There are two main types of plastic bags in use in Australia in the retail sector. These are the ‘singlet’ type bag made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and the boutique style bag, made of low density polyethylene (LDPE). The HDPE singlet bag is usually non-branded, and used mainly in supermarkets, take-away food and produce outlets. The LDPE boutique bags tend to be branded and are used by stores selling higher value goods.
Approximately 6.9 billion new plastic bags are used by consumers each year. Around 6 billion of these are HDPE and 900 million are LDPE bags. 53 per cent are obtained from supermarkets, with the remaining 47 per cent from other retailers. The plastic used in these two forms of plastic bags equates to roughly two per cent (or over 36,850 tonnes) of total plastics produced in Australia each year.
The problem with plastic bags include: littering and associated indiscriminate waste disposal and consumer behaviour; resource consumption issues, including reduction, reuse and recycling; plastic degradability issues relating to littering and resource use; and social issues, community education and awareness, and consumer perceptions.
An analysis of overseas approaches to mitigating the problem of plastic bags indicates that there are two main approaches. One is to reduce the amount of plastic bags used in the first place, with initiatives aimed at consumers. The Irish plastic bag levy is an example of this. The second method is aimed at the post-consumer stage, using initiatives to improve plastic bag collection and recycling facilities.
Nine different options to deal with the impact of plastic bags in Australia are canvassed. These include: retailers’ code of practice; kerbside recycling; litter education; the introduction of biodegradable bags; the introduction of plastic bag levies, and a ban on certain types of plastic bags.
The Environment Protection and Heritage Council has agreed to ask industry and the community to cut plastic bag litter by 75 per cent by the end of 2004. The following four short term actions were also agreed: government to develop legislative options, including a possible plastic bag levy and ban on plastic bags; retailers to develop and implement a strong National Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Retail Carry Bags by April 2003, which includes targets for recycling and reductions in bag use.
The Environment Protection and Heritage Council approved the Australian Retailers Association Code of Practice, but noted that if the Code is not implemented and / or targets not reached, Ministers will again look at implementing mandatory measures. Ministers also indicated their support for phasing out light weight single use carry bags containing HDPE within five years. In March 2004 Premier Carr was reported as saying that he will soon force supermarkets to charge for plastic bags or ban them altogether.