Plastic Shopping Bags (Waste Avoidance) Bill

11 Nov 2008 archivespeech

This speech indicates that the Liberal Party will not support the Plastic Shopping Bags (Waste Avoidance) Bill.

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 28 October 2008. Page 436.)


The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (16:24): I rise to indicate the Liberal Party's opposition to the bill and to place some comments on the record. There are developments that should give us cause to rethink these provisions. We will support the second reading but, if necessary, will call for a division at the third reading. I give that notice so that other members can make a firm decision on the way they feel about this measure, one way or another. This bill is a classic case of using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut. These single-use plastic bags are one of the most maligned but useful objects ever created and, whilst I agree that we ought to undertake measures to decrease their use, we think it is quite patronising of a government to declare that they must be outlawed and that South Australians will no longer be able to use them.

They are a very conspicuous part of the litter stream which is, I think, why they have been picked on and, yet, they are a very narrow part of the litter stream. As honourable members will be aware, it is fairly obvious that there are much more hazardous parts of the litter stream, such as ewaste, and there are parts of the litter stream which are much larger in volume. Indeed, there is some research which demonstrates that these particular bags (single-use bags) which are being banned may actually play some role in stabilising methane gases in landfill.

As a bit of background, this measure was announced by the government earlier this year and, initially, it was to take effect on 1 January next year. I think the government has wisely listened to the retail sector which said that, as it will be in the middle of the silly season, the government may not want to introduce major changes, because if retailers are to redefine their checkouts that would take place in the middle of December, which is clearly a peak time. I am pleased that the full ban will not commence until 4 May—if, indeed, this measure gets through.

This bill bans plastic shopping bags which are made of HDPE, have a thickness of less than 35 microns and must include handles. I have to say that this topic is one which startles people when you tell them what is actually being banned. These are the so-called barrier bags. It would not surprise me with particular products that people purchase at the moment (mostly meat products as people often do like to have a plastic bag) that there would need to be some sort of a substitute. Indeed, I think there will be a lot of substitution of the humble checkout bag as people will then need to purchase bin liners and so forth for hygiene reasons.

Looking at the history, in 2003 the Australian Retailers Association developed a code of practice with a commitment to reduce plastic bag usage by 50 per cent by the end of 2005. The target was not reached but plastic bag usage was reduced by 45 per cent, so it only fell shy by some 5 per cent. One would think that, once the voluntary measures have been extinguished, it is time to bring in other things—the stick approach, if you like. The Liberal Party's formal position is that it prefers a levy rather than an outright ban. Indeed, there are three options: the status quo, the levy, or an all-out ban.

We have heard much about injuries to wildlife which, obviously, is a huge concern. However, there are also issues that a lot of people in the community are not aware of: for example, the fact that the so-called biobags (which I note will be banned) actually break down into smaller pieces of plastic and are of greater concern because they can enter the food stream via leaching into watertables and the marine environment. I am pleased that they will not be exempt and, in any case, because of hygiene reasons, if they are going to break down then they are also hazardous.

The Liberal Party believes in choice. It does not believe that people should, in some blanket way, be banned from having a choice, particularly as there is much research showing that up to 80 per cent of these bags are reused. Indeed, there is a trial taking place in Victoria of a 10 per cent levy in three regions: Fountain Gate—which, of course, has been made famous by the television show Kath and Kim—Wangaratta and Warrnambool. A survey by KPMG has indicated that some 60 per cent of customers reuse their plastic bags as bin liners. That, of course, does not include people who might reuse them for other purposes. If I have not mentioned it here I have certainly mentioned to some of my colleagues that my sister's child-care centre is always asking parents to bring them in because they use them for the disposal of nappies.

The survey also showed that, of the customers who reused their bags as bin liners, 57 per cent expected to buy more bin liners as a result of the change. This trial has been an outstanding success with a reduction in plastic bag use of 79 per cent.

