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Giving up the plastic bag habit

Six months after the ‘plastic bag ban’ in Tasmania we are still buying them and using them, albeit not the disposable lightweight versions. Does the ban go far enough, or have we created a new ‘normal’ with heavier versions in the market?

While the light plastic bags have been banned, we continue to use a wide range of heavier plastic bags considered ‘reusable’ because they are more than 35 microns thick (ABC Local:Tim Walker)
Tasmanian director of Do Something Ben Kearney says it will take time for people to adapt to the plastic bag ban that was implemented in November 2013.
He is concerned, however, that six months after its introduction there are many small businesses that continue to give away the slightly heavier ‘reusable’ bags, therefore side-stepping the dissuasive element the ban intended.
“Overall, there is no doubt that the ban is having a positive effect on reducing the use of plastic shopping bags.
“We are seeing some retailers that are giving away those thicker bags and that is not really achieving the aims of the ban at all.”
Retailers are not required to charge for the new plastic bags.
They can choose to incorporate that cost into their prices for goods.
“When we pushed for the ban originally, all three political parties agreed to a ban of both the lightweight and thicker plastic bags, and then just shift to biodegradable bags.
“Ultimately when the Labor Party legislation came out it didn’t include a ban on the thicker, what you would call department store type bags.
“If they are giving them away to the customer there is no incentive for the customer to change their habits.”
The first town to ban
In 2003 Coles Bay became the first town in Australia to ban the plastic bag to address the problem of litter in the area.
Mr Kearney, then a bakery owner and president of the local tourism association, led the campaign, with retailers in the area adopting reusable paper bags and calico bags as alternatives.
In the intervening years he has continued to be involved in pushing for changes in state and federal legislation to limit the usage of plastic bags.
Biodegradable bags
One of the alternatives envisaged when getting the plastic bags banned was that biodegradable bags could replace those that persist in the environment for a long period of time.
Few retailers in Tasmania are supplying compostable biodegradable plastic shopping bags because they are more expensive for the equivalent durability.
According to the Tasmanian Government plastic bag ban information website, “plastic material claims to be biodegradable and compostable in Australia must comply with Australian Standard AS 4736-2006 and if requested, retailers providing these bags in Tasmania will need to be able to validate their compliance with the Standard by providing certification from the supplier/manufacturer.”
Retailers can also find information on the thickness of plastic required for the bag to be considered ‘reusable’.
No part of a reusable plastic shopping bag they provide can be less than 35 microns in thickness, or fines may apply.
While the thicker plastic bags are still cheaper than the biodegradable ones and the brown paper bag type, Mr Kearney acknowledges retailers will likely continue to use them.
The City of Fremantle has recently proposed a plastic bag ban that would set the thickness of plastic bags at 60 microns, which would make the biodegradable and paper ones cost competitive.
Moving forward
Ben Kearney is upbeat about what has been achieved, especially in terms of environmental outcomes.
“I’m still positive about it.
“There are some areas that are working perfectly well, and some areas that are less so.
“I think that you will find that the number of bags that are being used would have dropped considerably and from the point of view of the types of bags, the light weight bags particularly were harmful.
“I think there is certainly a case to question whether we shouldn’t go a bit further at some point.
“All three parties originally agreed to ban all plastic bags other than biodegradable ones and that is not what ultimately occurred.”