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

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


Reducing plastic check-out bag use in non-supermarket retail outlets

Executive summary

20 million Australians use an estimated 6 billion plastic check-out bags every year. 1

1 The ARA ‘Mid-2004 Interim Progress Report’ shows that plastic bag use from January 1 to June 30 was cut by 29 per cent, or half a billion, in major supermarket outlets. Extrapolated over a year, we have estimated a bag reduction of one billion plastic bags. Our 6 billion bag estimate is arrived at by deducting this figure from the Nolan ITU December 2002 estimate of 6.9 billion plastic bags.

Whether it's inadvertent or deliberate, plastic bag litter creates many problems. Bags get caught in fences and median strips. They end up blocking drains and trapping birds. When eaten they can kill livestock. In the marine environment, plastic bag litter is lethal, killing thousands of whales, turtles and other sea life every year.

However, the impact of plastic bag litter isn’t just environmental. Picking up litter costs local authorities and State governments approximately $200 million a year 2 . Cleaning up plastic bag litter is also a significant cost for operators of landfill sites.

2 Source: Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts – Nolan ITU Pty Ltd, December 2002

After a well-targeted campaign by government, industry and environment groups, the supermarket industry appears to have reduced their usage of plastic bags by over one billion units in the past twelve months 3 .

3 See footnote 1 above.

As a result of this, 55% of the plastic bags used in Australia are now being given away by non-supermarket retail outlets (N-SR Outlets). 4

4 Source: Australian Retailers Association ‘Mid-2004 Interim Progress Report’.

Under the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Bags , the ARA and the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) have agreed to halve the use of HDPE plastic bags by the end of 2005. If we are to achieve this reduction target, then it is vital that the non-supermarket retail sector (N-SR Sector) becomes fully committed to the code.

Our research showed that this commitment is not guaranteed. Of the 202 non-supermarket retailers who were asked to participate in this report, 73 retailers (36%) failed to respond or refused to participate, despite the fact that all 73 were contacted at least 5 times.

On the other hand, there is reason to be optimistic. The best role models to date for plastic bag reduction have come from the N-SR Sector. By implementing plastic bag bans or charges, companies like IKEA, Bunnings, Red Rooster and Nando’s have achieved plastic bag reduction levels far in excess of the supermarket industry. However, this success has not been replicated across the entire N-SR Sector.

This can be attributed to a number of causes.

With almost 200,000 N-SR Outlets in Australia 5 , our research suggests that there are potentially tens of thousands of these outlets that are not part of any industry association (such as the ARA or their counterparts). This is a major factor given that a key plank of the ARA’s promotion of the Code of Practice is to sign-up N-SR Outlets through other industry associations 6 .

5 Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts – Nolan ITU Pty Ltd, December 2002
6 See Appendix 1

Indeed, 62% of the retailers who took part in our survey could not confirm whether they were members of an industry association or not. Additionally, some of the industry associations we spoke to don’t represent all of the retailers in their category. One industry body confidentially told Planet Ark that they do not even have the resources or the means to contact most of their members.

This could explain the lack of retailer awareness about the ARA agreement to reduce HDPE plastic bag use by 50% by the end of 2005. Despite extensive publicity about the agreement, 47% of the retailers we questioned did not know about it.

60% of retailers who gave away free plastic bags said they train staff to ask customers whether or not they would like a plastic bag with their purchase. Given that an August 2004 Roy Morgan study showed that 93% of Australians were concerned about the impact plastic bags have on the environment, increased efforts in this area could reap significant results.

51% of the retailers we questioned said cost was the reason why they used plastic bags. 46% said it was a habit. 43% also stated that convenience was a reason. Retailers who are not ordering plastic bag alternatives also said it was due to cost (40%)

The N-SR Sector is characterised by “impulse buying”. Thus the likelihood of shoppers bringing a reusable bag is not as high as it is for supermarkets. As a result, in some parts of the N-SR Sector (such as the fast-food sector), major reductions in total bag usage may not be achievable. In this instance, a more sustainable single use alternative, such as paper or truly biodegradable/compostable bags, would be more suitable.

The fact that all distributors surveyed stock well-priced plastic bag alternatives that retailers can purchase in small quantities reveals that the onus of plastic bag reduction in the non- supermarket retailer sector lies with the retailers themselves. The only minimum order cost issue that arises is when N-SR Outlets want to print their own logo or name on calico, paper or ‘green’ bags.

