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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


1. Background

1.1 Bag Use in Australia

The plastic carry bag is an established part of Australian shopping. The carry bags are typically made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastic and are lightweight and strong, with a carrying capacity of over 1 000 times the weight of the bag. The weight of lightweight HDPE bags varies between 2 and 8 grams with an average supermarket bag weight of 5-7 grams.

In addition to the HDPE carry bags, there is also a much smaller number of Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) bags used in department store, general merchandise, apparel and other retail outlets. These ‘boutique’ style bags have a typical weight of 15-20 grams.

Most plastic carry bags are imported into Australia. In 2002, the import of bags was estimated to account for two thirds of total consumption.

In 2002 an estimate of annual bag consumption of 6.91 billion bags was developed. This estimate was based on information from both bag manufacturers and importers and from key retailers. Table 1.1 below outlines total carry bag use by retail sector.

Table 1.1: Estimated 2002 HDPE & LDPE Bag Consumption
Retail Sector No. of bags (billions)
Supermarkets 3.68
Other Food & Liquor 0.93
General Merchandise & Apparel 0.96
Fast Food, Convenience & Service Station 0.35
Other Retail 0.99
Total 6.91

The estimate of HDPE bag use was six billion bags consumed. This is outlined in the table below, showing use by retail sector.

Table 1.2: Estimated 2002 HDPE Bag Consumption
Retail Sector No. of bags (billions)
Supermarkets 3.68
Other Food & Liquor 0.93
General Merchandise & Apparel 0.59
Fast Food, Convenience & Service Station 0.35
Other Retail 0.46
Total 6.01

These estimates were made and reported at the end of 2002. The data presented later in this report for 2002 are estimates made from currently available data. The current data incorporates more accurate import information and as a result there is a very minor decrease in the 2002 bag consumption estimate based upon this present information.

There is no government or industry program to measure or record plastic carry bag use in Australia. The Australian Customs Service collects data on bag imports based on weight of bags rather than bag units.

Continued public and government concern led to a study in late 2002 about usage, litter and other environmental impacts; Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts (Nolan-ITU). Following this report, and public and industry input, Federal and State Government Environment Ministers developed a policy response for the management of lightweight HDPE carry bags plastic carry bags including bag reduction, bag recycling and bag litter abatement.

1.2 EPHC Objectives

In 2003, the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) challenged retailers to meet a range of targets relating to the reduction and recycling of retail carry bags. These targets included a 25% reduction in the number of bags issued by end of 2004 against the base of December 2002 and a 50% reduction by the end of 2005. In response to this challenge the Australian Retailers’ Association (ARA) developed a Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Bags. This included a commitment to the EPHC targets. The EPHC targets and the ARA Code adopt a focus on lightweight HDPE carry bags rather than all plastic carry bags. This excludes a focus on LDPE ‘boutique’ carry bags used predominantly in the clothing and department store sectors. (It was estimated in 2002 that HDPE bags account for over 85% of total carry bags by number.)

The ARA submitted a progress report to the EPHC in mid-2004. The ARA has now presented a report on activity to the end of 2004 (including progress against the target of 25% bag reduction by the end of 2004).

1.3 Project Scope

In December 2004 the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) engaged Nolan-ITU to undertake this study to report on bag usage over the period 2002 to 2004. The aim of the study is to identify the level of bag use across all retail sectors and to compare this to data presented in December 2002.

With over thousands of retailers and many companies operating across numerous sites, it is not possible to conduct a comprehensive survey of bag use at a retail level. The methodology utilised in the study is therefore focussed primarily on data obtained at a bag manufacturers’ and import level, where possible supporting data has also been obtained from retailers across many retail sectors.