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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Plastic check-out bag use in non-supermarket retail outlets

Planet Ark Environmental Foundation for the
Department of the Environment and Heritage, March 2005

The survey – Key results: 3

Some smaller retailers claim they are unable to order plastic bag alternatives due to cost related issues. The study will attempt to identify these.

Findings – from the retailer’s survey

Findings - from the distributors survey

When it came to degradable bags, one distributor didn’t have a minimum number of bags that needed to be ordered. 2 out of the 7 distributors said that 1000 degradable bags were the minimum order. Only 1 out of the 7 distributors surveyed stated that 2000 degradable bags was the minimum order for their business.


It is encouraging to see that of the retailers who did not stock plastic bag alternatives, 21 out of 35 retailers (60%) are considering stocking reusable bags. However, cost was found to be the major factor that is holding retailers back from using plastic bag alternatives.

Some of the smaller outlets that were spoken to by Planet Ark indicated their need to access reusable bags at bulk-buying rates. Indeed, for some of them it was cheaper to buy a ‘Go Green Bag’ from their local Coles than it was for them to buy it from a wholesaler. To that end, Minister Ian Campbell’s agreement with the Australian Retailers Association and the Shopping Centre Council to help small retailers access bulk-buying rates for re-usable bags is timely and welcome.

However, one surprising aspect of our research was that some of the national non-supermarket chains also needed assistance with their purchases of plastic bag alternatives. One well known retailer disclosed the price they were paying for paper bags to replace the plastic bags that they were phasing out. This figure was substantially higher than the price currently being paid by Planet Ark for a larger paper bag, which we were buying at far lesser volumes.

Examples like this, made it all too apparent that the job of buying plastic bag alternatives and implementing a plastic bag policy was often done by executives who had no prior experience of carrying out such a strategy. Indeed, our research showed that 83% of retailers we spoke to did not have an Environment Manager – an ideal person to oversee a plastic bag reduction strategy.

Retailers also need to be educated in the types of plastic bag alternatives that are available to them. The fact that degradable bags are the most popular option that retailers would think about stocking in their outlets (above all other plastic bag alternative options), indicates that retailers want the cheapest and most convenient alternative to single-use plastic bags.

Also, degradable bags require the least amount of behavioural change from customers, so clearly some retailers are still wary about only offering reusable alternatives to their customers (even though in most cases they are the better option environmentally).

Truly degradable starch-based bags, however (as determined by the forthcoming Australian Standards), may be the best bag option for those circumstances where reusable bags are not satisfactory and single-use bags are still preferable e.g. Asian takeaway food with a high liquid content.

Discussions with the retailers who participated in the survey indicated that many had not yet looked at plastic bag reduction as a way of potentially reducing their operating costs. Indeed, Planet Ark estimates that the retail industry currently spends $173 million a year giving away 'free' plastic bags. Industry sources have stated that the costs of these plastic bags are included in shopping bills, so in theory it’s in everyone’s interest to reduce this cost.

Our research identified five retailers who charged a fee for plastic bags – a fee that was then donated to charity. This substantially reduced their plastic bag usage and reduced their cost of buying plastic bags for free distribution. It also opened up opportunities for positive PR coverage when it came to the donating the funds raised by this charitable exercise.

Part of any education campaign in this area should focus on such financial savings being made by companies that have a strong plastic bag reduction policy. Such a campaign could also point out the revenue potential of selling reusable bags as an additional income stream – particularly in non-metro areas. This has been a positive driver for retailers who have participated in the Planet Ark "Plastic Bag Free Towns" scheme.

Staff training

One reason why a plastic bag reduction is not occurring is that about half of the retailers surveyed were not training their staff in plastic bag reduction techniques. These techniques include asking customers "Do you need a bag with your purchase?" and if they do, asking them whether or not they would like to purchase a plastic bag alternative.

In any case, just to stock plastic bag alternatives is clearly not enough. For a reduction in plastic check-out bag usage to occur, retailers must train their staff to ask whether customers need a bag with their purchase and if they do, to ensure that plastic bag alternatives are properly displayed and promoted as near as possible to the check-out till.

Retailers can action this approach immediately at no cost to their business. This approach also makes business sense as the less bags they use the more money they save.

Set up advisory and education service

112 of retailers questioned (87%) did not have or did not know whether their company had an Environment Manager. As such, it is questionable whether many of these retailers would currently have a properly resourced person to take responsibility for their bag reduction efforts.

In light of this information and our experience in compiling this report, our research has highlighted the need for an advisory service for non-supermarket outlets, which educates retailers about the many ways they can reduce their usage of plastic bags.

It also highlights the need to educate retailers about the plastic bag alternatives that will best suit their business from a cost and environmental standpoint.

The non-supermarket sector will need widespread education and significant resources to be allocated to achieve a 50% drop in plastic bag use by the end of 2005. More in-depth research of the various retail sectors in partnership with the relevant industry associations would be helpful in determining strategies to achieve this outcome.

If this is not successful, then Government regulation may be necessary in certain sectors.