Plastic Bags and the Art of Looking Busy

Rees Steel

For four decades they’ve been one of the most prominent symbols of environmental degradation. Blamed for killing marine life, polluting landscapes, even contributing to Bangladesh’s catastrophic floods, plastic shopping bags are a daily reminder of our dependence on disposable and petrochemical-derived modern convenience.

Photo by polandeze

Photo by polandeze

In those forty years, there have been repeated calls to tax, levy or outright ban plastic bags in Australia. Indeed, it would seem that banning the distribution of free plastic bags is a very straightforward, sensible and relatively simple step towards reducing the national waste and energy consumption.

It might help curtail additions to the estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic that float in every square mile of ocean; or reduce the four billion (or 20,100 tonnes of) plastic bags that currently end up in Australian landfill and litter every year. And although industry and government have made repeated promises, today there is still no national plan to phase out the plastic bag in Australia.

While countries like Ireland, Italy and South Africa have all long since moved on the issue, our inaction is an embarrassing failure which can be attributed to a spectacular, though familiar, oxymoron: self-regulation.

The last 15 years of plastic bag policy have consisted almost entirely of retailers and packaging manufacturers enacting various ‘voluntary guidelines’ in order to keep government regulators at bay. And governments have been content to allow these failed schemes to pass for regulation.

As early as October 1995, Coles supermarkets introduced checkout bag recycling bins in all stores, recycling over 1600 tonnes of plastic. It was the same year that a report on Australia’s Marine Environment highlighted the significant impact of land-originating litter, including plastic bags, on ocean environments.

Since then, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has been the primary voice against regulating plastic bags in this country. The ARA first launched its Voluntary Code of Practice for plastic bag management in Victoria in December 1997. The guidelines included asking customers with fewer items whether they needed a bag, training staff to fill bags correctly and monitoring the number of plastic bags used, in an effort to reduce overall usage. The voluntary code wasn’t launched nationally until in 2001, an exhaustive four years later, and even then only covered 10 percent of retailers.

By 2002, however, the retail industry’s own data revealed that the voluntary code didn’t work. The figures showed that the average number of items in a bag had dropped, and so too had the sales of reusable bags.

Politicians weren’t happy. Federal Environment Minister David Kemp threatened a tax on plastic bags. Victorian Premier Steve Bracks proposed a levy. A subsequent independent report reported high levels of community concern. Confronted with a tide of outrage, state and federal governments agreed that retailers should halve plastic bag use by 2004.

The problem was, and still is, that these targets are still entirely voluntary. The industry ignored the 50 percent target, despite the Victorian Government’s further threats to impose a levy. In fact, by 2003, the target date was pushed back to 2005. It soon became obvious that retailers weren’t meeting expectations.

Thus began a trend that has endured since – empty threats by the government prompt the retail sector to flutter its hands in mock fear and feign compliance.

The ABC’s Four Corners reported in 2003 on this powerful retail and packaging lobby, dubbed ‘The Waste Club’, which had fought against bottle refund schemes in South Australia as well as plastic bag bans.

The scrutiny raised some serious questions, but the Australian Retailer’s Association pointed to their voluntary code as proof of ongoing efforts, and simply reiterated its long-held stance that littering is the responsibility of consumers, not retailers.

But the ARA’s own figures from July 2004 would show only a 39 percent reduction in bag usage among code participants; a figure dismissed as misleading by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

By the time the Federal Government got around to releasing a report in 2006 that showed the code had failed, the Productivity Commission had already released findings that outright dismissed plastic bags as an environmental problem worth fixing.

Again and again, in all its forms, plastic bag regulation was deflected, diffused or simply abandoned. A cursory glance at plastic bag policy announcements makes for a damning role-call of empty rhetoric.

In mid-2004, NSW Premier Bob Carr said his government would ban or impose charges on plastic bags, even if other states wouldn’t. Days later, Mark Latham said that federal Labor would ban plastic bags outright by the end of 2007. Both soon baulked.

