Australia's packaging industry says there is no justification for plans by new federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett to phase out use of plastic bags in shops and supermarkets by year's end.
This month Garrett said he wants to eliminate high density polyethylene shopping bags, given free to shoppers at store checkouts and used largely to carry groceries.
Government estimates suggest Australians use almost 4 billion of the bags each year, with environmental groups claiming many end up in landfills or as litter in sensitive land and marine areas where they can choke wildlife.
The proposed phaseout is being watched by the Packaging Council of Australia, which fears a ``populist'' phaseout may spread to other plastic packaging.
Garrett has denied plans for a wider attack on plastic packaging.
Gavin Williams, chief executive officer of Melbourne-based PCA, said instead of eliminating plastic shopping bags, federal, state and territory governments should tackle litter problems through consumer education and awareness campaigns.
Williams said the bags, sourced mainly from Chinese producers, are ``a visible, but relatively minor environmental problem.''
``They have received far more attention, time and effort than is warranted by their environmental impact. I think only a small fraction would end up as litter. Most are reused by consumers in their homes to perform multiple uses,'' Williams said.
``There are much bigger environmental issues that should be concerning governments, such as greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and water security.''
In a recent radio interview, Garrett said, ``I think everybody agrees that having 4 billion plastic bags floating around Australia's environment is not desirable.''
He suggested greater use of reuseable cloth bags and rejected the idea of imposing a per-bag levy on plastic bags, but left open other options for achieving a total phaseout by the end of 2008.
``I'm personally not advocating a levy. It may be one of the options, but there are other things that we can consider as well,'' he said.
Garrett said state and territory governments have been examining the issue for several years and he will rely on an April 17 meeting of Australia's environment ministers in Melbourne to determine a plan of attack.
Garrett, former lead singer with popular Australian rock band Midnight Oil and a long-standing campaigner on green issues before entering politics, assumed the environment post following the election of the Labor Party to office in November.
Williams said he is pleased Garrett ruled out a levy on the bags, but there is now a need for the April ministerial meeting to present ``compelling'' evidence for a phaseout. He said PCA will watch developments carefully to ensure a phaseout is not extended to all forms of plastic packaging.
``I think there is a danger that, like plastic bags, packaging can be a populist issue,'' he said. ``I think [PCA] has to see whether the plastic bag issue portends anything specifically for packaging down the track.''
A spokeswoman for Garrett said he is developing several options for discussion at the April meeting, but she did not provide details. Any phaseout of plastic shopping bags will not set a precedent for a wider move against other forms of plastic packaging.