Government report questions plastic bag recycling

By Craig Zammit 

SYDNEY: The Australian Government’s Productivity Commission today released a report claiming that costs involved in recycling and reducing the over six billion plastic bags used in retail stores annually may outweigh the benefits of the scheme.

The report claims that since July 2005, when state, territory and federal governments decided that by 2009 all high density polyethylene (HDPE) bags would be phased out, no cost-benefit analysis has been carried out, therefore raising questions to the validity of the venture.

HDPE bags are currently used by approximately 80 per cent of retailers in Australia with both Woolworths and Coles failing to meet their 50 per cent plastic bag reduction target at the end of last year.

Campbells’ Betta Electrical proprietor, Barry Campbell, believes that while most consumer electronics retailers tend to use fewer bags than supermarket chains, the principle should still be adhered to.

“The principle of using reusable cotton bags is really good and most people would agree with it, but in a practical sense it’s not as great. People often forget them at home or in the car and end up using a plastic bag anyway,” he said.

The commission believes that instead of spending money on reducing plastic bag consumption, tougher anti-litter laws with the possibility of heavier fines, may prove more effective.

However, if the plastic bag reduction programs currently in place are removed, retailers may have to foot the bill in order to continue the schemes at store level and therefore cover the costs of reusable cotton bags.

“If the retailer foots the bill for cotton bags then in the long term they will have to pass on the costs. Retailers wouldn’t be able to keep absorbing the costs, so in the end, the consumer would end up paying anyway,” said Campbell.

Campbell suggested that retailers look for other means to assist in plastic bag reduction.

“We don’t use cotton bags, but we do have brown paper bags as an option if a customer doesn’t want a plastic bag.”

As part of the report, the Productivity Commission also suggested that the use of plastic bags does not represent a serious threat to wildlife, and the key benefit to plastic bag reduction, that of reducing the ingestion and entanglement of marine wildlife, was to some extent, rubbish.

This was claimed despite well documented statistics which suggest plastic bags are responsible for the deaths of up to one million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals every year, with 50 to 80 million new plastic bags littering the Australian environment annually.

The report also stated however, that plastic bags may actually be beneficial and even assist the environmental impact in landfills due to their “stabilising qualities, leachate minimisation and minimising of greenhouse gas emissions.”

This comment however was in direct contradiction to the Productivity Commissions presiding Commissioner, Phillip Weickhardt who said “the Australian Government has shown that they are committed to recycling and minimising waste disposal to landfill.”

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