In 2005, 12 retail chains, including Coles, Kmart and Safeway proposed to phase out plastic bags by the end of 2008. By June 2009, only Target had banned the bag, reportedly to the chagrin of other retailers.

Before the 2006 state election, the Victorian Labor Government announced an end to plastic bags by 2009 – it is yet to eventuate.

In 2007, Peter Garrett described the Federal Opposition’s approach to plastic bags as ‘timid’ when he stepped into his role as Environment Minister. During the election he had promised a national levy or ban by the end of 2008. Since then, Garrett has flatly ruled out both levies and checkout charges, and isn’t talking quite as tough about bans.

This sorry string of examples reflects the attitude of previous and current governments, who seem to labour under the impression that proposing arbitrary target dates constitutes environmental policy. Knee-jerk reactions have ensured that both government and industry have successfully weathered the environmental news cycles, and allowed the plastic bag issue to fall conveniently off the agenda.

One sign that the plastic bag issue had become another casualty of ‘green fatigue’ was this May, when the country’s major environmental advocacy groups, Planet Ark, Greenpeace and Clean Up Australia, all refused to even comment to journalists on the issue, ostensibly preferring to focus on campaigns which they thought might actually succeed.

Garrett’s current excuse that a national charge on plastic bags would “impose additional burdens on Australian families who are already feeling the pressure” is one that doesn’t even wash with changing public sentiment.

Recent surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Australians are in favour of controlling plastic bags, even those consumers who regularly use them.

It was a similar argument given by Stan Moore, CEO of the Australian Retailers’ Association, when he was interviewed by ABC’s Four Corners in 2003. It wasn’t convincing then, and it certainly isn’t now.

And while South Australia managed to successfully ban plastic bags last month, apparently without plunging retailers or families into abject poverty, the rest of us seem to be a long way from seeing a resolution.

In the meantime, it’s fair to assume that both government and industry will continue to do what they’ve done so successfully for years – look busy.


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UK Update August 2009

Plastic bags line landfills

Plastic bags line landfills - Photo: Tracey Saxby

Emma Godfrey


One year ahead of the UK government deadline for tangible reductions in plastic bag consumption, the government anti-waste body, Wrap (Waste and Resources Programme) reports hopeful figures.

The number of plastic bags used has fallen by 48%. That means that in May 2009 450m plastic bags are now distributed, where previously 870m were in May 2006. The target was to reduce them by 50%, all things considered a shortfall of 2% seems bearable, Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, was pleased.

But other parties are less impressed. The Welsh government is unconvinced by the laissez faire approach.

The Welsh government has decided it cannot rely on consumers to heed their advice. Instead, it has taken the decisive step to ban free plastic bags using a clause in last year’s Climate Change Bill allowing devolved governments to outlaw free bags.

Digging around the reported figures suggests they might be on to something. The Times reported that Tesco’s figures had not been calculated following Wrap’s recommended strategy. They had been “adjusted to account for growth”. The upshot is that the reported figure was lower by some unknown quantity.

This exposes the core conflict in the story of plastic bag legislation; the supermarkets would rather the government mind its own business and leave retail business to them.

Once the government start to regulate plastic bags, they could start wanting to get involved in all sorts of packaging issues where the supermarkets would prefer to be their own boss.

Indeed, the retailers took various approaches; Sainsburys moved bags further away, Tesco awarded loyalty points for re-using bags, and Marks and Spencer charge 5p per bag (and have made faster progress than their rivals).

The disagreement doesn’t end there. In fact it doesn’t even start there. The targeting of plastic bags, as opposed to other plastic goodies, has had its fair share of bashing from environmentalists. The South Gloucester District Council conducted research that found Clingfilm produces 5% more waste than plastic bags.

