At least one Australian state is determined to ban the use of high density polyethylene bags in shops and supermarkets by the end of the year.
South Australian Premier Mike Rann said his government is preparing laws to put a bag ban into effect this year, even though a meeting of federal, state and territory environment ministers has not decided on the issue.
In January, the new federal environment minister, Peter Garrett, floated the possibility of banning HDPE bags by year's end. The plastic bags, largely imported from China, are used widely in Australia's retail sector, especially by supermarkets that supply them free to consumers to carry groceries home.
Garrett cites government statistics showing Australians use more than 4 billion bags a year. He supports a ban with arguments from conservation groups that discarded bags pose a litter problem and are hazardous to wildlife, especially in marine environments where they can choke or snare some species, like turtles.
An April 17 meeting in Melbourne between Garrett and environment ministers from Australia's eight state and territory governments is due to discuss a possible ban and options for enforcing it. Garrett has ruled out a per-bag levy and wants consumers to make greater use of reuseable cloth bags that are sold and promoted by major supermarket chains and retailers.
But Rann said South Australia will ban the HDPE bags on its own, if it does not agree with the outcome of the April 17 meeting.
``The time has come to lead by example and I urge all states to follow this important step in ridding our environment of these bags that contribute to greenhouse gases, clog up landfills, litter our streets and streams, and kill sea life,'' he said.
Rann claims a ban in South Australia alone will eliminate almost 400 million plastic bags, or more than 3.75 million pounds of plastic, from the waste stream each year.
``A national approach will be better for consumers and better for retailers but, if it can't be delivered in time, South Australia will go it alone,'' he said.
The Plastics and Chemicals Industry Association of Australia (Pacia) is opposed to any government-enforced ban on shopping bags. Melbourne-based Pacia's chief executive officer, Margaret Donnan, said a ban is ``an over-reaction'' to a litter problem that should be addressed through stronger penalties and community education.
Donnan said packaging industry figures show the bags make up only 2 percent of Australia's litter stream.
``Banning individual products does not change anti-social behaviors,'' Donnan said. ``A ban will only shift the problem and disadvantage consumers and businesses, leaving irresponsible individuals and companies to continue to litter the environment.
``Responsible consumers have almost halved their usage of plastic bags in less than two years and many households re-use the bags when purchasing groceries and other goods. This demonstrates major changes in consumer habits and social attitudes,'' she said.
Rann acknowledges that the use of plastic shopping bags has fallen 40 percent during the past six years, and more than 10 million reuseable cloth bags are now in circulation across Australia.
But he also said only about 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled, despite major supermarkets making it available.
A Pacia spokeswoman said representatives from the trade group will attend the April 17 meeting to join efforts by the packaging industry to lobby against a ban.