Woolworths announced a nationwide ban of single-use plastic bags in their stores on Friday, phasing them out by mid-2018 and encouraging customers to pick up reusable bags instead.
The decision prompted competitor Coles to do the same just two hours later, announcing it would also phase out the bags over the next 12 months.
What will I use now?
The single-use plastic bags will be replaced with reusable fabric bags or thicker plastic bags already available for purchase at Coles and Woolworths checkouts.
Some Woolworths stores, such as Dan Murphy’s and Cellarmasters, are already single-use plastic bag free.
German supermarket chain Aldi has never provided single-use plastic bags at the checkout since opening in Australia in 2001, asking customers to buy a bag at the checkout, bring their own, or go without.
A 2010 CHOICE online reader survey found 62 per cent of respondents already take reusable bags to the supermarket
Why the change?
The decision from the major supermarket retailers comes amid growing public pressure to address the issue of plastic bags use in the country.
The social media campaign, "ban the bag" has been signed by more that 160,000 people nationwide, and calls on the premiers of NSW, Victoria and Western Australia to introduce state-wide bans of single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags.
Currently, the ACT, South Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania have introduced bans on plastic bag use. Queensland has plans in place to do the same next year.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton welcomed the retailers' decision, but declined to say whether the NSW government would now implement a statewide ban of single-use bags.
What is the environmental impact?
It is estimated that Australian use about 4billion single-use plastic bags per year. Clean Up Australia estimates around 50 million plastic bags end up in our waterways and oceans.
Clean Up Australia also warns that plastic bags don't go away, they simply break up into smaller pieces of plastic, making them much more likely to be eaten by wildlife.
Plastic bags are recyclable. Reusing single use plastic bags as bin liners mean that they end up in municipal waste streams, and as a result, never recycled.
Plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources such as crude oil, gas and coal. If plastic is not recycled, this embodied energy is lost from the resource chain.
Plastic bags, including thicker reusable plastic bags sold at supermarket checkouts, can be recycled at supermarkets.
How effective are green bags?
Green bags, or polypropylene bags, are the fabric-feel bags sold at supermarket checkouts.
In a study commissioned by Woolworths, the Sustainable Packaging Alliance found a polypropylene bag needed to be used 104 times to have a lower environment impact than a single-use plastic bag.
This means shoppers need to use a green bag once a week for two years before it can offset the environmental impact of a single use plastic bag.
A green bag used once a week for only one year is worse for the environment than a single-use plastic bag.
Green bags are typically made from non-woven polypropylene, a non-biodegradable byproduct of oil refining. In 2009, CHOICE found that many of these polypropylene bags were still ending up in landfill.
What about biodegradable plastic bags?
There is currently no national standard to verify whether plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable actually break down.
According to Sustainability Victoria, even if biodegradable bags break down, it is unknown what is left over after the biodegradation process.
Producing biodegradable bags still requires similar energy, water and resources as regular single use plastic bags.
Have bags been banned abroad?
According to CHOICE, Bangladesh was the first country to bring in a bag of polyethylene bags in 2002.
In the same year, Ireland introduced a nation-wide levy to discourage plastic bag use.
It is estimated that China saved 1.6 million tonnes of oil the year after the country introduced a plastic bag ban in 2008. China is the largest country to ban plastic bags.
What do Bega shoppers think?
“Plastic bags do terrible things to the oceans, people can be so careless with them. One time I went to South Australia and they had no plastic bags, since then I always bring my own shopping bags.”
- Faye, Bega
“I usually bring my reusable bags, but I do reuse the plastic shopping bags for bin liners, they are helpful for that. But it is easy enough to buy bin liners in the store too.”
- Renate, Wandella
“If everyone did their bit we wouldn’t have to ban the plastic bags. They’re handy to have around the house. It would be good if we could have both, and everyone only picked them up when they needed them.”
- Brad, Bega
“I use my reusable bags until I run out of plastic shopping bags at home, then I’ll do a shop with plastic bags to restock. I need the plastic bags for my bins and picking up after my dog. I think it will be hard for people to remember their reusable bags all of the time.”
- Trish, Bega
“I could adapt and buy degradable bags for my bins at home. They’re a problem because it’s damaging the environment for kids and their future kids. It should be an easy transition for shoppers.”
- Tim, Tanja
“I think the ban is fantastic. It’s about making a mindshift and remembering your bags. If you keep them in the car they are easier to remember. They should put signs reminding customers to bring their bags at the front of the stores too.”
- Bronwyn, Bega