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Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon. Ian Campbell

Tuesday, 22 March, 2005

Launch of report into non-supermarket retailers' challenge to reduce plastic bags

John Dee, Planet Ark, Ian Kiernan, Clean UP Australia



Today we are going to do two things for the public, one is to launch a report that I commissioned in September last year which is a look at the use of the nasty little plastic bags in what is technically called non-supermarket retail outlets. We have announced the two audits of the use of plastic bags in the major supermarket outlets. They have shown substantial reductions, around about 27 percent. So we are well and truly on track to reach our targets which is to eliminate all plastic bags by 2008 and have a 50% reduction by the end of this year. We are ahead of the schedule in relation to that although we don't underestimate the challenge of getting to that 50% by the end of the year so today's announcement are the important part of that.

We commissioned Planet Ark in September to look at all of the other retail outlets so I think there are a 60% of the retail outlets outside the supermarkets, so you think of the service stations you go to or the delicatessen or the fruit shop or the newsagency, the pharmacy, all of the fast food outlets, make up a significant part of our daily lives and a lot of those predominantly use plastic bags because they are so simple and so cheap. So one of the biggest challenges is to transfer the success of the major retailers within Australia across to that non-supermarket retail outlets and we've identified anecdotally, as the Environment Minister who does seem to spend an enormous amount of time in these non-supermarket retail outlets around the country and talking to retailers, things like cost, things like the challenge of trying to buy large amounts of bags if you're just a little delicatessen, you've got a small turnover and a big overdraft. The challenge of buying these bags can be quite expensive for smaller retailers. So rather than just relying on my anecdotal experience, we asked Planet Ark to do some research to guide us on how we can spread the success of the major retailers into the smaller outlets and today we are also joined by Ian whose Clean Up Australia organisation with a number of partners is going to be launching the new phase of the "Say No to Plastic Bags" campaign today. It's the national launch today and already at the roundtable meeting which is having its second meeting today, we have identified the fact that making sure that consumers are aware is a great driver of getting plastic bag use down from the Commonwealth's point of view. We see the impact of plastic bags in the waste stream, we see the impact it has on marine life, we see impact it has on our pristine environment.

Ian has given us a story of hundreds of plastic bags going into the pristine Kimberley region of Western Australia. We've seen evidence of plastic bag ingestion by turtles and other whales and dolphins. We see it all around the coast, Ian told the meeting this morning that although we've had this success at the retail end, that on Clean Up Australia, the evidence was the number of plastic bags had actually gone up in the stream. I guess the ultimate judgement of our success is not going to be audited figures of retail bag use, it will ultimately be when Ian stands up in two or three years time and says we've beaten this thing, we've had a reduction in plastic bags out there on the beaches and that will be the real ultimate test. So all the work we do in the meantime, keeping consumer awareness up, working hard with small business in particular is a very important focus if we are to get ahead of this problem. So I think firstly I might turn across to John to quickly brief us on the details of his findings which we'll make available to all the media.


Thank you Minister, well the good news is that Australians have reduced plastic bag usage by 1.3 billion bags, that's a great result but unfortunately, we are still using 5 ½ billion plastic check out bags every single year. The supermarkets have achieved their reduction target of 25%, they have actually reduced plastic bag usage by nearly 27%. But unfortunately, our research shows that non-supermarket retail outlets are really failing when it comes to reducing plastic bag usage.

The majority of plastic bags in Australia now being given away are being given away by the non-supermarket retail outlets and unfortunately nearly half of the retailers that we question, the non-supermarket retailers were not aware that the Australian Retailers Association actually have a target to halve plastic bag use by the end of this year. So the research we've done shows that a lot more needs to be done to get the non-supermarket retail outlets and their customers doing the right thing by the environment. We found a great disparity in the approach to reducing plastic bag use in the non-supermarket retail sector, on the one hand the best results to date have come from non-supermarket retail outlets, Bunnings and Ikea have both started charging 10 cents for each plastic bag and giving that money away to charity.

Bunnings have reduced their plastic bag use by 73%, Ikea have reduced their usage by 85%. We've had such good feedback from customers that their biggest store in Homebush has actually banned plastic bags altogether. Outlets like Nando's have recently banned plastic bags in all their outlets. Some of the takeaway food sector like McDonalds, well they've never used plastic bags in their entire 30 years that they've been operating in Australia.

What we did find is that for every organisation like Bunnings that is doing a fantastic job, unfortunately their competitors like Mitre 10 are achieving very little in the way of plastic bag reduction. For all the good people like McDonalds, Red Rooster and Nando's who are achieving tremendous results in not using plastic bags, you do see people like KFC not doing enough to reduce plastic bag usage. So on that basis, if we are to achieve the 50% reduction in plastic bag use by the end of this year, we need to see a really big step by non-supermarket retailers towards reducing plastic bag use.


Thanks Jon and that's very much the focus of the roundtable is to cross-pollinate the success from one sector across to this non-supermarket retail sector. There is a lot challenges but this research can guide us in that. One of the things John's identified is the fact that a lot of these small business are simply not members of associations, so we have to get to them through potentially local government through shopping centre owners and managers and through initiatives such as Ian's which we'll turn over to. So could I just say I forgot to mention one thing today (coming out of) the Roundtable I am seeking agreement from all of the retail representatives to finalise a formal agreement, I've set a deadline of the finalisation of the agreement for the 22 of June, three months from today. We've got the 10 principles which we can provide to you, which we are seeking agreement on. There will certainly be some fine tuning, we want agreement finalisation by the 22 June and then we want a three month period for any retail and retail organisation in Australia to sign up. They will be entering in a formal agreement with the Commonwealth of Australia, the Australian Government on behalf of the people of Australia to basically get onto a roadmap towards zero plastic bag use, we will then publish both on the internet and from time to time in newspapers lists of all of the retailers who have signed this agreement, so the consumers will know when they go to their local shopping centre, exactly which retailers have signed up and have effectively entered into a covenant with the people of Australia through their government to get rid of plastic bags. Ian over to you.


