The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) has called the latest debate about phasing out plastic bags by Minister Garrett by 1 January 2009 as “populist emotional rhetoric”.

According to the ARA’s executive director Richard Evans, Australian retailers will respond to any change in legislation, but Minister Garrett is supporting an increased burden on Australian consumers, who are already struggling under interest rate rises and increased petrol prices.

Minister Garrett was to consult broadly during March prior to the Environment Protection and Heritage Council meeting on 17 April 2008, but the ARA says it has not been contacted for comment.

The ARA is especially concerned about the misinformation being spread in the media about the environmental impact of plastic bags.

“According to reports in The Australian (10 March 2008, Scientists trash plastic bag ban), scientists and environmentalists have questioned the case against the use of plastic shopping bags as based on flawed science and misreporting.

“In addition, The Times newspaper in Britain has quoted scientists, including an expert who advises environmental group Greenpeace, as saying plastic bags pose only a minimal threat to most marine species including seals, whales, dolphins and seabirds.”

Evans adds that retailers are of course concerned about the environment and more should be done to reduce the use of plastic bags, but fears the consumer will end up paying if new legislation or increased taxes come into play.

“The ARA supports a system of voluntary compliance. The use of plastic bags in supermarkets has reduced by 45 per cent between 2002 and 2005. The issue here is not about the availability of plastic bags, it is about litter management. Consumers need to take greater responsibility of how they reuse and dispose of plastic bags… it’s a litter issue,” he said.

“Legislation won’t fix the problem. Where do you draw the line on plastic bags … which plastic bags; what exemptions will apply; what are the alternatives? Is the Minister suggesting we should go back to paper? Surely this will add greater problems to global warming?”

According to Evans, the Productivity Commission has already warned against the dangers of non-targeted solutions such as bans, taxes and levies, which could end up costing $1 billion. Evans believes the best option is to leave plastic bag use where it is and search for other available solutions.