Last week, the Queensland Government Environment Department issued a discussion paper to consult with the community on its proposed ban of lightweight plastic bags (i.e. the type you get at Coles and Woolworths). However, the scope for public consultation is minimal given the paper basically says the ban is coming and the consultation is just on the parameters of the ban, such as whether biodegradable bags are included. From a public policy process perspective, this is woeful, particularly given the discussion paper does not present a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) comparing different options before deciding on a ban as the preferred option.
It would have been good to see at least a CBA comparing an outright ban, a small charge on plastic bags, and no policy action at all, for example. An outright ban would create substantial inconvenience (particularly for those of us who use public transport and would have to regularly carry a reusable bag around) and additional costs for consumers (i.e. purchasing reusable bags). A small charge (e.g. 10 cents per lightweight plastic bag) would be less heavy-handed and a more efficient response to the environmental costs of plastic bags than a ban, and would still likely achieve a large reduction in plastic bag usage. Indeed, a plastic bag levy has proven to be very successful in England (see the Guardian report England’s plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced). Alas, the Government has prematurely ruled out a charge because, according to the discussion paper (p. 14):
“If regulation is introduced, the retail sector favours a ban on the supply of lightweight plastic bags, rather than a charge.”
This is possibly because shoppers would then be forced to buy the heavier reusable shopping bags, on which the retailers would be earning a margin, while any minimum charge on lightweight bags might only provide a tiny margin over their cost.
To an extent, the savings that retailers make by not having to supply lightweight bags may be passed on to consumers, but I doubt these savings would offset the additional costs to consumers from a ban on the lightweight bags. Of course, I remain open to the evidence, but the discussion paper does not attempt to weight up the costs and benefits of different options.
I am not denying that lightweight plastic bags can cause environmental damage, but I am not convinced an outright ban is the answer, and neither were the Productivity Commission and other experts who have examined this issue in the past. Regarding previous studies, and for an overview of the issues in banning plastic bags, see Rod Bogaards’s excellent guest post from earlier this year, a guest post which foreshadowed the coming plastic bag ban:
Is banning plastic bags the best option to tackle litter and reduce waste?
Submissions are due on the plastic bag ban discussion paper by 27 February.