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Aussies Survive A Whole Year Without Single-Use Plastic Bags

We did it! We may have forgotten our bags once (or thrice), but we survived the dreaded bag ban.

Thursday, June 21 marks one year since Woolworths supermarkets removed single-use plastic bags from their stores in all states.

Rival grocer Coles followed with their own ban days later on July 1.

One year on, despite initial reservations and outrage, shoppers seem to successfully have adapted to the BYO approach.

Most Australias have happily adapted the BYO approach. Photo: Getty Images

Stopping the distribution of single-use plastic-bags by major supermarkets has prevented an estimated 1.5 billion bags going into circulation, and into landfill. The National Retail Association said there's been an 80 percent drop in consumption of single-use bags.

"Coles has been delighted to see customers grow more accustomed to bringing their reusable bags from home as it becomes part of their regular shopping routine," a Coles spokesperson told 10 daily.

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While the bag ban was imposed for largely environmental reasons, many remember the public outrage at the move.

Experts told 10 daily supermarkets sought to redefine what was considered 'socially correct practice' with the ban, and therefore the positives -- rather than the negatives -- needed to be emphasised by grocers.

Plastic Bags
Over 1.5 billion plastic bags have been saved from consumption. Photo: Getty Images.

READ MORE: 11 Chic, Eco-Friendly Shopping Bags To Help Save The Planet

Shoppers were disgruntled with the inconvenience of having to remember to bring their own bags, while others were concerned they'd have nothing to line their bins with. There was also claims that supermarkets were using the ban as a money-making scheme, so customers had to buy new bags instead of getting them for free.

The outrage was rooted in customers feeling they were losing-out, according to Dr. Simon Lockery Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Design Sustainability Innovation at RMIT.

Lockery said many underestimated the significant change in practice the bag ban would have, especially as supermarkets made the change quickly, with only a short time to communicate reasons to customers.

"When your message is around 'you are not going to have something', or 'it is going to be more expensive' when it is a penalty or a negative connotation, people don't like it," Lockery told 10 daily.

"That's why talking about the positive, or what you are gaining, might be a better way of approaching it."

Plastic Bags
Some consumers felt they were losing out when the bag was banned. Photo: Getty Images.

The bag ban campaign could have been improved by supermarkets giving people more time to accept the situation, he theorised.

"For a lot of people, it is [a big social change] because it changes the way they operate. If you go to the supermarket, you get the bag, you don't have to think about taking one in," Lockery said.

One year on, taking a bag to the supermarket has become a habitual behaviour for shoppers, but this could mean people will continue to consume products with poor-environmental impacts unconsciously.

"Basically, we almost had to re-train ourselves as humans,"  Dr Paul Burke, Deputy Director of the Centre for Business Intelligence and Data Analytics at the University of Technology Sydney, told 10 daily.

"But, unfortunately, that mindfulness of why we are actually doing this probably by this stage has been lost on a lot of consumers because it's now a habit... once it's a habit, we don't really think about the reason behind the habitual decision making."

Reusable Bags
Australians had to change their practices and remember their bags. Photo: Getty Images

While experts say reducing the use of plastic bags -- consciously or not -- is a positive, a wider approach to waste is needed to make a meaningful impact.

"With the bags, we are dealing with a small component of litter overall," Burke said.

One of the major barriers to wider change is customer and industry demand for convenience.

"The luxury that we have gone into with this convenience culture, which is part of this practice, really has driven a whole lot of unconscious consumption, Lockery said.

While the plastic bag ban is an example of successful change in behaviour, discussing how similar change can occur with packaging and food waste is the next big step -- but it's likely to be met with similar backlash to the bag ban.

Plastic bags are just one form of litter. Photo: Getty Images.

"If we want good outcomes we have to talk about all of those, maybe uncomfortable issues. There is more to these issues than a simple one-line slogan. There needs to be more debate and complexity by those involved," Lockery said.

There's hope, despite predicted teething problems, that more sustainable consumption could become just another habit in the future.

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au