SA plastic bag ban sees boom in bin-liner buys

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 4th April 2013

A new report tabled in the South Australian parliament shows that despite overwhelming community support for a plastic bag ban in the State, sales of bin liners have increased by more 80 per cent in South Australia (SA).

According to research conducted by the Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, the plastic bag ban, which was implemented in South Australia in May 2009, has seen the household purchase of bin liners increase from 15 per cent to 80 per cent.

The new research suggests that earlier claims by the South Australian Government that the ban was a “remarkable success” might have been premature. The latest research, which was conducted in November 2012, shows the reality of the ban’s implementation is perhaps more complicated.

The study was based on the observation of 614 supermarket shoppers across a range of retail grocery stores and geographic locations in South Australia, interviews with 278 of the observed shoppers as they exited grocery stores, 77 interviews with people in a general shopping mall setting, and in-depth interview with 13 members of the task force dedicated to phasing out plastic bags in the State.

The study found that the ban on lightweight single-use plastic shopping bags has not stopped households lining their bins, which has led to the increase in the purchase of bin liners.

“A lot of people like to line their bins still, about nine in 10 we think line their bins,” one of the study’s authors, Dr Anne Sharp, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘PM’ program. “When bags are not given free from the supermarket people now buy bin liners,” she said.

“They don’t tend to use as many bin liners as they would receive plastic bags from the supermarket, so they’re not sending the same number to landfill, they’re not throwing plastic bags out,” she added.

The general reduction in the number of plastic bags being thrown out may have contributed to the significant reduction in the percentage of lightweight plastic bags in landfill in South Australia. Data from litter-reduction advocacy group Keep Australia Beautiful showed that there had 45% decrease in the percentage of lightweight single-use plastic shopping bags contributing to the litter stream in South Australia since the ban. But authors of the study said this figure is inconclusive, since it looks at the entire litter stream.

“As one of the overarching aims of the ban was to cause consumers to behave in a greener way future initiatives should examine how also to change bin-lining behaviour,” said the report.

 Benefits of the ban

The ban has had some successes, however.  Consumer attitude toward the ban was generally positive. The majority of consumers told researchers that they remember to take their own bags 8 out of 10 times they visit the grocery store. More than two thirds of consumers were observed not only to take their own bags, but also to take enough bags for their total shop. Only a quarter of consumers purchased bags from the supermarket. A further 11 per cent of shoppers bought so few items that they did not require a bag.

Exit interview with grocery shoppers indicated a positive consumer response, with only 4 per cent saying they never took their own bags, and a further 20 per cent saying they took their own bags less than 50 per cent of the time.

Retailers’ responses to the ban

The transition for retailers was reported to be mostly smooth, with 50 per cent of retailers reporting having had no issues. Overall, researchers found that retailers were positive about the implementation of the ban, although a few felt the time frame for implementation was too fast.

Retailers told researchers that the marketing campaign for the ban played a significant role in the in its smooth implementation. “Communication from the government ensured that retailers were not seen as profiteering but simply implementing new government legislation,” said the report.

But some retailers did report issues with the ban, including increases in shoplifting due to concealed items in the false bottoms of ‘green bags’, and occupational health and safety (OHS) issues related to transmission of disease due to dirty bags and injury due to lifting of heavier individual bags.

Recommendations for future developments

While the response of retailers and consumers to the ban has been generally positive, the report expressed some concern about what consumers are using to carry their groceries instead of lightweight plastic bags.

Consumers said they owned more ‘green bags’ than any other type of reusable bag, although said they were attempting to reuse all types of bags. The perception among shoppers was that ‘green bags’ last significantly longer than the heavy plastic or thicker plastic bags (15.9 months for ‘green bags’, compared to 5.2 months for heavy plastic and 2.8 months for thicker plastic bags).

More than half of consumers interviewed were supportive of extending the ban to include heavy and thick plastic bags, like those used in department stores. But researchers pointed out that the alternative, ‘green bags’, are often also made of plastic and have a limited lifespan, saying that only a third of consumers said they had recycled ‘green bags’ they no longer wanted to use.

Researchers found that almost half of consumers said they thrown out at least one resusable bag in the last six months.  Of these, 58 per cent threw out a ‘green bag’ and 48 per cent a heavy plastic bag. Two thirds said they threw the bag out because it had worn out, 34 per cent said the bag was dirty, and 15 per cent said they threw the bag out because they had too many.

The report recommended that any future initiatives should include information for consumers about how to recycle their reusable bags when they reached the end of their lifespan.

Meanwhile, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Northern Territory (NT) have also banned plastic bags. Australian Food News reported in January 2013 that Canberrans were supportive of the ban in the ACT.