However, even those who are unconvinced that a plastic bag purge holds the key to improving consumers’ environmental consciousness cannot deny that reducing plastic bag use is a symbolic step in the right direction.

The question is what route to take. The one that leaves each to their own? Or the one laid down by the government? In any case, we should avoid the primrose path of dalliance.


Emma Godfrey filed this report  while on exchange at the University of Technology Sydney as part of the program for the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism and Media within Globalisation.

Mundus Journalism -

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For turtles, a sea of troubles

Plastic bags are taking a terrible toll on marine animals, especially the endangered leatherback turtle, writes Alex McDonald


Plastic grocery bags are not the only throwaway items threatening marine wildlife. Limpus says fragmented containers, fine plastic film or wrapping, and other plastic materials pose an even greater risk to open ocean turtles such as leatherbacks.

Leatherbacks are under constant threat from man-made waste

Leatherbacks are under constant threat from man-made waste - Photo courtesy of Ron Prendergast, Melbourne Zoo

Such unusual sights are becoming more common. US turtle researcher George Shillinger from Stanford University has blogged about a phenomenon where “the tons of plastic that’s dumped into the oceans ends up concentrating in giant eddys the size of football fields”.

Avoiding plastic waste is becoming harder for species that inhabit the world’s oceans, with strong currents dragging a mass of plastic debris with them.

He should know. Turtles are one marine species doing it particularly tough. Sights such as a sick leatherback turtle defecating a grocery bag on the Costa Rican shoreline are becoming more common. Researchers have long believed leatherbacks, which were added to Australia’s threatened species list earlier this year, mistake the bags for floating prey such as jellyfish.

Most of the open ocean turtles that wash up on the east coast of Australia have ingested some form of plastic. Two Queensland scientists published research last July looking at the stomach contents of 55 post-hatchling green and loggerhead sea turtles from the south-western Pacific. “They’re only months old and they’re already taking on plastic loads,” says one of them, Dr Colin Limpus, an expert in turtle conservation with the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency.

Those that live closer to land, he says, are less susceptible to the vast swathes of plastic waste hitching a ride on the east Australian current. Turtles in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, for instance, are cut off from the east coast current, so are less likely to die from ingesting plastic.

Limpus says that like a leatherback’s own global journey, most of the plastic found off the Australian coast originally came from somewhere else. “And whatever’s going out from the Queensland and NSW rivers is going out to join it, and continuing to circulate out in the open ocean.”

He, too, has heard of the giant “trash heaps” in the North Pacific, Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans. He also sees plenty of examples of man-made debris closer to home.

“Go and walk on the beaches on the Gulf of Carpentaria after a cyclone,” he says. “Look at all the junk and plastic debris that floats in on the beaches of the western Cape York Peninsula. That’s coming out of the coastal areas of West Papua and Indonesia. It’s not plastic bags. It’s bottles and other containers. It’s baskets and bins, you name it, and all the fragmented stuff.”


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Plastic bag survey from the streets of London

Piccadilly Circus in London - a shopping destination

Piccadilly Circus in London - a shopping destination // Ian Britton

What would be the best way to see if Wrap’s target is achievable?

To go out and see for yourself. In mid-June, 18 grocery stores were visited and 866 people were observed. The total number of plastic bags given out was 1489 and the corresponding number of alternatives was 810. Taking these numbers into consideration means the ratio is nearly two new plastic bags for every other type of bag or 1.7 plastic bags per head.

Ruth Grover, 51, had about six re-usable cotton bags and no plastic bags.

She said, “I use my own bags because of the environment. It’s a good idea for supermarkets to charge because it means less people will be willing to use so many bags. The bags I carry are also much easier to carry; your fingers don’t hurt from the plastic pressing against your skin.”

However, some were less keen.

Dean Danso, an 18-year-old student from Brixton Hill never brings his own bags.

“I think it’s ridiculous because bags were free and there wasn’t a limit,” said Danso.

