The South Australian provincial government has stepped up its campaign to encourage consumers to reject lightweight polyethylene shopping bags, as it moves towards a ban on their use by May.
The state's tactics, backed by new laws imposing heavy fines for breaches by shopkeepers and bag suppliers, is not supported by the top trade group for Australian retailers, which prefers a voluntary plan being developed by other states and territories.
South Australia chose to go it alone with an outright ban after Australia's federal government and the nation's other state and territory governments decided in June against outlawing polyethylene grocery bags, commonly given free to consumers at supermarket checkouts.
At the time, federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett estimated that about 4 billion bags are used each year in Australia.
Since Jan. 1, the South Australian government has been running a public and retail industry education campaign with the theme ``Bring Your Own Bags,'' to raise awareness of the May deadline and promote the use of bags that it says are environmentally friendly.
The campaign involves in-store signage, brochures and posters, a dedicated Web site and a toll-free phone service offering consumers and retailers advice about sourcing alternative bags.
South Australia late last year introduced legislation to phase in the complete ban starting May 4.
The Plastic Shopping Bags (Waste Avoidance) Act will prohibit retailers from selling or giving away PE shopping bags less than 35 microns thick. After that date, only compostable plastic bags that meet the state's legal standard will be permitted as grocery bags.
The state will continue to allow PE bags used for holding fruit and vegetables, meat or other perishables. Retailers can continue giving away thicker plastic shopping bags, such as those traditionally used by department stores and fashion outlets that are branded with a name or logo.
As part of the phase-in period, between Jan. 1 and May 4, retailers can still stock the PE shopping bags in question, but must also provide consumers with an alternative choice.
Retailers that do not provide alternative bags during that time, or that provide the banned bags after May 4, are subject to penalties of $A5,000 (US$3,400). As well, suppliers that provide a retailer with outlawed bags face a fine of up to A$20,000 (US$13,640).
A spokesman for Jay Weatherill, South Australia's environment minister, said there have been no prosecutions so far.
The state's phase-in education campaign aims to have retailers and consumers switch to cloth or paper bags. ``We're banning the type of bags that sit in landfill and take hundreds of years to break down,'' Weatherill said.
In November, Garrett and other environment ministers, except Weatherill, maintained their opposition to a legislated ban.
Those ministers looked at the results of a trial conducted by the state government of Victoria where consumers were charged A10 cents (US6 cents) for each plastic shopping bag they used. Victoria claimed the state saw the bag usage drop 79 percent at the three trial locations.
The ministers and the retail industry are pursuing a voluntary approach to cutting bag use. That plan is set to be considered at the ministers' next meeting in April.
A spokeswoman for the Australian National Retailers' Association said the group opposes a legislative ban. ``We respect consumers' right to choose and our members are continuing to encourage shoppers to switch to reusable bags,'' she said.
ANRA also does not favor a charge for plastic bags, such as that imposed in the Victoria trial. ``ANRA participated in [the Victoria] trial to understand the type of issues that would arise if a charge on plastic bags was introduced in Australia,'' the spokeswoman said. ``The trial highlighted some practical problems which many would not have expected slower service times and occupational health and safety concerns arising from customers insisting staff overfill bags, for example.''
ANRA maintains that awareness and education campaigns will help consumers voluntarily make the switch to environmentally friendly bags, she said.
Weatherill's spokesman said South Australia sees itself as a pioneer in its attempts to cut plastic bag use and has received positive feedback from consumers and the retail sector.