Sydney shoppers lead world with plastic bag use: survey

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 4th December 2009

New research has shown that Sydney supermarket shoppers are using more new plastic bags than those in other major cities, including Melbourne, London and Hong Kong.

The investigation, by Australian and overseas journalism students, highlighted that most consumers were yet to act on the issue despite surveys suggesting shoppers would look to reduce their plastic bag use.

Sydney surprise

A Sydney survey of more than 4000 customers by UTS journalism students found that 79 per cent of shoppers still leave the supermarket carrying new plastic bags.

Parallel surveys of 7000 shoppers across Melbourne, Hong Kong and London put Sydney at the top of the heap, with 2.5 new plastic bags per customer compared to 1.95 in Melbourne, 1.79 in London and 0.98 in Hong Kong.

Plastic Bag

The first year of the Global Environmental Journalism Initiative, a project started late in 2008 by four Australian and five European universities, has made plastic bags a key focus.

Reporting on the GEJI website, UTS international student Shushu He said the results had shown that voluntary attempts to reduce plastic bag use in Australia had been unsuccessful.

“The results for the two major Australian supermarket chains, which between them control almost 60 per cent of the Australian supermarket retail market, were even higher than the Sydney wide figures,” Ms He reported. “Coles customers used the most plastic bags, averaging 2.5 per person, with Woolworths customers using 2.37 per person.”

Customers at Aldi supermarket – who charge for plastic bags – used only .59 bags each, however.

“The survey showed that on a widespread basis, Woolworths are failing to implement their official policy of not offering plastic bags to customers who purchase very few items,” Ms He suggested. “Direct observations of hundreds of cashiers at supermarkets across Sydney and Melbourne revealed that many checkout cashiers ignore or are not aware of the policy. Coles, who do not have a firm policy on this issue but leave it to the discretion of cashiers and shoppers, also regularly offer plastic bags to shoppers with one or two items.”

One of the more surprising findings was the discovery that the highest percentage of new plastic bag use was found in Sydney’s inner west – an area with the greatest number of Green party voters in the country. Around 83 per cent of customers in Newtown and Glebe used new plastic bags and only 9.5 per cent used reusable green bags – lower than in any other area.

Among the GEJI Sydney reporters were exchange students Imke Emmerich and Laura Schneider from the University of Hamburg, who were surprised by their supermarket experience in Australia.

“Before we arrived in Australia we were expecting it to be an environmentally-friendly place because we had read in the German press that your Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, was leading the way on plastic bags by taking action to drastically reduce their use by the end of 2008,” they reported on the GEJI website. “So when we first went shopping in Sydney, we were shocked to see how many people routinely used plastic bags. Even without asking, we were handed free bags. In Germany this does not happen in a supermarket. Normally you have to buy them for about 10 Euro cents.”

The plastic bag debate remains a hot topic in Australia, with environment ministers yet to come to a decision regarding the possibility of a ban or a levy. South Australia has gone it alone, however, with a plastic bag ban enforced earlier this year.