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Plastic retail carry bag use 2002 – 2004 consumption

Final report
NOLAN-ITU Pty Ltd for the
Department of the Environment and Heritage, March 2005


2. Domestic production and import of bags

2.1 Domestic Production

Australian manufacturing of retail carry bags is limited to a small number of producers. Many of these manufacture small volumes of LDPE bags. The largest manufacturers of HDPE bags in Australia are Detmark and Andrew Kohn. Both manufacture a range of HDPE and LDPE bags for all retail sectors. Based on information from the leading manufacturers, the total 2004 Australian production of HDPE carry bags is estimated at 1.58 billion bags. A further 280 million LDPE carry bags are estimated to have been produced in Australia in 2004. This total local production of HDPE and LDPE bags during 2004 has been reduced from 2002 production by 0.40 billion bags.

Australian manufacturers have increased the level of recycled content in locally produced bags, including the use of recyclate sourced from recovered plastic carry bags. Their ability to utilise more recyclate is limited by competition for market share with imported bag manufacturers.

Table 2.1: Summary of Domestic HDPE Bag Production 2002 – 2004
Year No. of bags (billions)
2002 1.98
2003 1.75
2004 1.58

2.2 Bag Imports

The majority of the lightweight HDPE bags used in Australia are imported. The Australian Customs Service (ACS) records data on the import of all goods into Australia. Goods are classified under a series of product description codes, see Table 2.2. These codes have six levels of description in order to more accurately identify the import of specific product categories. The reference code 3923.21.00.25 is used to categorise the import of polyethylene shopping bags (excluding low-density polyethylene) not designed for permanent use. Most HDPE lightweight carry bags imported into Australia are classified under this description code. Likewise, reference code 3923.21.00.24 is used to categorise LDPE shopping bags not designed for permanent use.

It is also likely that some other bags are imported into Australia and classified under the code for HDPE shopping bags. Primarily this will include HDPE bags used for wrapping fruit and vegetables (produce bags). While some of these bags may be classified under a different code (3923.21.00.28), a survey of bag importers has shown that some classify produce bags under the same code as carry bags (3923.21.00.25). Therefore the volume of bags recorded under the relevant codes for shopping bags will be inflated due to the inclusion of some other retail packaging.

Table 2.2: ACS Plastic Bags Codes and Descriptions
ACS Reference Description
3923.21.00.24 Shopping Bags – LDPE
3923.21.00.25 Shopping Bags – HDPE
3923.21.00.26 Shopping Bags – other plastics
3923.21.00.27 Other Sacks – LDPE
3923.21.00.28 Other Sacks – HDPE
3923.21.00.29 Other Sacks – other plastics
3923.29.00.30 Other Sacks & Bags (excluding PE)

The data recorded by ACS is by weight rather than units. Therefore the data provided is in terms of total tonnes of shopping bags imported for both HDPE and LDPE plastic. The weight of bags varies based on bag size and wall thickness. HDPE bags vary in weight between 1.5 grams for small, very light weight bags (as used in $2 shops) through to 18 grams for large bags used in department stores for large items. The vast majority of bags are of a medium weight of between 5 and 7 grams. These are widely used in supermarkets and many other retail sectors.

In converting the ACS data from tonnes to bag units, an average weight of 5.5 grams/bag has been used for HDPE bags, this figure was confirmed by industry sources. In converting the LDPE bag data, an average weight of 18 grams has been used.

To allow for bags other than carry bags being classified in the shopping bag category (e.g. produce bags) the total weight of HDPE bags imported and recorded under the relevant code has been reduced by 25%. This is based on information from retailers of the likely usage of produce bags and an estimate of the percentage of these that will be included with shopping bags under the ACS code 3923.21.00.25. This is determined using the same method as used to generate the 2002 figures.

As a result, the estimated number of HDPE retail carry bags imported into Australia in 2004 is 3.16 billion. It is acknowledged that the accuracy of this estimate is closely linked to the bag weights of imported bags and the level of non-retail carry bag material included in the ACS categories. A sensitivity analysis has been carried out on the estimates of the level of non-retail carry bag material in the ACS categories and the results are provided in Appendix B.

Most importantly, the ACS data is recorded on a month by month basis each year. This enables a direct comparison with bag imports from previous years. A comparison of tonnes imported under the code 3923.21.00.25 (HDPE shopping bags) shows a decline in bag imports over the two years from 2002 to 2004 of 15.3%.

Table 2.3: Summary of Imported HDPE Bags 2002-2004
Year No. of bags (billions)
2002 3.97
2003 3.49
2004 3.16

2.3 Combined Trends in Local Bag Production and Import

The Australian market for lightweight HDPE retail carry bags is a combination of imported and locally produced bags. As outlined in Section 2.1, the total estimated sales of locally produced HDPE bags in 2004 were 1.58 billion units. This compares to estimated sales of locally manufactured bags in 2002 of 1.98 billion units, this is a decline of 20.4%. There is a view amongst some manufacturers that market share for Australian produced bags have declined recently with some shift in higher weight bags to the import market.

As outlined in Section 2.2, the total estimated sales of imported HDPE bags in 2004 were 3.16 units. This compares to estimated sales of imported HDPE bags in 2002 of 3.97 units.

The estimated 2004 sales of lightweight HDPE bags from both local and imported sources is therefore 4.73 billion bags. This compares to a 2002 estimate of 5.95 billion bags or a reduction of 20.4%.

It is noteworthy that despite the factors that could lead to variations in the estimates, application of the same method in 2002 and 2004 shows a clear downward trend in bag use. Further the similarity in estimated numbers of imported and domestically produced bags give confidence that the national reductions overall are close to 20%.

Table 2.4: Summary of Estimated HDPE Bag Usage in Australia 2002-2004
Year No. of bags (billions) Reduction from 2002
2002 5.95 -
2003 5.24 11.9%
2004 4.73 20.4%

The combined Australian usage of HDPE and LDPE bags is presented in Table 2.4 below.

Table 2.5: Summary of Estimated HDPE & LDPE Bag Usage in Australia 2002-2004
Year No. of bags (billions) Reduction from 2002
2002 6.92 -
2003 6.21 10.2%
2004 5.58 19.4%

The combined estimated saving in use of HDPE retail carry bags over the two year period is 1.93 billion bags, from 2002 baseline consumption. The total combined estimated saving in use for both HDPE and LDPE retail carry bags over both years is 2.05 billion bags.

Table 2.6: Changes in Average Use of HDPE Carry Bags (Number of Bags)
Year Per Capita Use Household Use
2002 303 789
2004 235 613