Shops compliant amid calls to extend bag ban
By CHARLOTTE KING:
Nearly 95% of inspected businesses have complied with the ACT plastic bag ban, according to information released under Freedom of Information.
The ACT Office of Regulatory Services (ORS) oversees the implementation of the ban and released the figure after a Freedom of Information request was lodged in March.
The ORS stated it had inspected 496 businesses since the ban came into effect in November last year, 469 of which had fully complied with the ban.
“[Twenty seven] businesses required the assistance of the ORS to ensure that they were meeting their obligations under the Plastic Bag Ban,” the release stated. “Following this process, no businesses inspected were found to be non-compliant.”
Simon Corbell MLA oversaw the introduction of the plastic bag ban as ACT Minister for the Environment and is also in charge of ensuring compliance in his position as the ACT Attorney-General.
A spokeswoman for Mr Corbell said that the ORS carried out more than 2,300 inspections and issued four warnings but no fines. The ORS declined a request for an interview about these figures.
The maximum penalty for breaching the Plastic Shopping Bag Ban Act 2011 is $5,500 for an individual and $27,500 for a corporation. Despite the ORS being entitled to fine businesses or people for non-compliance, the flexibility shown in the starting months of the ban has been appreciated by Canberra’s business community.
Chris Faulks is the CEO of the Canberra Business Council (CBC), which represents thousands of Canberra businesses, and says such policies are more efficient when governments work with businesses instead of against them.
“We’re not opposed to penalties but we think it should be a last stage after businesses have had enough information, education and the Government has worked with them to help them to be compliant,” Ms Faulks said.
The high level of compliance has in part been put down to the significant exposure the ban received. It was accompanied by an extensive advertising campaign as well as a four-month transition period.
“Elements of the campaign included direct mail-outs, advertising on TV, the radio and the web, poster campaigns, [and] a long phase-in period,” Mr Corbell’s spokeswoman said.
Ms Faulks says she was impressed by the ACT Government’s implementation process.
“[It] gave businesses enough time to make arrangements to source the right sorts of bags, to work out their funding model and then to implement the changes,” Ms Faulks said. “So it was actually done very well.”
But a local waste policy expert says that any waste-reducing policy would be supported by the Canberra community because it is particularly “civic-minded”.
“People want to do the right thing,” said Dr Robin Tennant-Wood, an Associate Professor of Government at the University of Canberra.
“There’s probably a lot of social factors behind that but I think that level of compliance doesn’t surprise me. I think businesses in Canberra… want to be seen to be doing the right thing.”
Ms Faulks echoed this sentiment, saying that although larger stores have greater capacity to source thicker or biodegradable bags, smaller businesses have embraced the ban.
“The [small, independent] supermarket that I shop at… [was] very happy to source and then use the plastic bags that are biodegradable,” Ms Faulks said. “Obviously there was a small financial impact on them in the sense that the bags were slightly more expensive.”
The supermarket chain Coles told The Canberra Times in January this year that their bin liner sales had increased by nearly 30 per cent since the ban started. At the time, Liberal MLA Alistair Coe told The Canberra Times that the plastic bag ban was “putting an extra cost on the weekly bills of Canberra families”.
The office of Zed Seselja MLA, Leader of the ACT Liberals and Shadow Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Dr Tennant-Wood believes that, despite the general acceptance of the ban by the ACT community, the policy itself is not particularly sound. She is worried that consumers are being handed responsibility for waste policy and management that ought to be shouldered by the Government.
“The fact that we’re reducing [plastic bag use] is good, I just have reservations about the overall efficacy of the policy,” said Dr Tennant-Wood.
Dr Tennant-Wood also stated that the ban is “low-risk policy” that has “cost the Government nothing”.
“What I’d like to see now is the Government coming through with policies for reducing, for example, packaging,” Dr Tennant-Wood said. “Most of the products we buy at the supermarkets are hideously over-packaged.”
But Ms Faulks says any limitations on food packaging would have to come from a national agreement or it will not be feasible.
“That really relates to the producers of those goods so it’s back where it’s manufactured and packaged,” Ms Faulks said.
“That would be a policy issue for the whole of Australia and would involve negotiating with the manufacturers of food and other products that are currently wrapped in plastic.”
Dr Tennant-Wood agreed that such a move would not be easy, but stated that unnecessary waste was taking its toll on local environments such as waterways and paddocks.
“This [further action] is something that I think the ACT has to start considering; how much clout do we have?” Dr Tennant-Wood asked.
Mr Corbell’s spokeswoman stated that the ACT Government is continuing to work with other governments on a national approach to reducing packaging waste.
“A number of options to reduce packaging waste are being actively investigated and public consultation on the options was completed earlier this year,” the spokeswoman said.
Limitations on plastic bags are not a new thing in Australia. South Australia became the first Australian state to ban plastic bags with legislation that came into effect in May 2009.
The retail giant Target banned single-use plastic bags from all of its Australian stores in June 2009 voluntarily. The Northern Territory enacted a ban two months before the ACT, in September last year.
Questions were sent last week to Robyn Parker MLA, the NSW Environment Minister, as to whether NSW would be the next state to become plastic-bag free. No response had been received at the time of publication.
The plastic bag ban came about under the ACT Waste Management Strategy 2011-2015, which in part aims to raise awareness and achieve behaviour change in relation to waste.
A preliminary review of the efficiency of the ban will be conducted later this year for use by the incoming Government, according to Mr Corbell’s spokeswoman. This will be followed by a formal review of the ban in November 2013, as per the legislation.
In the meantime, the ORS stated that it would continue to monitor businesses across the ACT for compliance.