From 1 July, Western Australia and Queensland are following most of the other states in banning single-use plastic bags from major supermarkets.
Non-compliant retailers in Queensland could cop a $6,300 fine if they continue to supply the bags; while in the west it’s $5,000.
Victoria is promising to go further, outlawing the bags from not just major retailers but also takeaway shops and small supermarkets by the end of next year.
South Australia banned the bag in 2009, and the ACT, the Northern Territory and Tasmania followed soon after; leaving NSW the only state not to formally ban single-use plastic bags.
With the major supermarket chains Woolworths, Coles and IGA bringing in their own bans this month (Harris Farm, a big NSW supermarket chain, had already gone plastic-bag free by January 2018; and the German discount chain ALDI has never offered plastic bags in its Australian stores), the NSW government has maintained there is no need to legislate a ban, despite the state being the biggest consumer of the bags.
Australia is following dozens of countries, led by Bangladesh which put a partial ban on the bags as long ago as 2002 after they were found to have blocked drains during serious floods. In some of the more than 15 African nations that have banned the bag, transgressors may face heavy fines or even jail time.
How will the ban work?
It means that if you forget to bring your own bags, box or wheelie-trolley when you do the grocery shopping, you will have to buy the supermarket’s reusable options or leave your goods behind.
At Woolworths, which announced its planned bag ban in July 2017, you can buy a range of bags at the checkout, including a new 15 cent “reusable” thicker plastic bag which the company says is made from at least 80 per cent recycled plastic. There’s also a 99cent “green bag” option; or a $2.50 chiller bag. At Coles and IGA which followed Woolworths’ lead last year, there will be a similar range of offerings.
More environmentally friendly bag options will be available. Source: Woolworths Group / AAP
What about my bin liners?
If you are used to using shopping bags as bin liners, environmental lobby group Clean Up Australia suggests using newspaper to line your bins or to putting your rubbish directly in your plastic wheelie bin and rinsing it out when you empty it.
How big a problem is plastic?
The scientific evidence has been growing for decades: plastic pollution is a major, ever-growing problem on land and in our waterways.
Clean Up Australia says “every year over six million tonnes of rubbish is dumped into the world’s oceans, 80 per cent of which is plastic, and a further 10 per cent of this being plastic bags.
“Plastic is responsible for killing one million seabirds and over 100,000 sea mammals each year. Turtles, whales and seabirds mistake rubbish for food or get entangled in it, resulting in painful injuries, or even death.”
Australians have been using plastic bags at a staggering rate. “Australians throw away about 7,150 recyclable plastic bags a minute, with 429,000 recyclable plastic supermarket bags dumped into landfill every hour,” Clean Up Australia says.
The Queensland government estimates that almost one billion shopping bags are used in the state each year, with close to 16 million polluting the environment. WA used seven million a year according to the government’s estimate. A 2016 NSW Environment Protection Authority review estimated that two billion plastic bags are consumed in the state each year, with only 14 per cent being recycled.
As a result, environmental groups and social media campaigns have pushed hard for action to reduce our plastic use nationwide.
Will the ban work?
Well … it’s a good start.
There is no ban on the lightweight plastic bags used to gather up fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, and much of the food on sale at supermarkets is still encased in plastic packaging.
But Woolworths says it is committed to removing unnecessary packaging from its supply chain, as well as phasing out the sale of plastic straws by the end of the year. It is joining Coles in offering REDcycle recycling bins in its stores for recycling soft plastic packaging, which the company says is used to turn into plastic products like outdoor furniture.
Environment groups Boomerang Alliance, Greenpeace and Planet Ark believe a ban will have some impact, calling on NSW to follow the lead of the other states because tens of millions of single-use plastic bags will still be in circulation each year from stores outside the main retailers.
But there are concerns that supermarket shoppers will just resort to buying the 15c thicker plastic bag and throw it out anyway.
The ACT and Tasmania are currently reviewing the use of the thicker bags based on these concerns, although a 2014 ACT review found the single-use ban had led to a 36 per cent reduction overall in the volume of plastic bags in landfill.
Deakin University’s Trevor Thornton, a hazardous materials management expert, told SBS News in April the jury was still out on how effective a ban would be.
Dr Thornton pointed to Australia’s 2016-17 National Litter Index which found plastic bags comprised just one per cent of Australia's total litter count, while cigarettes, drink containers and takeaway food packages made up 66 per cent.