News

July 1, 2018

Australians rage over plastic bag ban, with shop workers throttled and abused by customers

News Source: The Independent
Author: Jane Dalton

Supermarket staff in Australia have faced abuse and violence from shoppers angry at the removal of plastic bags as a ban comes into force. Customers rebelling against the end of free single-use bags have taken out their frustration on staff, prompting warnings to them to be considerate.

In Western Australia, a shopper put his hands around the throat of an employee at Woolworths, which had stopped giving out free plastic bags days before the ban came into force. It was one of dozens of cases of shop staff being abused as Australia moves to reduce the amount of non-decomposing synthetic materials going into rivers and seas.

In a survey of supermarket workers this week, out of 132 who responded, 57 (43 per cent) said they had suffered abuse because of the plastic bag ban. "I work at Woolies and have already been abused countless times; it's not our fault," staff member Lauren McGowan told News.com.au. There have also been reports of customers stealing handfuls of bags before the ban. As of today, major retailers in Western Australia and Queensland face fines if they supply single-use plastic bags – which are already banned in Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

The union that represents shop assistants has launched a public awareness campaign warning people not abuse retail staff. “While we understand that some customers may be frustrated by this change, there is absolutely no excuse for abusive or violent behaviour towards retail staff,” said Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, in a statement.

Consumer complaints forced the Woolworths chain to reverse a charge for reusable bags, and is now offering them free for a week. Grocery chain Coles put on more staff to help reduce queues as staff explained the change to customers.

Woolworths said the worker who was physically attacked was being supported and police had been contacted. Another shopper said she saw a woman steal a big bunch of plastic bags from a self-checkout at Coles ahead of the ban.

More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, according to the Plastic Oceans Foundation. The UN wants to end single-use plastic by 2022. Fines of up to Aus$5,000 for breaches of the plastic-bag ban do not take effect until 1 January as the government does not want businesses and suppliers to simply dump stocks of bags.

Stephen Dawson, the environment minister, said: “Obviously it is an inconvenience for some people but these bags haven’t been around for ever. Before these bags we used alternatives – we used cardboard boxes, string bags, trolleys.”