Do plastic bag bans work? We know the answer

THE South Australian ban on thin-plastic shopping bags nine years ago looked like an immediate success, as people started taking cloth bags to the supermarkets or reusing the thick-plastic bags Coles and Woolworths sold us as an alternative.

Suddenly, there were fewer shopping bags in the waste system. Trouble was that, just as suddenly, sales of thin-plastic bin liners went through the roof, so much so that now 80 per cent of SA households buy these, compared to 15 per cent before the ban on "single-use" bags we were actually using again.

Litter studies also showed a heavy fall in rates of light plastic found among other carelessly discarded rubbish in the years immediately after the ban's introduction, but by 2016 this had been wiped out. There was in fact a slightly greater representation of such material than there had been in 2008.

Meanwhile, SA shoppers were slowly reverting to old habits and treating the supermarkets' "reusable" thick-plastic bags just as they had the free bags of old, only paying out 15 cents per unit before throwing them away. Each of these bags costs the supermarkets about nine cents, so they actually became a nice little earner as shoppers returned and repeated the process.

A loophole in the ban legislation also allows retailers to give away plastic bags provided that plastic is more than 35 microns thick, which is why you still get them for nothing when shopping for clothes or household goods, and why they still turn up in landfill and litter.

Little wonder then that many South Australians will treat Woolworths' national rollout of its SA bag system yesterday with some cynicism. Interstate, where Woolies previously gave away thin-plastic bags for free, it may even be met with not-unreasonable suspicion, especially as many of the 3.2 billion bags it claims will be taken out of the waste system will simply be replaced by 15c bags, or hardier 99c "Bag for Good" versions, at shopper expense. Woolworths told The Advertiser yesterday that it's media team was too busy publicising the change in other states to be able to provide figures on its bag sales and resultant profits in SA, but people will do the math.

So, is this battle in the war on waste in fact a waste of time and money? Maybe even a bit of a scam? Anti-waste campaigners don't think so - they believe you first have to change the world before you can save it.

"It is a good entry point," says KESAB chief executive John Phillips. "It's showed people they have a role to play." Mr Phillips agrees that "the supermarkets haven't done too badly out of it" and knows the ban has far from solved the plastics problem, but he is encouraged by the way SA's move, considered bold at the time, changed public attitudes, even if those changes have slipped.

"It's been a mood swing across the community," he says. "It's just that the rest of the country is 10 years late."

That mood change is putting pressure on governments to better regulate waste and Woolworths, with Coles soon to follow, is actually just getting ahead of planned bag bans to be legislated by the states.

Their governments, and Canberra, face what many fear looms as a waste crisis through China's so-called "green sword" policy, which has now blocked the sale of recyclable plastics to that country for processing.

Jon Dee, a founder of the Planet Ark and DoSomething groups, says bans by retailers and the states are commendable, but that the Federal Government now needs to introduce a national ban of all free plastic shopping bags.

"In 2002, the Federal Government issued its first plans to stop the plastic bag problem," he says. "Since then, the DoSomething Foundation estimates that Australians have used over 100 billion plastic checkout bags."

"Too many plastic bags still end up in our waterways and oceans."