reducing the road toll, promoting HIV awareness, and even litter prevention, we can identify several features that seem to be crucial to their success. They are:
the program advised us exactly what to do and why
there were multiple different advertisements – but each focused on the same issue
different demographics were targeted, but with the same focus
the advertisements were provided in multiple formats at many locations.
It will be important that any action undertaken includes an education program. It should inform consumers why this ban is happening and advise them what actions they can take.
Other policies that we can undertake include container deposit legislation. My audits of SA’s landfill rates, compared with those of other states without container deposit schemes, shows that these schemes significantly reduce the disposal of plastic waste to landfill.
These changes should be incorporated into the proposed ban of the plastic bags. We must learn from past policies to ensure we make a smooth transition away from disposable plastics. The government should be aware of the different shopping habits of our society to find a cost-effective yet sustainable solution to plastic packaging.
There are a lot of changes that we can make. It is not just limited to banning single-use plastic bags. We need to consider the bigger picture of plastic packaging so we can truly put a dent in retail waste.
So far, so good. But are there any downsides? Many of you, for instance, face the prospect of paying for bin liners for the first time ever. And while that might sound tongue-in-cheek, it shows the importance of considering the full life-cycle of the plastics we use.
However, the ACT government also noted an increase in sales of plastic bags designed specifically for waste. These are typically similar in size to single-use shopping bags but heavier and therefore contain more plastic.
Keep Australia Beautiful, in its 2015-16 National Litter Index, reported a 6.2% reduction in the littering of plastic bags relative to the previous year, while also noting that these represent only 1% of litter.
Meanwhile, alternatives such as paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts of their own. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.
This illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of shopping bags to arrive at an evidence-based decision rather than one based on emotion or incomplete data. I am not suggesting this is the case with plastic shopping bags; I’m just pointing out the value of proper analysis.
Simply banning a certain type of bag, while this may be a good idea in itself, could result in other knock-on impacts that are harder to manage. Replacing shopping bags with heavier, more resource-intensive ones may solve some environmental impacts but exacerbate others.
Plastics, not plastic bags
In a 2016 discussion paper, Western Australia’s Local Government Association suggested that the focus of action should be plastics in general, not just shopping bags.
As the Keep Australia Beautiful data show, plastic bags are just a small part of a much bigger problem. Many other plastic items are entering the litter stream too.
With this in mind, it pays to ask exactly why we are banning plastic shopping bags. Is it the litter issue, the potential impact on wildlife, the resource consumption, all of the above, or something else? Is it because they are plastic, because they are disposable, or because it saves supermarkets money?
The answers to these questions can guide the development of an effective strategy to reduce the environmental (and perhaps economic) burden of taking our shopping home. With that in place, we can then develop an education strategy to help shoppers adapt and make the scheme a success. But this costs money.
The triple bottom line
There should be plenty of money available. The Victorian state government’s Sustainability Fund, for instance, has A$419 million to spend over the next five years on researching alternatives to shopping and household waste management. Developing a shopping bag strategy would consume only a small part of this and would be money well spent.
The concept of the “triple bottom line” – ensuring that decisions are based equally on environmental, social and economic considerations – needs to be applied to decisions about whether to ban single-use plastic bags, and what alternatives will result. The problem with simply announcing a ban is that this leaves it up to shoppers themselves to work out what to do to replace them.
Evidence-based policy is crucial. We first need to find out how many people already use re-usable bags, whether they always take them to the shops, and what items they put in them. Do people generally know how many times each type of bag should be re-used in order to be an environmentally better choice than the current plastic bags? What’s the best material for re-usable bags, taking into account not only their environmental credentials but also their ability to get your shopping home without breaking?
When it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another. If all we’re doing is swapping between different types of plastic, it’s hard to see how we’re solving anything.
On your way home tonight, you might stop at the supermarket to grab some ingredients for the evening meal. If you’re like many shoppers, you’ll pass through the self-service checkout, scan your items, and hurriedly place them in the conveniently waiting thin, grey plastic bag before finalising the purchase.
At home, the purchases are packed away or lined up for immediate preparation. The plastic bag is scrunched into a little ball and stuffed away with others in your collection, to be used as bin liners or otherwise thrown away. All of these behaviours are, by and large, done without a great deal of thought.
One of the most challenging tasks for marketers is to bring about changes in consumer behaviours that have become habitual, routine and “low involvement” – why spend time stopping and considering various brands of laundry detergent, for instance, when you can just quickly grab the one you’ve always used?
The very nature of habitual behaviour means that responses to the same situational cues happen automatically and with little conscious thought. Habits are powerfully ingrained. One study estimates that around 45% of our daily actions are habitual, and most of our purchases and consumption is of the low-involvement variety.
Repetitive consumer behaviour is a tough cycle to disrupt. And it is the very nature of these habitual responses that make many standard interventions relatively ineffective.
But this is the task facing supermarkets in taking away customers’ access to free plastic bags.
Banning the bags
The recently announced plans by supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths to ban single-use plastic bags seem admirable enough, but the environmental benefits will only be fully realised if the ban drives a permanent change in shoppers’ behaviour.
Many countries have tried a variety of strategies to get rid of single-use plastic bags, including bans, educational campaigns, and levies. Most have had mixed results. There is no overwhelming evidence to suggest that any of these approaches has fully broken shoppers’ disposable bag habit.