A 3o-year-old travel agent told us, “I rarely plan my shopping trips. It’s normally after I finish work or a quick dash out so I never take anything else with me.”

So at least for this shopper, if he is going to go green then it will take a change in his options once he gets there.


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Plastic VS paper

Agreement is hard to find when comparing the environmental effects of paper and plastic bags. To a varying extent, both are heavy users of natural resources in the manufacturing and recycling processes, both cause pollution and both produce landfill. It is a matter of degree which is the least harmful.

Ultimately, it comes down to energy use and the production of waste, both of which involve complex global calculations.

Here are some websites that comprehensively discuss the pros and cons of both.

What follows is some of their key points:

Plastics take up less landfill than paper bags. According to one estimate, plastics comprise 18% of waste by volume and 7% by weight. If plastic was replaced by other materials, “rubbish weight would increase by 150%, packaging would weigh 300% more and energy consumed by the industry would increase by 100%”. Comparatively, plastic bags require less energy to produce.

Paper is easily and regularly recycled. It is biodegradable, rather than photodegradable, and can be used in compost, for instance. Stray plastic bags litter the planet’s land and waters. Estimates vary on how long it takes for plastic to fully break down, with figures ranging from 400 to 1000 years. In the absence of empirical evidence, it seems any plastic ever manufactured still exists either in its original or reconstituted form. In other words, it never completely returns to the earth.

So-called biodegradable plastic is in fact typically made from wood fibres mixed with plastic, meaning only the organic material degrades. It is argued that this leaves millions of tiny plastic fragments to mix in with the soil, enter the food chain and end up on our plates, with unpredictable effects on human health.

Although plastics do not biodegrade, modern landfills are designed in such a way that nothing biodegrades, because the waste is isolated from air and water in order to prevent groundwater contamination and air pollution.

In both cases, the manufacturing process creates pollution and waste products. The inks and additives found in plastic can create dioxins when burned and create toxic substances that need to be disposed of in special waste dumps. Paper manufacture requires vast amounts of wood chips and water. Depending on the process employed, chemicals used can include sodium hydroxide and calcium carbonate.


Manufacturers of both kinds of bags take steps to reuse waste materials and reduce pollution. For instance, some materials produced from plastics manufacture are used as fuel for energy; the paper industry says more and more manufacturers now use water-based inks

The machinery needed for felling trees and removing logs is a heavy user of fossil fuels. Also the creation of roads and destruction of habitat has a deleterious effect on wildlife. The fuel used in the transport of timber is a cause of emissions. It is estimated that it would take seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as can be moved by a single truck full of plastic bags.

Recycling, too, can make heavy demands on energy and water, and in the case of paper, particularly, may rely on the use of chemicals


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Focus on: environmental footprint of ‘green’ reusable bags

By Katherine McGrow


The ‘green bag’ is a type of reusable bag which was introduced into the Australian domestic retail market in 2002 as an alternative to single-use high-density polyethyline bags, and its use has grown rapidly. Evidence of this is a two-month survey conducted in 2008 for the Australian National Retailers Association and Sustainability Victoria, which reveals 98% of Victorians own at least one green bag; 24% own 1-5; 37% own 5-10; 25% own 10-20; and 12% own 20 or more.

Woolworths alone reported sales of almost 5.7 million reusable bags in 2007–08. Nevertheless, the overall number of such bags sold in Australia each year is hard to gauge due to limited Customs data and the many companies importing reusable bags.

The most commonly  used reusable green bags sold by supermarkets are made from non-woven polypropylene (NWPP), a type of plastic manufactured as a by-product of oil refining, and stitched with cotton thread. These can be recycled, but the cotton stitching cannot so they have to be unpicked by hand before they can be reused. They are recycled overseas for cost reasons.