Thank you Senator, well plastic bags we know are a real scourge, they are essentially petro-chemical, they are very durable, they are accumulative. That would be one of the reasons why we are seeing an actual increase in the number of plastic bags out there on Clean Up Australia day. I welcome the Planet Ark report.

We need to understand exactly where we are and this certainly helps us to do that. It's clear that because of the major commitment of the major supermarkets, we have collected as the Senator calls it - the low hanging fruit. To see a 27% reduction in the number of plastic bags consumed is most encouraging and to hear the supermarket say that they believe that believe that they are going to be able to reach or perhaps even exceed their 50% goal is again most encouraging.

We are looking to broaden the base of what we are doing, we can't just be relying on the major supermarket chain, we want to go to group two which will include the little corner store, the little take-away, the service stations. The service stations of course are very interesting in that they are a major retail outlets, and they have a great opportunity here to take a very strong position on educating the people to say no to the plastic bag. I am very pleased to be launching the "Say No to Plastic Bags" campaign for 2005. We will again be looking at how we can broaden this every way possible. We are looking to English speaking language retailers as their second language, Vietnamese fruiter or the Chinese takeaway. These people need to be brought into partnership with us, need to be educated about what they can do and I think a great way to do that is to put financial models up of successful retailers reducing their reliance on plastic bags and from that, gleaming financial benefits.

I think if we can show that, it then is a matter of you can improve the level of responsibility of your retail management by reducing the plastic bag by saying no to the plastic bag by looking to encourage the community to go to reusable alternatives. So it is moving ahead, we are pleased with it and we'll be making the "Say No to Plastic Bags" kit available to retailers at $45.00. But that will empower that if we show them the way that they can get really serious about the reduction on the reliance on plastic bags.


Thank you Ian, any questions?


Just a subject on my own curiosity, my butcher uses biodegradable plastic bags. Is there such an (inaudible) I mean they are thought to break down?


One of the concerns we found in the report was that there's been a significant shift amongst some of the smaller retailers to what are called degradable bags and unfortunately some of those bags in tests that have been done, do not achieve biodegradability even though some of those bags actually claim that on the bags themselves. The good thing is though that there are new standards coming into place in the next six months to actually address this issue so that the consumers know that when claims are being made on bags, they're genuine, but it is a cause of great concern to Planet Ark that some of the bags that are out there claiming to be degradable or biodegradable actually are not.


There will be a legal standard coming in force as Jon said, the other thing that should be made clear is that there will be even if we eliminate all of the light weight plastic shopping bags, there will be a need in some sections of food retailing for plastic. There is a role for plastic in our society, it fulfils an important role, particularly if it's recyclable. We've got nothing against the use of plastic, it's a wonderful commodity if people, the coca-cola bottles for example, they put it in their recycle bins. You can recycle it endlessly, so it has a place and when it comes to for example wrapping food and so forth it will continue to have a place.


So by recycling plastics, what you are doing is you are extending the life of the oil reserves as one example, and of course there are other economies in it as well. In the matter of biodegradability, there are all sorts of different degrees of it and I am very pleased to hear the Senator say that there is going to be a standard established. There are some invalid claims being made out there and there is biodegradability, there is photo degradability and there are starch inaudible which aren't relying on the plastic (inaudible) but in some of the biodegradable bags all it does, it enables the bag to break up and still be in the environment in a broken down form so it's getting into the food chain, it's getting into the environment so it's a very difficult area and it needs some serious attention and it's going to get that.


There's been a couple of comments (inaudible) already achieved 27 percent cut which is great yet some of the supermarkets are not all that keen on those recycling bags because (inaudible) I mean they fill them up and then they don't (inaudible) and so


Well these are all the practical hurdles that we need to overcome. We are saying in the old Australian cliché, it's the low hanging fruit, well what we need to do is address those sorts of issues, and the answer to that issue is that you do what Bunnings have done, or you do what Ikea have been, you do what Coles and Woolies and Franklins have done. If you have got your eight bags that you've taken back, you make sure these sorts of bags are right there available at the checkout. So you can get another couple of extra bags really quickly and easily and I think, my own experience which is been borne out of the research by Planet Ark and Clean Up Australia is that you've really got to educate consumers so that they think about it, they know that if they're using plastic, then they could be damaging their environment which they all love, that when they take their reusable bags straight back into the car, all of us have had the experience of driving to the supermarket (and realising), I've left my bags at home again. As the Environment Minister, I think I have bought more of these reusable bags than any person on the planet and that slowly teaches me to make sure I remember. So there is always very practical steps. The great news is as Jon and Ian have said, is that we have changed the culture in Australia already and if we just keep pushing that harder, some of the supermarkets have said we will get to that 50% and we'll just keep working harder and harder.


The other key point to that is that because we have reduced plastic bag usage by 1.3 billion bags, that's 1.3 billion bags that retailers don't have to pay for, and have the cost of giving those away free and more than 10 million of the green bags have been sold so retailers can make money on those and at the same time those kind of bags make shopping easier for consumers too.

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