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The Globe and Mail

Q&A: How South Australia forced a plastic bag ban

In this November 26, 2008 photo, a customer receives plastic biodegradable plastic bags when shopping at Noah's Natural Foods on Yonge St., Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Toronto has become the first major city in Canada to ban plastic shopping bags. But the idea is certainly not a new one: other jurisdictions such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have put similar bans in place.

Down Under, after six years of trying to reach national consensus on an Australia-wide ban, the state of South Australia went against the grain and pushed ahead with an outright ban of single-use plastic bags in January 2009.

The Globe interviewed a spokesman from Zero Waste South Australia, a government organization that enables people to improve their recycling and waste avoidance practices. (It is common practice to not name spokespeople.)

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How did the decision to ban plastic bags come about?

The ban was introduced to curb litter from single use shopping bags. Estimates in 2004 said there were 4.7 billion bags in use in Australia, of which 80 million became litter that cost the community $4 million. The various states and territories had been discussing a national ban for some time, but could not agree on a way forward to ban bags. South Australia -- where it was estimated 400 million bags were in use in 2004 -- introduce its own ban in 2009. At the time the ban came into effect, then minister for environment and conservation Gail Gago said this was the right move from the state. "We were prepared to be flexible in the interests of national consistency, but we are not prepared to delay such a vital step in meeting the world's responsibility to act more sustainably," Ms. Gago said in 2009.

What was included in the ban?

Thin plastic bags with handles, which were usually supplied at supermarket check-outs and take-away food outlets, and made of light weight polyethylene less than 35 microns thick. The ban also covered degradable bags made of polyethylene which are not compostable.

The ban excluded 'Bags on a roll,' such as those used at vegetable and fruit stalls, heavier plastic bags used by boutiques and department stores, compostable and paper bags, and 'green bags' designed for multiple use

What were the challenges in implementing the ban?

(After Wednesday's vote, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford raised the question about whether the city even had the jurisdiction to set a ban on plastic bags.) In South Australia, there was no such concern and there were no legal challenges from the plastics industry while retailers were included in stakeholder discussions on how best to introduce the ban in shops across South Australia. According to research for the government, the public's chief concern was finding alternatives to plastic bags for bin liners.

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Has the ban led to a reduction of litter?

South Australia says the ban is working, based on their results on the Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index. The national survey takes quantitative measure from over 950 sites twice per year to create an annual report on litter in each state and territory. Before the ban was put into effect, South Australia averaged 11.08 litres of garbage per sq. metres in 2006-2007. In the most recent survey in 2010-2011, it's down to 5.36 litres of garbage per sq. metres compared to the national average of 6.49.

What has been the public's response?

Research from 2009 shows that 82 per cent of South Australians believed that the ban is having an impact, and six out of 10 thought the ban is having an impact believed that this was in reducing litter.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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