Plastic Bags

06 May 2008 questionsarchive

 I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for Environment and Conservation questions about the proposed plastic bag ban.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: A report of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employers Association's (dated February 2008 and commissioned by Zero Waste SA) contains a number of recommendations, including a very specific design for an alternative to the plastic bag, as follows: that the dimensions of the current green bag be retained; that the bag size of food supermarkets be limited to carry a maximum of 6 kg; and that the bag be made from firm strong woven material. The report also recommends that the bag have a strong material loop on one side to attach to a hook at the counter; a strong easily gripped handle for carrying; a firm rectangular base of 30 x 20 cm to sit on the stand for easier packing; and a height of 33 cm, with clear washing instructions attached to the reusable bag; insulated bags to have the same internal dimensions as a standard recycling bag; and a smaller version of the bag to be available for bottles and cans to allow for their weight. My questions to the minister are:

1.How much did this particular report cost, that is, how much was the grant to the SDA?

2.Is the minister confident that retailers will be ready to implement these changes by 1 January 2009?

3.Will the government mandate the design for the alternative bags, also known as reusable or green bags, to the South Australian public?

The Hon. G.E. GAGO (Minister for Environment and Conservation, Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Minister Assisting the Minister for Health) (14:27): I thank the honourable member for her most important questions. Indeed, the Rann Labor government has had a firm and longstanding commitment to the phasing out of free, single-use, lightweight plastic bags. In terms of national interest, South Australia tried to work through the appropriate inter-ministerial forum to see whether we could come up with a nationally consistent approach to the phasing out of these plastic bags, of which I remind people that we use almost 4 billion a year in Australia. Unfortunately, at the last meeting there was a wide range of different views from different jurisdictions, so we were unable to sign off on a nationally consistent approach. Given that we do not meet again until November, South Australia, to fulfil its commitment, announced that we would go it alone, that we would show the courage, leadership and fortitude necessary to rid ourselves of these most unnecessary plastic bags. In terms of the questions asked by the member and the report to which she refers, it was, indeed, commissioned and paid for by the South Australian government.

The SDA then managed the completion of the report. From memory—and I am happy to double-check this—I think it was a grant of $70,000 for the report, but, as I said, I am not absolutely sure about that; I think it was around that mark. I am happy to double-check that figure and, if it is something other than the $70,000, I will bring that back. The report was an important part of the government's strategy to ensure that the retail sector was, in fact, prepared for and had its mind around the potential for any occupational health and safety implications in relation to the phasing out of single-use plastic bags and their replacement with alternatives. Indeed, the report was very successful in identifying the potential for a range of areas that needed to be looked at, particularly by the retail sector, to ensure that their employees are employed in a way that their health and wellbeing is protected.

The report did identify a number of issues in the design of the check-out concerning the weight of bags and the potential to overload them, and also there were cleanliness issues around the bags. So, the retail sector will need to look at those and implement changes where appropriate. We will continue to work with industry to assist it, where appropriate, to ensure that it fulfils its obligations and that transition arrangements operate in a smooth way. I have forgotten the last part of the member's question, but I think it raised the issue of the replacement of single-use plastic bags with alternatives. The legislation for the banning of bags has not been completed yet, so the detail is still being worked through. I have just been advised that the report cost approximately $24,500, so I put that on the record. Retailers are being consulted with these new proposals, and I am confident that they will find ways to manage those important changes.

In relation to the bags, the legislation will seek to prohibit the use of the single-use, high density polyethylene plastic bags of anything lighter than, I think, 45 microns. That definition will be refined. It will leave way for alternative bags to be used, and a range of alternatives is available. Research shows that the bag that has the highest environmental footprint currently is this single-use, high density polyethylene bag. That has been identified to have the largest environmental footprint over and above other alternatives that we would commonly see here in Australia, such as what we know as the 'green bag'. The green bag is a thick plastic bag that has been identified as having—again, I cannot remember the exact number of years—a life of a number of years, compared with the thin plastic bag.

If I recall, I think it was five or six years, so it has quite a long life. It is made of a thicker plastic that is much more durable and has a much higher re-use rate than the single-use plastic bags. We know that because the single-use plastic bags are of such a poor integrity that they often end up torn and with holes in them. I am advised that the research indicates that only one in seven of those single-use plastic bags actually ends up as bin liners. So, although people do tend to re-use them, their re-use rate is much lower compared to other products such as the green bag. The green bag has a much higher reusable rate than the single-use plastic bags, which have a very low reuse rate. These are, obviously, much better environmentally. In fact, the research shows that most of the products on the market at the moment that are of a heavier density result in an increase in those articles being able to be reused, which has a significant impact on helping to reduce the environmental impact. Fundamentally, any reusable bag generally has a much lower environmental footprint than single-use bags. I believe that answers all the questions.