Other parts of the survey show that, during the 10 per cent levy trial, green bag sales rates increased by more than 50 times in week one, and then declined over the four-week period as customers began to reuse the green bags purchased in week one. The trial showed that plastic bag demand is highly elastic, with the 10 cent charge making customers re-evaluate their desire to use plastic bags. Of the customers surveyed, 99 per cent responded that they had tried to use reusable bags, with 70 per cent claiming they were able to maintain this practice and 87 per cent of customers indicating that they would use reusable bags if the 10 cent charge became permanent.

If these bags are banned, what is the alternative? Honourable members may recall that I raised a question with the then minister for environment about whether the government would mandate an alternative, particularly in relation to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association, which has reversed its previous opposition to the banning of plastic bags, mainly for occupational health and safety reasons. I think it is important that the alternatives should be explored by the government because of the practicality of the design of checkouts. I think it would provide some certainty and some indication to the retail industry about what it can expect and what it should be designing and beginning to implement, because it has not been given a very long period of time to make these changes.

I have been provided with a report by a consultancy by the name of Nolan ITU (now part of Hyder Consulting) dated December 2002, and it provides all these different options. The report makes for interesting reading, because the bags have different capacities. The current plastic bag, which is a single HDPE, has a relative capacity of one, which is six to eight items; the PP fibre, which is the 'green' bag, is 1.2, so it has 20 per cent capacity; and the calico-type bag has a further 10 per cent capacity. The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association has a concern that the greater capacity of the bags will mean additional weight for employees to lift.

The report, entitled 'Plastic Shopping Bags and Reusables—A Comparison', looks at some of the footprints of these various bags. The single HDPE has a greenhouse CO2 equivalent of 6.08, which is based on some 52 shopping trips a year; the biodegradable starch-based bag comes out at 6.61, which is higher; the paper bag comes out at 11.8; and the PP fibre green bag does very well in that it is 1.96.

One of the other ironies of the proposal is that the so-called boutique bags, which people would be familiar with as those bags used in department stores and so forth, will not be banned. These bags have a much thicker density and therefore do not fall within the ban, although they do have handles. If we compare these bags with the much maligned so-called single-use plastic bag (which is about six on this measure), those boutique bags, which really are single-use bags (I have cupboards stuffed full with them, and I never reuse them), are 29.8, which is five times the rate, yet those boutique bags are not being banned. I am quite happy to share this research with any of my colleagues who might be interested. All of this research and information really reinforces the claim we have made that this measure is merely targeting a fairly narrow part of the litter stream.
The study in Ireland has also been quoted and, before the research came out from Victoria, this was the latest research that had been quoted, going back to March 2002. Ireland introduced a levy of 15 eurocents and the reduction in use fell by some 90 per cent.

Not surprisingly, a number of business groups have expressed their opposition to this, in particular, Business SA, which believes that it will affect the state's competitiveness, will impact significantly on smaller retailers and will not reduce the overall level of waste produced by our community.

The Independent Supermarket Council of South Australia, while supporting a graduated introduction of a ban, has raised a number of concerns in relation to banning plastic bags, including health, hygiene and the eventual disposal of reusable green bags. The State Retailers Association has expressed similar concerns.

In short, we do not believe that the alternatives, which are the cornstarch bags, have been sufficiently available on the market to meet this ban by 1 January. They would really be the alternative that everybody would look to, but they are certainly much more expensive. There are concerns about hygiene, about occupational health and safety, and about the fact that this really is a rather tokenistic approach to the matter.

I would also like to share with honourable members the information that Target South Australia will actually introduce its own regime from 1 December 2008, which (surprise, surprise!) will mean that alternatives are available but at a cost. The compostable bags will cost 10¢, and then there will be a range of other bags ranging from $1 to $2.99.

A number of retailers, particularly organisations such as Bunnings, have demonstrated that they are prepared to get involved in reducing waste in response to community concern, but we do not think that plastic bags should be banned outright, and we will not support this bill.