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Environment

Australia to end plastic bags in supermarkets

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia has followed China in announcing it plans to end plastic bag use in supermarkets, with its new environment minister saying on Thursday he wants a phase-out to start by the end of 2008.

A shopper leaves a Coles Myer supermarket in Sydney March 17, 2003. REUTERS/James D Morgan

“There are some 4 billion of these plastic bags floating around the place, getting into landfill, ending up affecting our wildlife, and showing up on our beaches while we are on holidays,” Environment Minister Peter Garrett said on Thursday.

“I think most Australians would like to see them rid. We think it’s absolutely critical that we get cracking on it,” Garrett, once president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, told local media.

“We’d like to see a phase-out implemented by 2008,” he said.

China launched a crackdown on plastic bags on Tuesday, banning production of ultra-thin bags and forbidding their use in supermarkets and shops from June 1, 2008.

“We should encourage people to return to carrying cloth bags, using baskets for their vegetables,” China’s State Council said in a notice on the government Web site (www.gov.cn).

Chinese people use up to 3 billion plastic bags a day and the country has to refine 5 million tonnes (37 million barrels) of crude oil every year to make plastics used for packaging, according to a report on the Web site of China Trade News (www.chinatradenews.com.cn).

Many countries such as Ireland and South Africa have experimented with heavy taxes, outright bans or eliminating the thinnest plastic bags, while some towns and cities have taken unilateral action to outlaw plastic bags.

“We’ve certainly had a system in place that’s been voluntary up to now, where you’ve got people coming into the supermarkets and they have the opportunity to take up those canvas bags,” said Garrett, whose centre-left Labor party came to power in November.

Garrett said he would meet with the leaders of Australia’s six states and two territories in April to discuss the phasing out of plastic bags.

But it is unclear how Australia will rid itself of plastic bags, whether like China it will issue an outright ban or like Ireland impose a levy. Garrett said he was not personally in favor of a levy as it punished shoppers.

“It has always been the policy of Labor to look at a total ban in 2008 and that is what minister Garrett is doing and we totally support that,” said Clean Up Australia chairman Ian Kiernan. “But we are not in favor of a levy.”

“We know that with the Irish example there was a dramatic reduction in the acceptance of plastic bags with the levy but that started to creep back and it has not proved to be effective in the long term,” Kiernan said.

Editing by Jerry Norton

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