Even where use has been dramatically reduced, the environmental impact has been mitigated by unintended consequences such as a 65% increase in the purchase of bin liners, and the disposal of re-usable bags. And despite a general shift in attitude towards environmentally sustainable consumption, this “intention-behaviour gap” still prevails.
Breaking the habit
Here is where some behavioural psychology can be brought to bear on the problem. We know that habitual behaviours are learned and reinforced through repeated responses to particular situations. Theoretically, if these behaviours are learned, they can be unlearned by providing different situations.
Behavioural nudges aim to make people stop and think about what would otherwise be an unconscious behaviour. Often this takes the form of a short, simple message. Electricity providers have been known to use this method of nudging. Power usage by their customers will drop when they are shown that the usage rate of a similar-sized household is more efficient than their own.
But it can also involve a minor adjustment to the environment in which the behaviour occurs. Such a strategy could be applied in supermarkets where “footprints” could lead to reusable bags that are available for purchase. Repeating this over time could result in consumers associating the footprints with a reminder to bring their own bags. Varying the location of the footprints, or even their colour or shape, might encourage shoppers’ curiosity and thus increase the likelihood of consciousness about the plastic bag ban.
Economic nudges can also be used to help shoppers quit plastic bags – as in the case of Toronto, which introduced a 5-cent levy on plastic bags. There are many ways to gently encourage shoppers to make better decisions.
Australia’s big shopping brands
Given that much of the problem involves challenging current behaviours, it stands to reason that the big brands’ responses to this question will hinge on what their customers are already used to.
Retailers such as Bunnings and Aldi have never provided their customers with free, disposable plastic bags. Their customers learned quickly from the outset to use alternatives, such as the stash of old cardboard boxes typically found behind the checkouts at Bunnings.
Woolworths and Coles, on the other hand, face a tougher challenge. They are taking something away from shoppers, and some customers may be resentful and resistant to change as a result.
To avoid a repeat of Target’s aborted effort to remove free bags in 2013, Coles and Woolworths might find that the best way to avoid a similar customer revolt is to use in-store cues as behavioural nudges, alongside the economic incentive of offering durable plastic bags for a price. Many consumers will be willing to pay for plastic bag alternatives during the transition phase. Combining this with gentle reminders such as in-store “footprints” will aim to gradually change those low-involvement, highly habitual shopping patterns.
Whether economic or non-economic, messages to shoppers need to be as pervasive and repetitive as the ingrained behaviours they are trying to change.
The world’s coral reefs face unprecedented threats. Their survival depends on how well they can cope with a long list of pressures including fishing, storms, coral bleaching, outbreaks of coral predators and reduced water quality. Together, these disturbances have caused the Great Barrier Reef to lose half of its coral cover since 1985.
One often-used way of protecting marine ecosystems is to close parts of the ocean to fishing, in no-take marine reserves. From research, we know that by reducing fishing you end up with more and bigger fish (and other harvested species such as lobsters).
But other benefits of protection might be more surprising. In a new study, we show that no-take reserves helped the Great Barrier Reef’s corals to resist a range of disturbances, such as bleaching, disease and crown-of-thorns starfish, and to recover more quickly from damage.
More exposure, but better protection
Our study used observations between 1993 and 2013 of 34 types of coral and invertebrates and 215 fish species on 46 reefs spread across the Great Barrier Reef. Among the 46 study reefs, 26 were open to fishing and 20 were in no-take marine reserves.
During the study period, several occurrences of coral bleaching, coral disease, storms and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish were recorded.
The total number of disturbances affecting our study reefs increased in recent years (2010-12), mostly due to severe storms affecting the central and southern sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Among our study reefs, those located inside no-take marine reserves were more exposed to disturbance than those outside no-take marine reserves.
Our study showed that, inside no-take marine reserves, the impact of disturbance was reduced by 38% for fish and by 25% for corals compared with unprotected reefs. This means that no-take marine reserves benefit not only fish but entire reef communities, including corals, and might help to slow down the rapid degradation of coral reefs.
In addition to greater resistance, reef organisms recovered more quickly from disturbance inside no-take marine reserves. After each disturbance, we measured the time that both coral and fish communities took to return to their pre-disturbance state.
We found coral communities took the longest to recover after crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. Outside no-take marine reserves, it took on average nine years for these communities to recover. It took just over six years inside no-take marine reserves.
Although there is more work to be done, one reason that reefs inside no-take zones are able to cope better with disturbances is that they preserve and promote a wider range of important ecological functions. Where fishing reduces the numbers of some species outside protected areas, some of these functions could be lost.
Knowledge for conservation
Marine reserves (including no-take zones) currently cover 3.4% of the world’s ocean, which is still well below the 10% target for 2020 recommended by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The slow progress towards this target is partly due to the perceived high costs of protection compared to true ecological benefits, which can be difficult to gauge. While some surprising benefits are beginning to be revealed in studies like ours, such benefits remain little understood.
Our results help to fill that gap by showing that no-take marine reserves can boost both the resistance and recovery of reef communities following disturbance. In ecology, resistance plus recovery equals resilience.
Our work suggests that the net benefit of no-take marine reserves is much greater than previously thought. No-take marine reserves host not only more and bigger fishes, but more resilient communities that might decline at slower rates.
These results reinforce the idea that no-take marine reserves should be widely implemented and supported as a means of maintaining the integrity of coral reefs globally.
Our conclusions also demonstrate that we need long-term monitoring programs which provide a unique opportunity to assess the sustained benefits of protection.