There has been significant growth in the N-SR Sector of so-called ‘degradable’ bags. These bags are the biggest selling plastic bag alternative for all surveyed distributors. This increase gives cause for concern. Samples of ‘degradable’ bags obtained from retailers had various environmental claims that we believe to be questionable and potentially misleading.

A leading retailer confidentially told us they had a well known ‘degradable’ bag tested and the results gave rise to significant concern as to whether these ‘degradable’ bags will properly degrade or biodegrade in Australian conditions. New standards are urgently needed here.

As with the supermarket industry, a well targeted campaign by Government, industry and environment groups should result in substantial plastic bag reductions in the non- supermarket national retail chains. These chains have centralised bag policies implemented at the national level and therefore have an ability to effect change across many outlets.

Consequently, immediate bag reductions could be obtained where role model leadership is already being shown. Bunnings have led the way for other hardware stores to follow; Nando’s and Red Rooster have done the same for takeaway food outlets; Country Road have set a role model for clothes stores; The bag reduction successes by these national chains have raised the bar that other retailers must match.

Retailers in those towns that have gone plastic bag free have also set bag reduction role models for all non-supermarket retail sectors. Bakers, newsagents, chemists, service stations, liquor shops, clothing stores, cafes and takeaways are just some of the outlets within these towns that have done away altogether with plastic check-out bags.

Significant reductions in plastic bag usage by certain N-SR Outlets is achievable in the short term. However, given the constraints of communicating with almost 200,000 N-SR Outlets, a real threat of government regulation may be the only way of engaging all retailers in the N-SR Sector to achieve an across the board 50% reduction in plastic bag usage.

Key recommendations

Key education recommendations

Background

20 million Australians use an estimated 6 billion plastic check-out bags every year. That so few people can use so much plastic says a lot about the wasteful habits of today's Australians.

Over the past year, there has been a huge shift in society’s attitudes towards plastic bags. An August 2004 Roy Morgan study showed that 93% of Australians were concerned about the impact that plastic bags have on the environment. As a result, many millions of reusable ‘Green bags’ have been bought from major supermarkets in the past 12 months 7 . Early projections estimate that one billion less plastic bags will have been used as a result.

7 Sources: ARA, Coles and Woolworths

As a result of this push by major supermarkets, current estimates are that plastic bag usage has fallen from 6.9 billion to just under 6 billion per annum. However, in the ‘big picture’ of the effort to reduce plastic bag usage in Australia, what has been achieved so far with the major supermarket chains is the relatively easy part.

The major supermarkets are in a position to effect plastic bag reductions rapidly and relatively simply. Most of those stores are company owned and controlled with a centralised Head Office making policy and purchasing decisions which facilitate measurable outcomes across thousands of stores.

Furthermore supermarket visitation is often described as ‘destination shopping’. That is, it is pre-planned and therefore more likely to promote the habitual use of reusable bags. Indeed, the success shown by Coles, Woolworths and Safeway in their ‘Green Bag’ sales and the subsequent reductions in their plastic bag usage is testament to that fact.

The non-supermarket sector, however, is a very different ‘kettle of fish’.

Of the estimated 6 billion plastic check-out bags currently in use every year, more than half of them have been given away by Australia’s non-supermarket retail outlets 8 . The latest available figures indicate that the Non-Supermarket Retail sector uses 3.23 billion plastic bags every year 9 .

8 Source: Australian Retailers Association ‘Mid-2004 Interim Progress Report’.
9 Source: Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts – Nolan ITU Pty Ltd, December 2002

This usage is broken down as follows:

Sector Annual Usage in Millions Percentage
Food & Liquor 930 m 28.7%
General Merchandise & Apparel 960 m

29.7%

Fast Food, Convenience Stores & Service Stations 350 m 10.8%
Other Retail 990 m 30.6%

The primary plastic bags used in the non-supermarket retail sector are ‘singlet’ bags, made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and ‘boutique’ style bags, made of low density polyethylene. Many of these bags end up as litter or as waste in landfill sites.

If we are to halve our usage of plastic bags by the end of 2005, it is vital that the N-SR Sector become fully engaged. Our research, however, showed that this commitment is not guaranteed. Of the 202 non-supermarket retailers who were asked to participate in this report,

73 retailers (36%) failed to respond or refused to participate, despite the fact that all 73 were contacted at least 5 times.

The reluctance to embrace the issue is partly driven by the fact that the N-SR Sector is a very disparate group of retailers, encompassing nearly 200,000 retail outlets 10 , across scores of categories that may or may not have industry associations.

