2003 Coles Bay bans plastic shopping bags

Coles Bay Tasmania. Image: Creative Commons - Tirin aka Takver

Coles Bay has a permanent population of around 200 and is located on the edge of the Freycinet National Park and Wineglass Bay in Tasmania. To provide a safer environment for the area’s wildlife and marine life, the town became the first in Australia to ban non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags at checkouts.

The idea for the ban came from Ben Kearney, a local baker who was president of the Coles Bay Tourism Association. After a meeting with John Dee, founder of Planet Ark, Kearney approached the Association with the plan and began a campaign to get the local retailers on board. Each town resident was given five calico shopping bags. Retailers also offered customers 25-cent reusable paper bags or $2.50 calico bags. The ban came into effect on Anzac Day, 2003.

The initiative was widely praised and earned Coles Bay the Tasmanian Government’s Environmental Excellence Award. Kearney was named the national Local Hero of the Year for 2005 at the Australian of the Year awards. He was also  Tasmanian of the Year in 2005.

The Coles Bay example inspired others. In 2004, Mogo, on the south coast of New South Wales, instituted its own ban on non-reusable plastic shopping bags – the first Australian mainland town to do so. In 2008, Peter Garrett, then the environment minister in the Rudd Labor government, proposed a national ban but abandoned the plan when states and territories could not agree. The following year, South Australia became the first jurisdiction to institute a state-wide ban.

Other states and territories eventually followed and, by 2019, most Australian states had banned single-use plastic shopping bags. New South Wales was the hold-out, with legislation taking effect on 1 June 2022. The campaign to reduce the amount of single-use plastics going to landfill continues, with plastic straws, cutlery, plates and polystyrene packaging among the many items to be targeted by legislators.

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