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August 29, 2010

The Mercury.co.au

Plastic bag ban loses drive

THE two pioneers of an Australia-first ban on plastic bags say Tasmania has dropped from being a world leader of a now-global environmental movement to an embarrassingly reluctant follower.

Ben Kearney and John Dee, who led the push to make the Tasmanian town of Coles Bay the nation's first plastic bag-free town in 2003, say the Tasmanian Government has lost the political will to back up its clean, green mantra.

The pair hope a new push to ban plastic shopping bags in a North-West municipality could prove to be the catalyst for Tasmania to finally catch up on the national movement it started.

After Coles Bay banned the bag, other mainland towns, and then entire states like South Australia, followed suit.

Now the Northern Territory has pledged to phase out plastic bags by next year and Mexico City and California are working to do the same.

Combined, the Coles Bay, SA and NT initiatives will take 441.8 million bags out of circulation.

Coles Bay plastic bag pioneer Ben Kearney hopes Tasmanian politicians will finally finish what he and John Dee started and introduce a statewide ban.

Mr Kearney said he was embarrassed to see Tasmania slip from being a world leader on the bag ban to a seemingly reluctant follower.

Both the state Liberals and the Tasmanian Greens took promises to ban plastic bags to the 2010 state election.

But while the Bartlett Government said in 2008 it would work towards banning the bags by January last year, that has not happened.

In fact, Premier David Bartlett has rubbished the Liberals' pledge to ban the bags and fine retailers who provide them to shoppers, saying it would leave households with nothing to line their bins with.

"I do not think it is a big ask at all, we just need some real leadership," Mr Kearney said.

"California, one of the biggest economies in the world, is even looking at it.

"Twenty-odd towns in Victoria are now plastic bag free but Tasmania still has one town where the shopping bag is banned.

"We need to stop talking and using excuses. It is fantastic to see it happening at a local government level but it's time for the State Government to step up. Six out of 10 Tasmanians voted for a party with a firm policy on the issue at the last state election."

The Local Government Association of Tasmania is now canvassing councils and preparing a paper on the plastic bag issue for its general meeting in November.

"We have no formal policy position but we have noted that all levels of government agree the number of plastic bags in circulation must be reduced," LGAT policy director Katrena Stephenson said. "Traditionally the focus has been on reducing plastic bag litter and this has had some success.

"But it may be time to consider the supply of plastic bags at the point of sale, particularly plastic bags used as a one-off carry bag."

Dr Stephenson said it was unclear how the reduction at the point of sale might be achieved.

She said the Federal Government had reported that the cost of regulating a phase-out of the bags involved costs which significantly outweighed the environmental benefits and that this had prompted a decision to not endorse uniform national regulatory action to ban or place a charge on plastic bags.

But Dr Stephenson said LGAT would consult with its 29 Tasmanian councils and mainland local government associations before putting a position forward for consideration at the end of the year.

South Australian shoppers were quick to embrace that state's plastic bag ban in 2009 and research shows that the proportion of SA shoppers taking re-usable bags to the supermarket has jumped from six in 10, to nine in 10 today.

Mr Dee said governments might try and use cost as a factor in deciding not to introduce regulations, but plastic bags should not be considered a "free" commodity.

"A 2002 Sunday Telegraph report quoted industry figures saying that $100 million a year was being added to grocery bills to pay for the plastic bags that we get at the check-out," he said

Mr Dee has called on the Greens and the state Liberals to use their numbers to force through plastic bag legislation.

"It has taken so long to get to the point where the issue is being considered statewide," Mr Dee said.

"It never made sense that Tasmania, which saw first-hand the massive PR benefits which came from being an environmental leader through the Coles Bay experience, would then drag its feet."

Mr Dee launched the Ban the Bag campaign last year to lobby governments to roll out South Australia's ban across the nation.

"Target's national ban and the statewide South Australian ban show that we have reached a tipping point where a national ban on plastic bags is now inevitable," Mr Dee said. "Plastic bags are now moving on to the endangered species list. Such a ban would benefit marine creatures such as seals, whales and turtles - many of whom die by ingesting plastic bags mistaken for food sources such as jellyfish."

Target's stance has been followed by ALDI, which no longer gives away free plastic checkout bags, and other retailers such as Bunnings, Nandos and IKEA.

"McDonald's only uses paper bags. All of these positive retail initiatives have shown that Australia is finally ready to ban the bag," Mr Dee said.

Environment, Parks and Heritage Minister David O'Byrne said his Government had closely considered the options for a statewide ban on plastic bags.

But, at this stage, the overall cost of a ban was not seen as the most cost-effective solution to reducing plastic waste.

"That is not to say that the Government is not committed to reducing the use of plastic and we are currently investigating the feasibility of a container deposit system in Tasmania which could have a greater impact in recycling a whole range of items that currently go into landfill," Mr O'Byrne said.

"The Government will continue to explore ways to address the problems of littering in our streets and roadsides and increasing the resource recovery rates for packaging materials and beverage containers."


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