Outcry over plastic bag ban is out of kilter

It was in the bag. Almost. It seems Coles customers are having trouble remembering to bring their own bags for shopping and are feeling cranky.

Funnily enough, they don't forget to bring money to pay for the shopping. However, Coles feels they need more adjustment time to get used to the disappearance of free single-use plastic bags.

Some customers raged when the bags were first removed, so Coles started providing, for free, reusable plastic bags: first, saying it was a temporary measure, then, after more "outrage", saying it was indefinite.

Now they've backflipped again and said it's until the end of this month. The logic of how that changes behaviour is lost on me.

Online forums exploded with the various announcements and, gosh, did comments drip with vitriol and anger on both sides.

The resistance to the bag ban is bewildering; other states have had this policy for years and seem to be looking at their tantrum-throwing neighbours with raised eyebrows.

We have done so well with other changes this outcry seems way out of proportion. When leaded fuel was phased out, people prepared, adapted and got on with it. When seatbelts were introduced, the same thing happened.

Habit changing takes time but Coles gave customers barely any before it baulked and embarked on its series of confusing U-turns.

Arguments about which bag material is less environmentally damaging or that people may die if they reuse unclean plastic bags are side issues, solved with a little research. 

The issue is greater than just plastic bags - it is how much we put our own convenience ahead of the impacts on the whole planet.

We cannot keep ignoring the evidence of microplastics in our food, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, marine life being strangled and clogged waterways.

We are behaving like we have another planet up our sleeve.

My message to Coles is that if people are complaining, be patient and also be clever: provide a financial incentive to facilitate the change process.

Offer a discount if people bring their own bags and charge people who don't (and please, more than 15 cents).

Meanwhile, I'll grab my hessian-sack shopping bags and head off to the market humming to myself; it sounds something like "Down, down, standards are down".

  • Nicola Philp is a Fairfax columnist