National Approach to Single-Use Plastic a Mixed Ba...

National Approach to Single-Use Plastic a Mixed Bag for Retailers

As the three biggest states consider banning single-use plastic bags, we are exploring what needs to be done.

There have been arguments on all sides for many years, but there’s no denying the momentum building towards banning certain plastic bags. South Australia was first to take the plunge in 2009, with Tasmania, Canberra and the Northern Territory following suit. Now New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria are working towards banning plastic bags – at least the flimsy, non-biodegradable grey or white ones used at supermarket checkouts and take-away food stores.

Changing consumer attitudes and behaviours isn’t always a fast, or straightforward, endeavour. As some well-known retailers have found out, even the most well intentioned proposals around bags can backfire. Some notable retailers have had some big successes in phasing out plastic bags, while others have tried and failed with attempts to charge for bags or use biodegradable bags. The fact remains that many customers are price-sensitive and value convenience.

Bans by government are a blunt policy response to most problems – the trick is always in the detail.

Bans are not usually applied to paper bags, bags made of compostable or biodegradable plastics, or heavier plastic bags typically used by clothing and department stores. Bans also should not be extended to plastics used for food health and hygiene purposes, such as barrier bags and those used in packaging bread, frozen foods, ice, fruit and vegetables. Consumers are usually permitted to reuse existing plastic bags after the ban takes effect.

With fines in some states reaching as high as $13,000, we are naturally keen to explore how governments can work with retailers to minimise the business impacts, as well as on how these plans will be conveyed to the industry and the public, including advertising and community awareness methods such as television, radio, online and print news, and social media.

We believe it’s important to ensure the changes won’t add further cost imposts to retailers – especially struggling small businesses. While many of the national chains already have solutions and processes to apply when bans are imposed, it’s the smaller shops like the local fish and chip or Chinese takeaway, the local chemist and the local bakery who need to know more about their options.

So it has been encouraging that governments have been approaching the NRA and inviting us to the table to ensure retailers’ views are taken into account as these plans are considered in the remaining states.

Other issues we are bringing to the table are considerations regarding national consistency, food safety risks involved with the use of reusable bags, consumers’ aversion to extra costs in lower income households, and the special considerations for Indigenous community stores and tourist operators close to the Great Barrier Reef and other environmental hotspots.

Phase-in periods would be expected, so if the time comes, we will ensure retailers are informed, so they will have had adequate time to prepare accordingly by ordering alternatives, having adequate signage, training staff and utilising their own communications channels to ensure as smooth a changeover as possible.

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