There has been some debate, mainly in the media and among manufacturers of different types of reusable and biodegradable bags, about the “green-ness” of the NWPP bag. “It’s manufactured in China, shipped thousands of miles overseas, made with plastic and could take years to decompose … the reusable shopping bag,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. One unnamed manufacturer of ecojute bags says polypropylene requires about 28 times as much energy to produce as the plastic used in standard disposable bags and eight times as much as a paper sack.

It may be true that on a single-use basis, green bags are no more environmentally friendly than the standard supermarket plastic bag. But green bags are designed to be reused.

Several reports describing life cycle assessment (LCA) of shopping bag alternatives have been released in recent years, most of them based on the same modelling and broadly similar assumptions. Such analysis evaluates the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire life cycle. In the case of green bags, this includes production of the raw materials used in them, how the bags are made, how they are transported to retailers and how they are disposed of at the end of their life.

The yardstick used to measure this was a hypothetical household bringing about 70 grocery items home from a supermarket each week for 52 weeks. The analysis assumed the capacity of the green bag is 1.2 times that of a single-use HDPE bag and that each bag has a lifespan of 104 trips. It also assumed that at the end of their lives 99.5% of green bags would end up in landfill. (Unwanted green bags can be taken to plastic bag recycling bins at supermarkets, but this is not happening to any extent.)


The results suggested that reusable bags have a lower overall impact on the environment than either single-use HDPE bags or degradable polymer bags. Looking specifically at the bags’ carbon footprint, the study found an emission of 1.95 kilograms of carbon dioxide associated with green bag use compared with a carbon dioxide emission of 6.13 kilograms associated with HDPE bag use. If the assumptions made in this study hold true, the green bag is far better for the environment than the single-use plastic bag or any of the other alternatives tested.

But does the average person actually use each of their, in some cases plentiful, green bags 104 times? Jim Cooper, a spokesman for Coles Myer, gave a much lower estimate in an ABC report: “… Our understanding is the average consumer will probably use their bag 10 to a dozen times”. This was based only on anecdotal evidence, but accurate data on the usage and lifespan of the average green bag, like figures for the number of the bags in circulation, appear to be unavailable for now.

A later report (2007) was released by Hyder Consulting for Sustainability Victoria. This study differed in some of its specifications, such as including a transportation factor for NWPP bags (lacking in the RMIT analysis despite the fact that most, if not all, NWPP green bags are imported), but also concluded reusable bags have less of an environmental impact than all single-use bags.

It calculated that a switch from single-use HDPE shopping bags to reusable green bags would mean a per household saving of six kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions, 190 megajoules of energy and seven litres of water. If every Australian household made the same switch, it would mean a saving of 24,100 tonnes of waste (equivalent of 2200 garbage trucks), more than 42,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to taking more than 9800 Victorian cars off the road for a year), 1.4 million gigajoules of energy (equivalent to powering 22,600 Victorian homes for a year) and 50,000 kilolitres of water (equivalent to the water used by 210 Victorian homes for a year). Of course, there’s a long way to go before we come anywhere close to this.

Related links and references

Hyder Consulting, Plastic Retail Carry Bag Use 2006 and 2007 consumption, commissioned by Environmental Protection and Heritage Council, February 2008

KPMG, Trial of a Government and Industry Charge on Plastic Bags, for the Australian National Retailers Association and Sustainability Victoria, October 2008

Centre for Design at RMIT University, What is the life cycle of plastic and green bags, teachers’ resource 2008

Nolan-ITU Pty Ltd, Plastic shopping bags – Analysis of levies and environmental impacts, 2002

James K. Grant T. LCA of Degradable Plastic Bags, Centre for Design at RMIT University, 2005.

