04 May 2009


Today South Australia followed followed Zanzibar's lead and banned most types of plastic shopping bags .

There's been a lot of media comment about the change, much of it reiterating the Rann government line that this is a worthwhile (and worthy) exercise . A more sceptical and to my mind more accurate assessment was provided a week or so ago by Christian Kerr in The Spectator Australia.

There is nothing quite like fatuous gesture politics, particularly when one side of politics thinks that the other’s fatuous gesture deserves to be trumped with a fatuous gesture of their own. That is exactly what has happened in the state once labelled a ‘paradise of dissent’, South Australia. A ban on most kinds of plastic shopping bags has been gradually phased in from the beginning of this year. By May, a week away, retailers will be prohibited from supplying them.

South Australia is the first state to legislate for such a ban, so its environment minister Jay Weatherill has decreed that there must be an education campaign for shoppers, businesses and retail workers. ‘If they supply them it is an offence and so it’s an offence punishable by fine,’ he said. Instead of getting plastic bags to carry their shopping in, we get to carry the cost of promoting and enforcing this gimmicky new law. The local Liberal party opposed the legislation. Instead, they offered a gimmick of their own. They argued that a levy on plastic bags would be better. In other words, they wanted to tax the state’s citizenry for the privilege of carrying their shopping home.

Throughout the debate, South Australians were encouraged to believe these measures would be good for the environment. That is what Weatherill suggested when the bill passed into law last November. ‘We see millions of tonnes of these plastic bags being dumped every year across this nation,’ he said. But it is all just spin. The whole issue of plastic bags was examined in detail three years ago by an inquiry by the federal government’s main microeconomic policy review group, the Productivity Commission.

Its report, the catchily titled ‘Waste Generation and Resource Efficiency’, found fewer than one per cent of plastic bags become litter. The extent to which these bags harm wildlife, it suggested, is uncertain. The report found ‘no waste’ policies are unobtainable and lack credibility. Unsurprisingly, it also discovered that 75 per cent of households reuse their shopping bags rather than throw them away. The Productivity Commission has been accused of providing refuge for free-market fundamentalists, but it was politically savvy enough to throw a sop to the nanny-staters. The plastic bags we take home, the commission declared, also play an important role in food safety.

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