WESTERN Australian businessman Jeff Burch is bewildered by the fact that the plastic bags he introduced to Australia’s supermarkets 20 years ago suddenly appear to have been elevated to the top of the Federal Government’s environmental hitlist.
Mr Burch, whose company dominates the Australian plastic shopping bag market, claims that emotion rather than logic is fuelling a surprise threat by Federal Environment Minister David Kemp, backed by his State counterparts, to introduce a 25 cent levy on every bag handed over at the supermarket checkout.
Mr Kemp has given retailers, the main users of the bags through their checkouts, until June 27 to respond to the proposal that is part of a target to halve the 6.9 billion a year plastic shopping bag market and boost recycling substantially within 18 months.
Mr Burch said the irony of this demand was that the cost of Mr Kemp’s levy proposal could end up taking Peter Costello’s recent $4-a-week tax cuts from consumers and return them straight back to Federal coffers.
And Australia’s environment would be no better off, he said.
Most plastic shopping bags are used as bin liners in consumers’ kitchens, a health-based necessity that would require replacement – probably with plastic garbage bags.
Best known for his hands-on proprietorship of wine label Howard Park, Mr Burch’s real wealth has come from the packaging industry – including his 50 per cent ownership of Victorian-based Detmark Polybags Pty Ltd, the only remaining major Australian manufacturer in the industry.
This business has been suddenly threatened by a campaign apparently started in Victoria that he claims is based on flawed environmental arguments.
Mr Burch said 83 per cent of plastic shopping bags end up as bin liners and eventually go to landfill.
He said if they disappeared it would not stop households putting their rubbish in plastic for disposal – it would just signal the revival of the garbage bag.
Mr Burch adds that the plastic shopping bags Detmark produces for the likes of Coles, Woolworths and Foodland are totally recyclable, yet the same governments making this an issue will not make it mandatory for recycling facilities to be put in place.
“Is the environmental debate going to reflect emotion and fear or debate and logic?” Mr Burch asked.
“Our argument is the environmental footprint for our plastic shopping bags, on a cradle to grave analysis, is smaller than other alternatives. That is including paper.”
“What are the alternatives?” he asked.
It is a rhetorical question from an economic point of view too, Mr Burch said.
He reckons the consumer need for something suitable to carry their goods in is one of the vital elements of retailing and alternatives to plastic will cost consumers almost as much as the proposed levy.
“To run a supermarket you need two things: supermarket check out bags and till paper. Without these everything grinds to a halt,” Mr Burch said.
He said Australia’s super-markets embraced the plastic bag concept when he took it to them about 20 years ago.
At 2 cents a bag, they are around 15 per cent of the cost of paper bags that struggle to cope with the loads and moisture that shopping bags must withstand.
Paper bags are also much heavier, which increases transportation costs and the environ-mental issues that surround distribution.
Mr Burch said the average consumer used 15 to 20 bags a week, which translates to up to $200 a year per shopper if a 25 cent levy was introduced.
“What will Joe Average think when they get hit by a $200 a year shopping fee?” he asked.
“Maybe it is about raising a lot of money at the retail level and calling it an environmental tax and blaming it on the plastic bag?”
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