Woolworths and Coles removed single-use plastic bags from their checkouts across Australia in June and July as most state governments in Australia have now banned the thin bags.
New South Wales is the only state that has not legislated or planned to legislate a ban.
But the supermarket giant has given into pressure from irritated shoppers and on Wednesday announced it will indefinitely provide their 15c thicker plastic bags for free in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.
However shoppers in SA, TAS, ACT and NT will still have to pay 15c for the same bags.
Coles says shoppers need more time to adjust to bringing their own reusable bags, but Waste Management Association of Australia said this inconsistency is dangerous.
“It’s just messy,” CEO Gayle Sloan said.
“The key for us, where we produce 64 million tonnes of waste annually, is to work out ways to avoid the creation of waste and this kind of flip-flopping gets really confusing for the public and it gets really confusing for industry.”
Leadership by the Federal Government was needed on the issue of plastic bags so companies and consumers knew where they stood, Ms Sloan said.
“I feel like we don’t treat consumers with enough respect because I think they really understand we’re trying to avoid the creation of waste, avoid the use of plastic,” she said.
“We know we use way too much fossil fuel in the creation of plastic, and we actually just need to ban it.”
A bit of patience is needed and consumers are capable of changing their behaviours quickly, Ms Sloan said.
“We’ve seen that with container deposit [schemes] so we should just keep moving forward with certainty and give both the public and industry certainty,” she said.
The back-down by Coles also annoyed environmental groups, who warned that the reusable bags were worse for the environment if they were discarded into waterways and habitats.
Single-use plastic bags take years to break down, and many end up in the environment polluting oceans, rivers and beaches.
However, if reusable plastic bags reach the oceans and other habitats, they could cause as much — if not more — damage than single-use bags currently do.
That is because they take longer to break down.
“Coles have caved in far too quickly to a small but vocal minority and there is absolutely no doubt Coles will be punished for this decision by customers who don’t want to see plastic bags littering their beaches and killing marine life,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific campaigner Zoe Deans said.
Jon Dee, who started the National Plastic Bag Campaign in 2002, said Coles’s decision was odd.
“This decision makes a complete mockery of Coles’s claim to want to reduce plastic waste and is a betrayal of the millions of their customers who want the supermarket to do the right thing in favour of a vocal minority,” Ms Deans said.
“Removing the price means that these reusable bags are far more likely to be used once and discarded.”
Mr Dee said a previous trial of slightly thicker plastic bags, run by the National Plastic Bag Campaign, showed the number of customers who returned to reuse them was “pathetically low”.