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The rise of online purchasing and trading is not doing much to stem the losses from Australia Post’s letters business, but is significantly changing the quantities of single-use plastic satchels now in circulation.

Or rather, now in landfill.

Many local government services can’t recycle plastic mail satchels or plastic bags in general through kerbside collections, and the REDcycle option available through Woolworths and Coles for consumer use plastic bags will take Australia Post branded bags but not others (TNT and other brands are degradable and cannot be recycled).

Australia Post’s recent announcement that it would recycle its plastic post satchels is a big win for product  stewardship in the bag category, but plastic bags are still taking their toll across the nation.

What gives with the state of plastic bags? Is it a consumer behaviour change that’s required, a retailer mindset shift, or a closer look at the ongoing viability of the plastic alternatives?

Australians use nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, with only 10% of Australians reporting that they recycle their plastic bags – and less than 1% giving the bag a second chance as a bin liner or other use before going the same way (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics).

As we write, there are still only two states and two territories in Australia that have banned lightweight plastic bags – South Australia (2009), NT (2011), ACT (2011) and Tasmania (2013). All have shown great results for the reduction of plastic bags to landfill – and with varying degrees of support from retailers and recycling groups.

Victorian towns have been urged to tackle the issue on their own with limited funding support available until a wider national approach is brokered, and NSW and Queensland are currently in talks to negotiate their position citing concerns over the true biodegradability of bags as one reason for delay . However, WA recently knocked back a City of Fremantle ban proposal for the second time – suggesting a broader approach would be better than a municipality by municipality change.

And that approach seems set to stay for the larger states, with Queensland, Victoria and NSW all pledging to have a look at a plastic bag ban as a second tier priority in a year or so once the plastic bottle container deposit schemes have been worked out.

What gives with the state of plastic bags? Is it a consumer behaviour change that’s required, a retailer mindset shift, or a closer look at the ongoing viability of the plastic alternatives?

Fears by local retailers over loss of trade in an already uncertain market have certainly been raised both here and overseas.  And this issue is causing headaches in England, where the new 5p fee per plastic bag used brings it somewhat in line with the rest of the UK. However, area by area bans seem to suffer more than widespread blanket bans – with shoppers unable to travel to a nearby store that provides plastic bags for their convenience.

This seems to have been the case for Target, who introduced a ban on lightweight plastic bags and a charge for a heavier plastic, then dumped it all for a free biodegradable model that wouldn’t impact on sales after receiving hundreds of customer complaints.

Australian areas with the ban are also reporting significant drops in plastic bags going to landfill, although there are also reports of traders and householders moving to thicker plastic bags to beat the ban. Similar queries have been raised over the need to ban this ‘iconic symbol of consumer waste’ given it comprises such a small percentage of total landfill waste.

So where does this leave us for a national response to plastic bags? NSW is considering its options, Victoria and WA are waiting for others to jump on board, and Queensland will seek the input of residents before it makes a decision.

Convenience for consumers and a loss of potential profit for retailers will be the largest scare tactics in play. But as we’ve seen in the braver states, a mandatory ban can certainly hasten behaviour change.

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