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Welcome to Australia’s plastic beach

Coles and Woolworths’ plastic bag ban and the choices that remain. What is and isn’t being phased out? And how effective will the new policy be?

By the end of June, most of Australia’s major supermarkets will have stopped handing out single-use plastic bags.

Woolworths, Coles, and the Queensland and Western Australian governments are all phasing out lightweight shopping bags, potentially preventing billions of bags from finding their way into landfill or oceans.

But what is and isn’t being phased out? What are the alternatives, and how effective will the policy be?

The bans
On 20 June, Woolworths will ban all single-use plastic bags from stores nationwide, including the department store Big W and the liquor store BWS. Competitor Coles will follow suit on 30 June. It is estimated that each chain gives out 3.2bn bags a year.

At the same time, Queensland and WA will ban bags from 1 July. South Australia, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania have already banned lightweight plastic bags.

New South Wales and Victoria have not, but the nationwide policy of Woolworths and Coles will mean the de facto removal of the bags from most consumers’ hands.

On Monday, Woolworths also announced it will be phasing out the sale of plastic straws. By 1 November, no stores will stock them.

What are the alternatives?
Instead of the free single-use bags, Woolworths will sell:

A 15c thick plastic reusable bag
A 99c canvas bag
A $2.49 chiller bag
Coles will sell:

A 15c thick plastic reusable bag
A $1 plastic mix tote bag
A $2 plastic mix shoulder bag
A $2.50 chiller bag
A $3 bag made of jute, a vegetable fibre
But the best thing to do is still to bring your own bags – preferably made of canvas or another non-plastic material.

Because the 15c bags are thicker than the old bags, environment groups warn they could cause more damage if customers start buying them but still throw them out.

When ordering online, customers will be given the choice of the thick plastic bags, or crates to be unpacked at home.

Some independent grocers, such as Harris Farm Markets, have already phased out plastic bags. Harris Farm provides customers with either a cardboard box or crate, or with a paper bag.

What else needs to be done?

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Jayne Paramor, the deputy director of the environmental group Boomerang Alliance, said the ban was in many ways inevitable.

“Ultimately [the chains] have done something that most of the state governments in this country have already done. They didn’t have much choice. The rest of the country was going down that path anyway,” she said.

According to Boomerang Alliance, the next step is to cut down on plastic packaging on food itself, and making sure consumers remember to reuse the new bags.

Tasmania and the ACT have commissioned reviews of bag use, after worries that customers had begun throwing out the thicker bags. Paramor says the UK has observed the same phenomenon.

“I think there has been some creep back on people relying on the fact they can just buy a bag at the shop,” she said.

There has also been no ban yet on produce bags – used to gather loose fruit and vegetables – but Coles has announced its produce bags will soon be made of 30% recycled content.

They have also committed to cutting down the plastic packaging for fruits like bananas, and Woolworths is trialling the removal of packaging from 80 lines of produce.

Both chains will also provide special bins for customers to throw out the new reusable bags if needed, through a program called REDcycle, which turns the bags into plastic products like outdoor furniture. The REDcycle bins will be rolled out to every Woolworths and Coles store by July.

A Coles spokeswoman also said the chain would encourage customers to “bring their bags back every time they shop”.

What about the bins?
For those who reuse their plastic bags as bin liners, there are other alternatives.

Paramor recommends people use paper or newspaper to line their bins, or to simply use the plastic bins and rinse them out afterwards.

A 2012 South Australian review found that after the bag ban, the percentage of households buying bin liners increased. But Paramor said even this was better for the environment.

“They are a better option,” she said. “We use far less in the way of bin bags than shopping bags. And bin bags are also built for purpose – they are put into the waste stream and do actually go to the right place, which is landfill. Shopping bags disappear out into the environment.

“At the end of the day we’re still keen to see more commitment to recycled content in packaging, and that’s an area that the supermarkets could make an impact by demanding more of their own supply chain.”

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