It’s unlikely many in charge would have predicted the level of backlash which ensued following the rollout of Western Australia’s single-use plastic bag ban at the beginning of July. 

Stories of shopping baskets stolen, trolleys of food abandoned and staff physically and verbally assaulted made headlines and saturated newsfeeds around the state, as consumers adapted to what, on the surface, seemed to be a relatively minor transition. 

The reality was anything but – both Coles and Woolworths back-flipped on their initial offering to the public, dishing out their 15c multi-use plastic bags for free for a limited time in an apparent move to quell shopper discontent. At the time of print, Coles had extended its offer indefinitely before reversing its reversal, offering free reusable bags until August 29 before charging for them as originally planned. 

Both supermarkets also offered rewards via their respective shopper point systems for those who did bring their own bags – an initiative crediting those who had adjusted their behaviour in line with the new system. The need for change, as explained by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, is clear. 

The State Government estimates Western Australians used 360 million lightweight plastic bags, or 140 bags per person, last year. Five million of these are thought to have been littered each year in WA, impacting the state’s soils, waterways, marine environments and fauna. But with the large environmental benefits and the practical cost of change relatively small, why did the rollout invoke such a divisive and angry response? 

A failure to communicate 
According to Curtin University Professor of Health Policy and 2018 West Australian of the Year Mike Daube AO, much of the failure came in the messaging by the supermarkets around the changes and their implications for shoppers and the environment. Professor Daube has campaigned on public health issues for four decades and was heavily involved in the introduction of plain packaging policy for tobacco products. 

While anti-smoking quit campaigns are longer-lead, Professor Daube said there were parallels between bans on smoking in public areas and the single-use plastic bag bans recently enacted by supermarkets in WA. 

“In my experience with smoking bans, the most important things are that you’re well prepared, the bans are well flagged and well explained – then you rarely have problems,” he told Leader. “My sense on the plastic bag ban is that though there did seem to be a bit of publicity about it, a lot of people were seemingly taken unawares – they showed up at the shops one day and things were different. 

“I think the biggest issue is around good preparation, making sure people are aware well ahead of time that things are going to be different, and explaining it over and over again. There had been some publicity from Coles and Woolworths and whoever else, but it hadn’t really been taken to the front of the mind – that’s the biggest thing I learned from my experience with smoking bans.” 

When it comes to changing consumer behaviour, the style of campaign typically dictates the level of attention given to its different components and outcomes. The messaging around quitting smoking, for example, tends to focus strongly on health benefits and the harms of continuing. When it came to single-use plastic bag bans, the prechange communication was a little muddled, according to Professor Daube. 

“I’m not sure how many people out there really understand how plastic bags harm the environment – I don’t think the supermarkets really explained that very well,” he said. “Why are we introducing it? Because of the benefits of being environmentally sound. If it had been explained better, I think there may have been less resistance.” 

Plastic not so fantastic 
Compounding this effect was the prominence of post-rollout messaging around buying reusable bags, rather than the environmental benefits of not having plastic bags. 

“To be a bit cynical, one thing that seems to be a bit strange is that we have the supermarkets trying to do this thing to protect the environment, but when you go to a supermarket now with the plastic bag ban in place, the first thing you’re asked is ‘do you want to buy a plastic bag?’,” Professor Daube said. “We thought we were trying to get rid of the bags. It’s not that 15c or 20c is going to break the consumer, it’s that they get a bit irritated they have to pay extra.” 

But while outrage may kick off initially in instances where consumer behaviour change is enforced, the good news for supermarkets, and those tired of debate, is it tends to die down quickly. Citing fluoride in drinking water, smoking on airplanes and compulsory seatbelts in cars, Professor Daube said the storm would blow over sooner rather than later. 

“One day it’s going to mean the end of civilisation as we know it, and a few days later it’s just the way it is,” he said.

“I think it’s probably a little different with plastic bags because we’re continually reminded by being asked to pay, which is a little irritating. “It’s not a governmental issue; I think it’s the big retailers that should be doing more to educate their consumers who should bear the brunt of the criticism. 

“All of that being said, it would have been history in a few weeks, but then Coles backflipped, which made it an issue again – and completely destroyed any claims they might have had to environmental concerns.”

Jack McGinn is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.