BOTH dominant supermarket conglomerates in Australia have announced they will move to phase out lightweight plastic bags by mid-2018, in a move welcomed by environmental activists.
Woolworths Group on Friday morning announced it was committed to stopping the use of plastic bags within the next 12 months. Later in the day, the company’s primary competitor Coles announced it would implement a similar ban.
The two retail giants operate supermarkets, alcohol retailers, petrol stations and department stores across the country and account for almost 70 percent of the groceries market in Australia.
A Roy Morgan Research survey in May 2017 found Woolworths and Coles received 35.7 and 33.2 percent, respectively, of the AUD90.3 billion (US$70.06 billion) Australians had spent at the supermarket checkout over the previous year.
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“As a group, we are committed to listening to our customers and also doing the right thing for the environment, and we feel this is an issue we need to take a stand on,” Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci said on Friday.
The supermarket will now urge shoppers to bring their own bags, otherwise charging 15 cents for a heavier, reusable plastic bag.
The company claims it hands out more than 3.2 billion lightweight plastic bags annually and promises it “continues to work hard to minimise our impact on the environment through the minimisation of food waste, ethical and sustainable sourcing, and reduction in energy use.”
“Our customers can also expect further commitments in reducing plastic use in all parts of our supply chain, especially in fruit and vegetables,” Banducci said.
Announcing the decision just hours after its competitor, Coles spokesman Simon McDowell said: “We’ve been working towards this announcement for some time now as part of our ongoing programme to improve environmental outcomes throughout our business.”
“We know customers like the convenience of single-use bags, so we’ll make sure we have plenty of other options for them if they forget to bring their own bags from home.”
Both supermarket chains had previously implemented plastic bag recycling bins at many of their outlets, with Coles rolling out the initiative in February 2013.
The Australian Retailers Association voluntarily introduced a Plastic Shopping Bag Code of Practice between 2003 and 2005 which encouraged the use of “green bags” and was reported to have reduced plastic bag usage by 45 percent.
‘Pivotal point’ for anti-plastics campaign
Environmental campaigners welcomed the decision on Friday, however, called for further action by Australian governments at the state and national level.
“We see this as a pivotal point in our campaign to ban limited use plastic bags here in Victoria and in Australia more generally,” Dale Martin from activist group Plastic Bag Free Victoria told Asian Correspondent via email.
“We are proud to be part of a huge community of concerned citizens who continued to campaign and demand our politicians to take action on the issues of single-use waste and plastic, and hope today is the start of wider awareness efforts to reduce our impact on the environment,” he said.
Environmental group Greenpeace Asia Pacific welcomed the decision, with campaigner Samantha Wockner saying it showed Woolworths “are serious about their responsibilities as one of Australia’s largest supermarket chains.”
— Greenpeace Aus Pac (@GreenpeaceAP) July 14, 2017
“It’s disappointing leadership on this issue has come from a large supermarket chain rather than from our politicians,” added Wockner’s statement, with Greenpeace calling upon Australia’s state and federal governments to follow suit.
“The overwhelming majority of Australians support a ban on single-use plastic bags – which are only used for minutes on average, but then take up to a thousand years to decompose. It’s time for us to ban the bag at every level.”
Television and change
The announcement by Woolworths and Coles comes just weeks after a popular TV programme called War on Waste was aired on public broadcaster the ABC.
Hosted by prominent comedian Craig Reucassel, the show aimed to spark debate around sustainability and waste management in Australia and was the network’s most-watched television programme in May.
A local Change.org petition calling for an end to wrapping small amounts of fruit and vegetables in plastic and styrofoam gained as many as 90,000 additional signatures after the airing of the show, reported the ABC.
Environmental NGO Planet Ark claimed after the programme was aired, there had been record demand for reusable coffee cups in Australia. KeepCup, for example, reported a 60 percent rise in local sales enquiries and a 205 percent spike in traffic to their website.
In an episode of the programme, Reucassel interviewed NGO Do Something founder Jon Dee, who claimed while reusable, heavy or “degradable” plastic bags are ultimately more damaging to the environment.
Surprising that Woolworths have gone it alone. Shows how ridiculously slow the governments of NSW, Vic and WA are. https://t.co/A4i8cit9Cq
— Craig Reucassel (@craigreucassel) July 14, 2017
Celebrating the plastic bag bans that Woolworths and Coles have announced today. I've campaigned on this for years! pic.twitter.com/izrs8fMpKf
— Jon Dee (JonDee.com) (@JonDeeOz) July 14, 2017
Nevertheless, both took to Twitter to praise the retail giants’ decision on Friday.
“I’ve been [doing research] in Sydney harbour for a number of weeks and found only one plastic bag,” Dr Mark Browne, a Senior Research Associate in Ecotoxicology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told Asian Correspondent on Friday.
Browne said he was concerned the move by Coles and Woolworths was potentially just “greenwashing” and a “wasted opportunity” to implement serious and effective environmental protection.
“The most abundant thing we’re finding [in the ocean] is clothing fibres,” he said. “In some ways, I think it’s good we’re having action. In other ways, I think it’s a wasted opportunity.”
“If they can’t get a hold of single-use bags, what are they going to use instead?”
Noting 15,000 new chemicals are developed every day and go onto the market, Browne said the government should have consulted scientists, rather than unqualified activists, on how to combat plastic and other forms of pollution.
Asked how to reduce the impact of textile fibres on marine ecosystems, he said, “We could quite easily make better clothing, put filters on washing machines and alter how we treat sewerage.”