By Emily Hay, April 3rd, 2018.

On July 1 st this year, Coles and Woolworths will cease handing out free plastic bags and will instead charge a levy of 15 cents per bag, for a thicker and stronger version, that can be reused. In a way, this is a win for the environment, because it is movement on an issue that has stagnated for years. The Federal Government is unwilling to tackle the problem, leaving state governments to make up the rules as best they can. To date, all the states except for New South Wales have a bag ban in place or are implementing one this year.

However, all the bans are for single use plastic bags only, and not for thicker plastic bags. The only difference on July 1 st will be that people will be charged for bags – this is a good thing – people are motivated by fines – and the bags will be much thicker.

But is this a good thing for the environment?

It is certainly a good thing for Coles and Woolworths, who not only will be seen to be proactive in the continuing plastic bag dilemma, but instead of handing out bags for free, will now charge for them, and make a profit. Win, win.

There are several likely outcomes for this move. Some people will become motivated by both the levy and the obviously thicker and therefore possibly not- good-for- the-environment plastic bags and buy a bunch of reusable bags. They are sorted.

Some people may decide to reuse the thicker plastic bags and get value for their 15 cent investment. But this will mean heading out to do the shopping whilst looking like a daggy Santa with a sack of bags who is a big fan of supermarkets – not a good look. And the bags are unlikely to last for more than 10 uses, if that. I predict that this group will fall on its sword the fastest, and simply keep buying more thick bags, occasionally remembering to reuse them. After all, at 15 cents a pop, if you use 10 bags at the supermarket, $1.50 out of the shopping budget is a small price to pay.

Some people just won’t care, and won’t think twice. As said, $1.50 is small fry.

And then there are the smug, annoying people such as myself, who use their reusable bags, the same ones they have been using for years. They happily do their shopping with their bags, cheerfully striding through the shopping centre with their colourful trolleys and come home plastic free (apart from unavoidable packaging). They feel good. They don’t even look superior anymore – that passed a long time ago. They just know that doing the right thing is actually quite easy and wonder why more Australians do not seem to ‘get it’.

According to research, experience and data collection in other countries – this new levy, thicker plastic bags and no single use ones will almost certainly have some success, and the supermarkets will crow with jubilation, likewise probably the Government will manage to take some credit. But long term, it is unlikely to work. In Ireland, the first country to bring in a levy, after initial success people went back to their old habits of using lots of plastic bags, and absorbed the 15 pence (22 cent) levy. In the US, when a 5 cent levy was introduced, 40% of people continued to use plastic bags. Also in the US, studies have shown that the thicker, reusable bags were simply thrown away.

I predict that in a few years, a good majority of people will be back to their old habits, and from July 1st thicker plastic bags will be entering the environment. Unless adequate, efficient, cost effective systems for recycling are set up, and especially now that China has shut the door to taking our rubbish, Australia will be dealing with a far bigger plastic bag problem than before.

So what will work?

Inevitably the Federal Government needs to take the lead, and ban all plastic bags, everywhere. This would be a drastic step, but it would certainly be effective. Alternatively, the government could legislate for a significantly higher than 15cents levy on plastic bags, thick and thin. Levies do work, and the higher they are, the more impact they have on people’s behaviours. A portion of the levy could be used to set up new recycling systems in Australia, combined with programs to educate the public, such as has been implemented in other countries. The profits of the sale of plastic bags could be channelled into achieving a far better outcome than what is currently on the table.

However given the current impasse in politics, from July 1 st , it appears that inevitably the supermarkets will be the winners, not the environment.

Woolworths’ new thicker reusable plastic bags that are to replace single-use plastic bags.

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