Binning the bag: Queensland gets tough on waste

Queensland’s government banned plastic bags and introduced a container deposit scheme on Tuesday. The move was widely welcomed, but shines a glaring spotlight on New South Wales and Victoria, the only remaining states with no plastic bag policy.

ocean plastic
Carelessly disposed plastic bags that have ended up as marine litter. Australia uses about 3.92 billion plastic bags every year. Image: Ricoh Carey /

The government of Queensland on Tuesday stepped up its war on waste with the passage of a bill in parliament that will ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags and give refunds to people for recycling their empty beverage containers.

Formally known as the Waste Reduction and Recycling Amendment Bill 2017, the measures received unanimous support in the state parliament, and will come into effect on July 1 next year. 

The plastic bag law bans shopping bags that are thinner than 35 microns, whether they are biodegradable or not. It does not apply to plastic used in packaging or bags used to carry perishable food such as vegetables or meat. Retailers are forbidden to give these thin bags to shoppers, but may charge for alternatives such as paper or cloth carriers, or ones made from thicker plastic. They face a A$3,000 (US$2,417) fine if they violate this law. 

The ban is the latest trend in a series of moves by international governments, businesses, and civil society groups to tackle one of the biggest sources of marine litter. Kenya in late August banned plastic bags—those that violate it risk a US$40,000 fine or four years in jail—while Australian supermarkets Coles and Woolworths in July said they will phase out plastic bags over the next year.

In Singapore, non-profit group Zero Waste Singapore recently launched a campaign urging people to bring their own plastic bags and containers to retailers in return for discounts on shopping. 

Queensland’s container refund scheme, meanwhile, will enable individuals to get a 10-cent refund for most drink containers between 150 millilitres and three litres. Beverage manufacturers will be responsible for paying out the refunds to operators of container return points, and administering the scheme. 

Steven Miles, Queensland’s environment minister, said in a statement that “these initiatives will stop the scourge of plastic shopping bags, and put a price on beverage containers so they get recycled”.

“By passing this Bill we say to our young people that we value our wildlife, especially our marine creatures like turtles, sea birds and dugongs,” he added.

In the latest available data on plastic bag use in Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that in 2005, the country used 3.92 billion bags per year. That’s about 19 million bags used daily, and about 20,700 tonnes of plastics entering landfills annually.

These initiatives will stop the scourge of plastic shopping bags, and put a price on beverage containers so they get recycled.

Steven Miles, environment minister, Queensland Parliament

Toby Hutcheon, a representative of anti-waste civil society group Boomerang Alliance, said that “the introduction of these two measures represents the most significant policy on litter reduction in a generation”.

“The ban on all lightweight single-use plastic bags-including degradable and biodegradable bags will significantly reduce the threat they pose to wildlife,” he added.

But even as they welcomed Queensland’s law, campaigners pointed out that the move leaves New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria lagging behind the rest of the country on litter legislation.

Both states currently have no laws banning plastic bags, nor container deposit schemes. However, NSW, along with Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, is set to introduce a container deposit programme in December and subsequent months; despite efforts by beverage giant Coca-Cola to lobby against a container deposit scheme in various states. South Australia and the Northern Territory already have active cash-for-recycling schemes in place.

Jeff Angel, convenor and director, Boomerang Alliance, told Eco-Business that the Queensland government’s “robust legislation… leaves NSW and Victoria the only remaining states failing to implement bans.”

“We believe it is now time for Premiers (Gladys) Berejiklian and (Daniel) Andrews to listen to their constituents and bring these two laggard states in line with the Queensland law,” he added.

Samantha Wockner, campaigner, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, added: “Other states have now proved we can reduce plastic waste - the governments who aren’t on board yet for bag bans or a container deposit scheme need to up their game.”

“By continuing to fail to act on plastic bags NSW and Victoria are ensuring an estimated 1.6–2 billion more bags per year will be used in Australia,” she added.

If I go into a Queensland supermarket in a year’s time, I won’t be able to get a plastic bag, but the food will be wrapped in polystyrene and plastic. It seems silly that you are addressing just one context.

Trevor Thornton, lecturer, Deakin University

Eye on the prize 

Experts, however, noted that while the plastic bag bans would help reduce the harm to marine life when they ingest plastic litter, they are only a small component of the litter stream. 

Trevor Thornton, lecturer in environmental and life sciences, Deakin University, noted that while container deposit legislation has a proven track record of significantly reducing waste—South Australia has managed to recover almost 80 per cent of all beverage containers used since the scheme was introduced—a ban on single-use shopping bags may be less effective.

Other types of plastic waste such as discarded fishing nets cause a lot more damage to marine and coastal wildlife, and it is important to target those litter sources too, noted Thornton, adding that “when we talk about plastics ingested by marine life, we don’t know if they are all plastic bags or other types of plastics”.

The make-up of the plastic waste stream is also so diverse that solutions need to go beyond plastic bag bans, said Thornton. 

“If I go into a Queensland supermarket in a year’s time, I won’t be able to get a plastic bag, but the food will be wrapped in polystyrene and plastic,” he said. “It seems silly that you are addressing just one context.” 

Given the complexity of the issue, NSW and Victoria should not rush to legislate plastic bag bans just because other states have done it, said Thornton. Instead, they should look at plastic waste more broadly, and deliver a more holistic solution. 

This may include legislation around packaging standards, alternative packaging technologies, and even laws requiring manufacturers to provide more repair services so that consumers don’t throw products containing plastic away so frequently. 

And in addition to legal approaches, governments must also engage the community on ensuring the measures have the intended effect, said Thornton. For instance, a common scenario might be that shoppers realise too late that they have forgotten their reusable bags in the car, and end up purchasing disposable options such as plastic or paper bags, or adding to their stash of reusable bags. 

A simple sign in car-parks reminding people to take their cloth bags would be effective in reducing disposable plastics use, he suggested. 

He urged states that have yet to introduce plastic bag policies: “Take on board what others have done, learn from it, and then adopt an appropriate strategy which might involve a lot more than simple plastic bag bans.” 

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