10 Source: Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts – Nolan ITU Pty Ltd, December 2002

The N-SR Outlets that have experienced the largest bag reductions to date have all been part of national chains that have national bag policies devised and implemented at a national level. These role models are detailed further into the report. As with supermarkets, a well targeted campaign by Government, environment and industry groups should result in substantial plastic bag reductions by these types of outlets.

N-SR Outlets who are part of smaller chains also have the potential to devise bag policies across the group. Retailers who are part of industry organisations too have the potential to partake in industry-wide bag reduction initiatives.

Our research, however, suggests that there are potentially tens of thousands of these outlets that are not part of any industry association (such as the ARA or their counterparts).

Indeed, 62% of the retailers who took part in our survey could not confirm whether they were members of an industry association or not. Additionally, some of the industry associations we spoke to don’t represent all of the retailers in their category. One industry body confidentially told Planet Ark that they do not even have the resources or the means to contact most of their members.

This could explain the lack of retailer awareness about the ARA agreement to reduce HDPE plastic bag use by 50% by the end of 2005. Despite extensive publicity about the agreement, 47% of the retailers we questioned did not know about it. The following report seeks to find ways to remediate this situation and details the findings of our research.

N-SR outlets and the ARA code of practice for the management of plastic bags

The following has been summarised from the ARA’s published information.

Further to an agreement with the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC), the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has adopted the ARA Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Bags .

  1. The Code commits retail signatories to the following key target –

    To reduce the number of HDPE (high density polyethylene - single use and lightweight) plastic bags issued by 25 percent by the end of 2004, and to target a 50 percent reduction by the end of 2005.
  2. Signatories to the code are divided into two primary groups. Group One retailers include major supermarkets and chain members. Group Two retailers are defined by the ARA as:

All other retailers using lightweight HDPE bags (e.g. convenience stores, takeaway food outlets, liquor stores, chemists, newsagents, hardware stores, clothing and general stores).

The ARA gave a commitment to the EPHC to campaign strongly to enlist as many non-ARA Group Two / N-SR Outlet retailers as possible. The ARA promoted the Code through its networks, but as of June 2004, reported that there was a limited sign up of only 92 Group Two / N-SR Outlet retailers. Given that there are nearly 200,000 retailers in Australia, this is a disappointing result.

The ARA requires Group Two / N-SR Outlet retailers to support the code by implementing the following minimum Group Two initiatives. The ARA defines these as follows:

  1. Train staff to support the Code’s aims (e.g. to pack more items per bag and to question the need for a bag where appropriate).
  2. Sell reusable bags in their stores (if practicable).
  3. Let customers know the store is a Code signatory and supports the Code’s aims (e.g. through customer communications and by displaying the Code certificate).
  4. Make information available to customers about how they can participate (e.g. encourage them to reduce the number of bags they use, to use reusable bags and recycle bags etc).
  5. Provide recycling bins if practicable.
  6. Provide recycled content bags if possible.
  7. Provide the ARA with figures on the number of bags they purchased in 2003, 2004 and 2005, to be used as part of industry reporting.

Group two reporting requirements

Group Two N-SR Outlets are required to submit annual reports to the ARA using a reporting checklist, which is provided by the ARA.

Group Two retailers are not required to be independently verified. However, the ARA requested that they be signed off by management to indicate that the information contained is correct.

Group Two N-SR Outlets are required to submit details on the number of HDPE bags they purchase in each year. From this data, the er, will calculate the reduction rate using industry sales growth figures to adjust for growth, and will report on Group Two N-SR Outlet results in aggregate to Government and the public.

The Code refers to a reduction in ‘bags issued’. For Group Two N-SR Outlets, bags issued will be measured as ‘bags purchased’ from suppliers, as data for ‘bags purchased’ is most readily available and least costly to obtain. The total number of bags purchased are to be obtained from suppliers’ invoices, or company inventory or ordering records.

Group Two N-SR Outlets are scheduled to report on the number of bags they issued in the previous year by the end of February in 2005 and 2006. As of March 8 t h , these initial results were not available from the ARA to be included in this report. Without this information, Planet Ark is not able to offer a viewpoint as to the success or not of the Code’s Group Two initiative to this point.

Planet Ark also notes that the Code does not include any target for reducing the 900 million LDPE plastic bags used in Australia every year – a significant amount of which are used by N-SR Outlets.