Hyder Consulting, Comparison of existing life cycle analysis of shopping bag alternatives, commissioned by Sustainability Victoria, April 2007

In depth: Levy reduces bags in Denmark

GEJI reporter on exchange from Denmark in Australia Jeppe Funder reports:

Levies on plastic bags lower usage dramatically. Need proof? Look no further than the Danish experience. A levy was introduced in 1993, when Danish consumers went through about 750 million bags per year. In 1995 the number was below 300 million, clearly showing the effect of the $5.80-per-kilogram levy introduced by the government. Continue reading In depth: Levy reduces bags in Denmark

Snapshot: Aarhus, Denmark

GEJI Australian exchange student Gemma Black reports from a Netto supermarket in central Aarhus, Denmark.

Netto is a budget Danish supermarket chain, owned by the Danish Supermarket Group (Dansk Supermarked Gruppen). There are 398 Netto stores in Denmark, as well as hundreds in Germany, England, Sweden and Poland.


Netto charges customers 3 kroner per plastic bag. Branded Netto plastic bags can be found beneath the checkout counter. This is standard practice among all large supermarket chains in Denmark (e.g. Kvickly, Lidl, Aldi, Fakta), none of which offer customers free plastic bags. This is as a result of the levy on plastic bags introduced by the government in 1994. But charging for plastic bags is not mandatory and many smaller stores still give them away.


A survey of 30 customers was conducted outside the Netto store in Gellerup, a district of Aarhus, Denmark’s second biggest city. Of the 30:

  • Eight bought new plastic bags (11 bags in all);
  • Seven reused old plastic bags;
  • Ten brought their own non-plastic bags. Of these, five used backpacks/satchels; three used canvas bags; and two used handbags – very small purchases;
  • Four used no bag at all, instead carrying small purchases by hand;
  • One used a plastic bag obtained free from a nearby shop.

The number of people not using a bag at all appears to be a direct result of passing the responsibility of bagging on to customers, who regularly take the most convenient and cost-effective option.


The futility of paying for an oversized plastic bag for just one or two items is illustrated when a customer has to consciously decide to buy the bag, even though the cost is negligible.  Contrast this with the situation in which the customer has to make a point of asking not to be given a plastic bag, which is often the case in supermarkets which do provide free plastic bags.


Nor is it only the added cost of using new plastic bags that encourages shoppers to bring their own. The entire experience of shopping in Denmark makes the environmentally friendly option more appealing. For example, the customer is under pressure to bag his or her goods as quickly as possible so as not slow down the shopper behind them. Having a bag ready therefore makes for an overall less stressful shopping experience.


Similarly, a seeming majority of shoppers, especially in the Netto Gellerup store (an area with a high student population) have travelled to and from the store either by bicycle or bus. It is much easier and more comfortable to use a backpack or material bag when travelling by means other than a car.



Age: 23


Residence: Brabrand


Occupation: Exchange student (from Salford University, UK).

Studying aeronautical engineering at the Engineering College of Aarhus. Bought one new plastic bag at Netto, Gellerup.


Do you usually buy bags or bring your own? I usually buy them.


Doesn’t the cost concern you? Yes, it does, but sometimes I prefer to buy bags, rather than carry one around with me at school all day. And sometimes I just forget. They don’t cost that much, but I guess it really depends on my financial condition.

Do you worry much about the environmental side of it? Not really. Actually, right now is the first time I have really considered the environmental side of it. I probably only ever use one bag a week, and maybe even less than that. And I usually have a lot of other things on my mind!


For more on how the  levy has reduced plastic bags, read Jeppe Funder’s report on Denmark.


Bag bans from Coles Bay to Mexico city to Bejing

Luke Hamblen

One is a sleepy tourist village; the other is a megapolis half a world away. While Coles Bay in Tasmania and Mexico City have little in common, they do share a determination to remove plastic bags from circulation once and for all.

In doing so they sow seeds of hope that a sustainable nationwide ban will be a reality in Australia sooner rather than later.

Last month in Mexico City, legislators approved a bill that will hit store owners or operators with one-and-a-half days in jail and fines of about $77,400 for giving customers plastic bags for their purchases. Businesses in the city of 8.8 million will have one year to switch to more suitable bags. Biodegradable plastic bags will be exempted, the International Herald Tribune reported.

