02.State of play
Australia lags behind
Many other nations, including Ireland, have introduced measures to reduce plastic bag use. The largest is China, who banned the production, distribution and use of lightweight HDPE plastic bags in 2008, a move that was estimated to have saved the country 1.6 million tonnes of oil in the year following its introduction. In Europe, Denmark and Belgium have placed a tax on retailers’ use of plastic bags, while France is phasing in a ban on non-degradable plastic bags. Retailers in Germany, Sweden, Spain and Norway have long charged customers a fee for plastic bags. Italy has had a tax on plastic bags since 1989. Wales will introduce a levy in 2011, and Israel has had a levy since 2008.
States go it alone
In May 2009, the South Australian government introduced a ban on the use of single-use plastic bags. Retailers in that state are now only allowed to offer biodegradable plastic bags, paper bags and heavy-duty reusable bags, either free or for a charge. Produce and meat barrier bags, and purchased bin liners are also exempt from the ban. SA residents have taken to reusable bags with gusto, with 90% of those surveyed taking their own bags to the supermarket and only one percent relying entirely on shop-provided bags. Both the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory (ACT) governments will ban lightweight plastic bags from mid-2011. It is also likely that Tasmania will introduce a ban in 2011. The Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales governments have not shown any interest in introducing a ban on plastic bags, despite apparent support from shoppers for such a move.
Community and retailer responses
Some communities have taken the initiative and banned lightweight plastic bags in their town (see table). Across Australia, many festivals, events, farmers’ markets and entertainment precincts have gone plastic bag-free after local communities have shown a willingness to embrace alternatives to the single-use plastic bag. Similarly, retailers have been proactive in this area. In 2003, Bunnings introduced a 10c charge per plastic bag, which resulted in a 99% reduction in bag usage over five years. In 2008, it removed plastic bags from its outlets altogether, with reusable bags and cardboard boxes proving popular replacements. Target also phased out plastic bags in 2009, charging customers for biodegradable or reusable bags and replacing the 100 million plastic bags that used to filter out into the communities from their stores each year. Supermarket chain Aldi has only ever offered reusable heavy duty plastic and green bags available for its customers to purchase since opening in Australia in 2001.
Undoubtedly the most plastic bags are used in supermarkets yet neither of Australia’s two major supermarket chains supports a ban or levy on bags. They argue that it would inconvenience their customers and increase costs for retailers, which would ultimately result in price increases. “We don’t support a ban on bags, nor a levy, because we think it would inconvenience our customers,” says Jim Cooper from Coles. Interestingly, all supermarket chains in SA have complied with the ban on HDPE single-use bags without a hitch.
State of play
How do our states and territories stack up against one another, and which retailers are leading the way in sustainable bag policy?