Australia plans to halve use of plastic carrier bags

The Australian Government has announced that it plans to half the country's consumption of seven billion plastic carrier bags per year over the next two years, reduce plastic bag litter by 75%, and substantially increase its rate of recycling the bags.

Businesses are being asked to voluntarily reach the targets by 2004, with interim targets throughout 2003, and to implement a code of practice for managing the carrier bag problem. The Government is hoping for 90% participation by retailers.

A number of legislative options are also being considered, including a plastic bag levy, such as that imposed in Ireland last year. The concept of a levy is “firmly on the table”, says Minister for Environment and Heritage Dr David Kemp.

“The plastic bags problem is first and foremost a problem of litter,” said Dr Kemp. He noted that the challenge is not the 6.9 billion bags used every year, but the 50-80 million that end up as litter.

Plastic bags made from degradable material will also be considered, with AU$60,000 being given to research into the market and their environmental potential. The Government also says that it intends to develop standards for degradable bags.

Plastic bags make up around 2% of Australian litter, with 40% coming from waste management practices, and 60% from activities outside the home such as picnics, according to a recent study.

Dr Kemp believes that voluntary measures will be successful as Australians tend to respond well to recycling when they have the facilities to do it, he said. More than 85% of Australians have access to kerbside recycling, and recycle 72% of their newsprint, 65% of aluminium, nearly half of household glass waste, and 16% of plastic waste.

Australia joints a number of other countries that are taking action against plastic carrier bags. In 2001, the South African government announced that as of January 2003, it would ban plastic bags with a thickness of less than 80 micrometers. The South African environment minister stated that carrier bags littering the landscape were competing with the protea as the country’s national flower. Since then, in September 2002, Environment Minister Valli Moosa signed an agreement with the unions and the plastics industry to introduce in May this year a rule banning bags less than 30 micrometers thick, with no printing on them, ensuring that they have a recycling value. It is thought there will be a small cost to consumers.

A month later, the Bangladesh government banned plastic carrier bags in the capital city Dhaka because of their role in blocking water courses and encouraging water borne diseases.

In the UK, a supermarket recently started using a biodegradable plastic bag.

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