Woolworths' backflip on the plastic bag ban is a national embarrassment

Disappointed commentary: Woolworths backflip on the single-use plastic bag ban is weak and ignores the point of the entire endeavour.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
3 min read
Plastic Bags In Water
Ahmed Areef/Getty Images

We are trash, Australia.

I'm sorry, but that's the truth. We are absolute garbage. Put us in a single-use plastic bag, tie us up and throw us in the bin.

After months of warnings, in-store signage and ad campaigns, Woolworths finally stopped giving customers access to single-use plastic bags in its stores across the country on June 20.

Then, society descended into chaos.

Hellfire and brimstone rained down upon New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. The earth shuddered, cracking open. The apocalypse had arrived, all lava and acid rain. There were no zombies, no aliens, no Cthulhu rising from the churning oceans like science fiction predicted.

No, it was the plastic bag ban that finally undid Australian society as we know it.

Plastic bags are, unequivocally, terrible for the planet. They take a long time to break down. They find their way into sewerage systems and then the oceans and then the digestive tracts of wildlife. Some animals get wrapped up in them and die. Woolworths was using 3.2 billion single-use bags a year. This is its attempt to, in some small way, curb that pollution.

However, taking away the bags really caused people to freak out.

Just nine days after Woolworths announced it would stop providing the plastic bags for good, it has done a backflip, offering its reusable plastic bags -- that usually cost 15 cents -- for free until July 8.

Why? Because "some customers have told us that getting into the habit of bringing their own reusable bags has been a challenge" says managing director Claire Peters, in a statement to CNET. Because, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, "irate customers refused to pay the 15 cents for reusable plastic bags at the checkout."

Plastic Bags In Water

Plastic bags are terrible for the planet.

Ahmed Areef/Getty Images

Getting into the habit has been a challenge?

I lived through the South Australian plastic bag ban. Those trying times. Those dark days.

On May 4, 2009, South Australia banned checkout-style plastic bags for good. I was living in South Australia at the time. I remember that the local paper's letters to the editor section was filled with grumpy folk who had to, god forbid, spend 15 cents to grab a plastic bag. Some were upset that they couldn't use the plastic bags as bin liners.

Yet, we got through it. Our state survived.

Offering reusable plastic bags for free is a giant leap backward. The entire idea behind the ban is that we discourage people from using plastics, making sure that whenever they go grocery shopping they take their own bags and, perhaps, for a fleeting moment, consider the damage that plastics do to the environment.

That's the entire message! That's the whole point of it! Reusable plastic bags are still plastic. If they aren't reused, they're really not that much better, either. They're still pretty terrible for the environment, it turns out.

Offering reusable plastics for free this week won't see a customer base remember their bags more -- it just delays the phasing out for another week. It says "this is a problem for future-Woolworths to deal with." It's just a weak attempt to please a proportion of the customer base at the expense of the planet. I hope that it, at least, stops employees being berated for a week.

I'm not even mad, Woolies, I am just bloody disappointed.

The truth is -- the stone cold truth is -- it's not at all difficult to remember to bring a reusable bag to the supermarket. If you forget, you are mildly inconvenienced. Spend the 15 cents to grab a few more, if you're going to use them. That's called "learning."

Most of the reusable bags are lightweight enough to fold up and get into a pocket. That's how I go to the supermarket, now. If you're doing a weekly shop and need multiple bags to stack your groceries in, you can even fold them up, place them in a larger bag and carry all your bags in, at once, in one bag. It's almost genius!

On Sunday, July 1, Coles will phase out single-use plastic bags across the country.

Please, please, please, Coles -- don't offer your reusable plastics for free. Don't get down, down, down with that. 

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