The Impact of Australian Supermarkets’ Single-use Plastic Bag Ban: One Year On

It has been a year since the two Australian supermarket giants, Woolworths and Coles, officially pledged to phase out free, lightweight, single-use plastic bags.

This ‘bag ban’ was set to extend to all Woolworths and Coles stores, petrol stations and liquor stores. Woolworths and Coles both pledged to ban single-use plastic bags at the store checkouts from July 1, replacing them with reusable bags for as little as 15c. Following this date, customers would need to either bring their own reusable bags or buy some at the checkout when purchasing their groceries. In 2018, Woolworths officially set the ‘bag ban’ date to after June 20; Coles’ bag ban commenced from July 1 onward.

The absence of free lightweight single-use plastic bags in supermarkets was not a new concept, even last year. Some stores and supermarket chains had already been charging for reusable shopping bags. Indeed, supermarket chain ALDI has never given away free plastic bags since it opened in Australia in 2001. ALDI has always offered reusable bags for purchase, for approximately the same fees as the reusable bags at both Woolworths and Coles.

For the many customers who were accustomed to ‘going bagless’ or bringing their own reusable bags when shopping, the transition towards reusable bags in these supermarket giants would have been seamless. But this was not the case for everyone.

This decision to ban single-use bags came after official announcements in 2017 and weeks of advertising leading up to July to announce the shift towards reusable bags in their stores. Despite this, Woolworths, and later Coles, faced backlash from disgruntled customers. Many customers, upset at suddenly being expected to pay their shopping bags, refused to pay. Supermarket employees faced the brunt of the customers’ frustration. Some of these incidents involved violence towards employees.

With ten extra days until their own ban commenced, Coles was able to view the early progress of Woolworths’ single-use plastic bag ban and predict the impacts of their own bag ban.

Following this backlash both Coles and Woolworths temporarily reversed their paid reusable bag policy and began offering the reusable plastic bags for free to assist customers in the transition towards reusable bags. This period of free reusable bags was set to terminate from August 1 onwards.

Woolworths terminated this period of free reusable bags at the stated date. Coles later reversed their own decision to recommence charging customers for the reusable bags, instead opting to give out the free, thicker reusable plastic bags “indefinitely”.

For this, Coles faced backlash from green and environmental communities who noted that these thicker reusable bags are much worse for the environment than the lightweight plastic bags were, if they are treated as free single-use bags. Finally on August 2, Coles announced they would once again be charging 15c for the reusable plastic bags from August 29.

The impact one year later

As of today, most state governments in Australia have banned single-use plastic bags or have plans to ban them. Only states in which single-use plastic bag bans were not already in effect were impacted by Coles’ and Woolworths’ phasing out of lightweight plastic bags. These states are Western Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales.

Prior to the single-use bag ban, Woolworths had been giving out approximately 3.2 billion lightweight single-use plastic bags. Woolworths have been actively reducing the amount of plastic waste in in-store packaging of their fruit, vegetable and bakery produce.

3 billion plastic bags have been phased out since we went plastic bag free”

Woolworths

Both Woolworths and Coles are still offering reusable bags at their checkouts and online for a small fee. Both stores also still offer free lightweight plastic bags in the fresh produce section of their supermarkets, although at Woolworths these bags are recyclable.

By December 2018, Australian plastic bag consumption had dropped by approximately 80%.  That’s an estimated 80% reduction within just three months. In New South Wales, Western Australia, and Victoria, this is largely a direct result of Woolworths’ and Coles’ decision to ban single-use plastic bags in stores.

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