Did you know a cotton tote bag needs to be used 131 times before the greenhouse-gas emissions from making and moving it improve on a one-off plastic alternative?

New research by the Economist suggests our “ban the bag” solutions to the single-use plastic crisis could be distracting us from other more significant environmental faux pas, and solutions could be better targeted.

“Using less plastic is at best a partial solution to ocean health caused by everyday materials such as bottles, cups and plastic bags,” the Economist’s environment correspondent and science editor Jan Piotrowski tells Broadsheet.

“A better answer is to recycle and improve the recycling processes we have in place in Australia.”

Last year the ABC’s War on Waste taught us that Aussies send a tram’s worth of plastic-coated takeaway coffee cups to the tip every half hour – many of which were mistakenly put into the recycling bin.

In the middle of this year our two major supermarkets banned thin, single-use plastic bags in favour of thicker reusable alternatives – at 15 cents apiece. While Coles backflipped not a month later, and stopped charging for the new bags, that the duopoly is looking post-plastic shows the public mood is shifting – but are our efforts, ahem, going to waste?

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According to Piotrowski, more than eight billion tonnes of plastic pollution has been produced worldwide since the 1950s. “Enough to wrap the continents in cling wrap four times over,” she says.

Only nine per cent of that has been recycled, another 12 per cent incinerated and the rest was dumped in landfill or ended up in the natural environment (say, in the ocean where it’s known to strangle sea life or be broken down into “microplastics” that end up in the bellies of fish).

This September the Economist will launch a new campaign; its key message can be found in its title: “Don’t bin plastics, yet”.

Throughout the month, three 24-kilogram fish made from recycled ocean plastics collected from Sydney beaches will appear in city squares in Sydney and Melbourne.

Each fish equals the weight of unrecycled plastic deposited in the ocean every tenth of a second. Visitors to the installations are invited to lift the fish to get a literal sense of the weight of the problem (by current trends the amount of plastic in the sea could outweigh fish by 2050, the Economist reports).

Visitors will also receive a free coffee in an edible Cupfee cup (not unlike a cookie cup) to drink and munch on while they wade into the waste debate.

“Plastics are far from trouble free,” says Piotrowski. “Single-use plastic has a negative impact on our environment and oceans, though there are a range of uses and products that are actually better for the environment than suggested alternatives. This campaign is a reminder that by recycling the plastics we do buy, we can make a huge difference.”

Upcoming activations:
Wed September 12 Martin Place, Sydney 9am–6pm
Thu September 13 Broadway Centre, Sydney 10am–9pm
Fri September 14 Broadway Centre, Sydney 10am–7pm
Sat September 15 Broadway Centre, Sydney 9am–6pm
Tue September 18 State Library Street Level, Melbourne 8am–7pm
Wed September 19 Southern Cross Pedestrian Bridge, Melbourne 8am–7pm
Thu September 20 Collins Place, Melbourne 8am–6pm
Fri September 21 Galleria Shopping Plaza, Melbourne 8am–7pm

The Economist is offering subscriptions at an introductory rate of $20 for 12 weeks at all its installations.