SO, AFTER years of planning, months of publicity, and weeks of having to cope without single-use plastic bags, it has come to this.
With Coles’ backflip on its own bag ban announced today, we’ve found ourselves in a position where it would have actually have been better for the environment if we’d never gone through this whole sorry process in the first place.
In an effort to banish the litter of lightweight, single-use carrier bags, our streets are now going to be littered with heavyweight carrier bags instead. Some progress.
The country’s second-largest supermarket chain has confirmed that its temporary offer of free reusable bags “to help our customers during this transition period”, due to expire today, will now be extended.
Not for another week or so. Indefinitely.
“Many customers bringing bags from home are still finding themselves short a bag or two so we are offering complimentary reusable ‘Better Bags’ to help them complete their shopping,” said the supermarket.
Sheer, utter nonsense. The bags are only “better” than their predecessors if you reuse them at least four times. If they are used just once, and many probably will now they’re free, they are demonstrably “worse bags”.
And wasn’t the whole point of charging people for bags to nudge them into remembering to bring their own bags? How is making them free going to help in that process?
On social media, they’ve been ripped into.
“Weak and spineless.” “shame on you,” “pathetic,” are some of the comments.
What an absolute rolled gold balls up. How can Coles’ environmental credentials be trusted again?
The firm has now given a free pass to its customers to cause the environment even more harm. No wonder sustainability advocates are livid.
Jon Dee from environmental group DoSomething told www.yya1n.com.cn Coles had responded to a “really small minority who have no intention of doing the right thing environmentally” and were “totally ignoring” the wishes of their own customers.
“If people can go to Coles now and not worry about remembering their bag, we could end up in a far worse situation (because) thicker bags take longer to break down. By doing this Coles is creating a far worse environmental problem.”
He said a trial conducted by Coles itself in the 2000s showed the 15-cent bags were “very, very rarely used again” with “unbelievably low” numbers coming back.
The company’s slogan is “Good things are happening at Coles”?
Yet, this move is, clearly, a bad thing for our streets, our landfill sites and our waterways.
Classic single-use carrier bags are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which takes lots of energy to make and isn’t great for marine life. They also take an age to break down — but not as much as bags made from thicker plastic bags like the ones Coles are now throwing at customers like lollies at a kid’s birthday party.
A 2016 report by the NSW Environmental Protection Agency found low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bags, like the ones Coles are now giving away, had to be used at least four times to have a lower environmental impact than the bags they replaced.
WHY EVEN BOTHER?
Coles can get away with all of this because in NSW and Victoria there was never an actual statewide ban in place at all.
The Woolies and Coles bag bans were self-imposed because both chains had sniffed the wind and decided the legislative axes would fall on bags soon enough, so why not get ahead of the curve and make the logistics of running the stores simpler.
But even in WA and Queensland, and the rest of the states and territories, where the bans were legally enforced, it was only the HDPE carriers that were axed. No government seriously thought a supermarket would give away the more expensive version for free, forever.
QUT marketing professor Dr Gary Mortimer described the move as a “step backwards”.
“Customers were already on the journey in changing their behaviour with plastic shopping bags, so this move is a backwards step, it confuses shoppers,” he said.
“When an organisation makes a claim they’re going to remove plastics in order to support a greener future, but then backtracks and gives away free plastic bags indefinitely, I think shoppers have a right to be sceptical.”
Dr Mortimer said it didn’t matter whether the bags were 15 cents or $1. “Having to scan a bag creates a behavioural change,” he said.
WHY COLES BUCKLED
It was likely that Woolworths and IGA will now follow suit, said Planet Ark’s Mr Dee.
“My concern is when Aldi, Woolworths and Coles all had the same position of no free plastic bags we had a level playing field because basically you didn’t have a choice, you had to remember your bag,” he said.
“By Coles doing the wrong thing and giving away these 15-cent bags, they put Aldi and Woolworths at a competitive disadvantage. We’re hoping Woolworths won’t respond by giving away their thicker bags. That’s the real risk of what Coles has done.”
Make no mistake, Coles isn’t doing this for larks. It knows the backlash it will get. This is happening because of feedback from customers at the check-outs in Sydney and Melbourne. Coles has decided that gain is worth the PR pain.
And yet, from Adelaide to Hobart, Canberra to Darwin, people have been coping without bags for years.
After all that planning, it took Coles a matter of weeks to blink on bags.
Surely they knew customers were going to push back? If their mettle was so weak, why did they even bother to go through this whole environmental charade. If this was the outcome, it would have been better for everyone if we didn’t have the ban in the first place. They may as well restock the check-outs with single-use carrier bags.
It might be a winner for slack shoppers, but it’s a disaster for the environment and for any major brand thinking of doing the right thing in the future.