Ban on single-use plastic bags comes into force tomorrow in NSW

You may still have a closet or drawer full of them, but from tomorrow the humble lightweight plastic bag will be banned from use in New South Wales.

Single-use plastic bags will be the first plastic item to be phased out in the state this year as part of the New South Wales government’s plan to reduce waste and pollution.

The government and the National Retail Association (NRA) have pledged to work together to help businesses make the transition, and do not expect every store to comply from day one.

It is estimated that more than 2.7 billion plastic items end up in NSW waterways each year, and single-use plastic items account for 60% of the state’s waste.

Environment Minister James Griffin has said it’s time to move on from disposable items that provide “a few practical moments” but cause years of environmental fallout.

“We each have the power to make positive environmental changes on an individual level, and I encourage everyone to choose to go plastic free as often as possible,” he said.

In November, the ban will be extended to other single-use plastic items such as cutlery, straws, stirrers, plates, bowls, polystyrene eating utensils, cotton swabs and products personal care products containing microplastics.

Phasing out single-use plastic is part of the state government’s plan to reduce pollution.(PA: Paul Miller)

What is changing?

Plastic bags 35 microns – around 0.035mm – thick, or less, will be banned from Wednesday.

This includes biodegradable and compostable bags that are below the threshold thickness.

To put that into perspective, the average human hair is about 70 microns thick.

The government says compostable or biodegradable thin bags were also banned because they only break down if treated in an industrial composting facility, which creates just as many problems as conventional plastic.

Companies caught supplying the banned bags face fines of between $11,000 and $275,000.

Which bags can still be used?

The government says people shopping in large grocery stores and large retail stores are unlikely to be affected too much.

The bans do not apply to thicker reusable plastic bags, produce bags, waste bags or essential product packaging.

This also includes things like dog poop bags, trash bags, medical bags, or the slim bags you put your meat in at the deli.

Most bags distributed by large supermarkets and shops are thicker than 35 microns and will not be affected.

Thicker reusable bags such as fabric ones are, of course, fine to use.

a person carrying a reusable bag
Reusable bags are not affected by the ban.(AAP Image: Woolworths Group, PPR, Dallas Kilponen)

What do traders think?

The NRA says it has engaged more than 10,000 retailers across the state and the response to the move has been “very positive.”

“Retailers and their suppliers are very supportive of environmental initiatives, with many already phasing out single-use plastics, measuring their carbon footprint and committing to strong packaging and food waste targets” , said general manager Dominique Lamb.

NRA representatives visited retailers across the state to distribute fact sheets and provide assistance in six different languages.

Ms Lamb said it was important for shoppers to be aware of the change, although she noted there had been a 90% drop in usage since the plastic bag fee was introduced.

“It’s important for shoppers to understand that more sustainable alternatives, like fabric, recycled paper and heavy recycled plastic, are more expensive and retailers may have to pass on those costs,” she said.

“Of course, people can always bring their own alternatives such as reusable bags.”

The state’s environment minister, Mr Griffin, said many companies have already phased out single-use plastics, but acknowledges the ban will mean “meaningful change” for some.

The government is committed to supporting businesses during the transition.

According to the NRA, one thing would help turn the patchwork of state policies into a cohesive national framework.

a woman looking and smiling
Ms Lamb says the response from retailers has been positive.(Supplied: NRA)

What happened in other states?

“One of the biggest challenges is that there have been five state-based plastic bans in the last 12 months, and they all have different rules,” Ms Lamb said.

“Even small businesses have an online presence and it’s very difficult for them to follow so many bans, especially when they each provide different advice.”

NSW was the latest state to ban lightweight plastic bags, with all other states and territories having already adopted a similar policy.

But when its single-use bans are extended in November, NSW will join Queensland and Western Australia as the most advanced states on the path to a much less plastic future.

cutlery, stirrers and plastic cups
From November 1, plastic kitchen utensils, including cutlery, bowls and plates, will no longer be permitted.( Supplied: Hornsby Shire Council)

Western Australia has already banned heavy plastic bags and plastic cups or lids. The state will ban coffee cups containing plastic, microbeads, fruit and vegetable bags and cotton swabs next year.

Queensland has also proposed banning these things, but its government has yet to set a date for the rules to come into effect.

This year, the ACT will match South Australia in banning lightweight plastic bags, straws, drink stirrers, cutlery and polystyrene food and drink containers.

Despite being dubbed Australia’s “most progressive” state, Victoria has so far only banned lightweight bags and will not expand its list until February 2023.

This puts it on a par with the Northern Territory and Tasmania for banning thin plastic bags alone.

Bryce K. Locke