While not as dramatic a measure, six years earlier Coles Bay became the first community in Australia to ban the use of plastic bags. The move’s supporters say this has resulted in 1.75 million fewer plastic bags ending up as landfill.

Jon Dee, who campaigned for the ban along with the 2005 Australian of the Year, Ben Kearney, said the ban had been a huge success.

Australian-made paper bags, as well as reusable bags, were offered to customers in place of the environmentally damaging plastic bags.

“The people of Coles Bay and the visitors have got into the habit of bringing their own bags because knowing free plastic bags are not available makes this a lot easier,” Dee says.

Local supermarket worker Jackie Smythe said there has been little problem with the policy once people adapted to it. “Everyone has just gotten used to it and it doesn’t really cause any trouble at all,” she says.

In New South Wales, the communities of Huskisson, Kangaroo Valley, Mogo and Oyster Bay have also outlawed plastic bags.

James Cavanagh, who works in a supermarket in Huskisson, on the state’s south coast, said business had not been hurt by the ban.

“After a while everyone just gets used to it and forgets that they ever used to get given plastic bags. We really do not need them,” he says.

Clean Up Australia chairman Ian Kiernan said these communities had used their initiative and set an example for the rest of Australia.

“Communities across Australia have already taken the lead by banning plastic bags in their own towns and suburbs,” Kiernan says.

While the success of the ban in these towns is a positive step, the success of bans in much larger cities suggests a ban would do Australia no harm.

Despite having a reputation of not being the most environmentally conscious of countries as its economy leaps forward, China banned ultra-light plastic bags in 2008.

Intended to clean up the streets as China prepared to host the Olympic Games in 2008, the ban remains in force.

Kiernan said the ban has further embarrassed Australia: “If China can ban plastic bags there is absolutely no reason Australia can’t.”

Further evidence that larger cities can handle bans is the prohibition enforced in San Francisco. The city, which has a population of roughly 809,000, banned plastic bags in 2007.

Mark Westlund, from the San Francisco environment department, said the ban has been a great success. “All of the grocery stores were in compliance even before the ban came into effect, and we have had virtually no complaints,” he says.

In a sign that the bans around the world have made an impression in Australia, South Australia has begun phasing out plastic bags.

The state’s Minister for Environment and Conservation, Jay Weatherill, is excited about the potential success of the phase-out.

“It may take a while for people to get used to the change but we believe it will be good for our environment and will confirm South Australia’s reputation as a leader on tackling environmental issues,” he says.

Other countries which have banned plastic bags include South Africa, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Bangladesh.

Countries such as Ireland have levied a heavy tax on the bags to discourage their use.

Country Report : Australia – Victoria

Victoria conducted a four-week plastic bag levy trial in three towns last year, resulting in a 79% drop in consumption over that period, says Sustainability Victoria.

A voluntary 10c charge was placed on plastic checkout bags from Coles, Bi-Lo, Safeway and IGA in Warrnambool, Wangaratta and in and around Fountain Gate.

More than $35,000 was raised, with the money going to local environmental projects.

According to a government-commissioned KPMG report into the trial results, 86% of consumers supported moves to reduce plastic bag use and 60% were happy to take part, believing they were helping a “good cause”. But 13% expressed concerns at the cost of the bags.

A report from the steering committee delivered to the Victorian Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Gavin Jennings, made some important recommendations for future trials or permanent levies.

“These include the duration of the trial in affecting long-term behaviour change, the potential impact on retailers and retailer employees, the impacts on service delivery, wider issues of community education on plastic bags and alternatives and information to bin liners,” the report says.

Following the trial results, state and territory environment ministers agreed that Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and the Northern Territory would develop a proposal for a national approach which builds on the voluntary efforts of supermarkets and the actions of various jurisdictions to reduce plastic bag usage this year.