Coles MD John Durkan just put an August 29 deadline on free bags for shoppers

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Coles Managing Director John Durkan has intervened less than 24 hours after the supermarket giant said it would offer free plastic bags to all its customers to put a four-week deadline on the “indefinite” giveaway.

The retail boss sent an all-staff email empathising with his team that the change from single-use plastic bags “has been a big and difficult change for many of our customers”.

“Over the past month, we’ve been delighted to see our customers grow more and more accustomed to bringing their reusable bags from home,” he wrote.

“But we know that many customers are still finding themselves a bag or two short at the register and we want to do the right thing by them during this transition period.”

The company’s complimentary bag offer will run until Wednesday, August 29, for customers in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and WA.

“I appreciate this transition phase is taking longer than anticipated but it is absolutely the right thing to do by our customers,” Durkan wrote.

While state governments in South Australia and Tasmania, as well as the ACT, banned single-use plastic bags several years ago, and customers are already used to paying 15 cents for a reusable bag, the country’s larger states have been reluctant to go down a similar legislative path, relying instead on industry to make the change.

Yesterday, grocery retailer Harris Farm Markets reissued its call to the NSW government to ban single-use plastic bags in the wake of the Coles announcement.

The company stopped using single-use bags at the start of 2018, replacing them with reusable paper bags and cardboard boxes. Co-CEO Angus Harris said the switch “was not easy” but had already stopped 15 million single-use plastic bags ending up in landfill or as litter.

“We now renew our call to Gladys Berejiklian and the State Government to enforce a ban of single use plastic bags immediately,” he said.

Twelve months ago, both Woolworths and Coles announced they would phase out single-use bags from July 1 this year, but the transition appeared to spark a backlash which saw Woolworths continue to give away free reusable bags for an extra 10 days in July. Coles offered them through July and then yesterday announced an “indefinite” extension to the giveaway, which in turn sparked an additional backlash from recycling advocates who said the lack of value in the bags would effectively turn them into single use.

What’s surprised many observers is the resistance Coles and Woolworths have experienced given that rival upstart Aldi has always charged its customers for heavy-duty reusable plastic bags.

Durkan told staff that the retailer’s shift to reusable bags was just one part of the company’s sustainability agenda.

“We should all be really pleased about the progress we are making to halve food waste in our supermarkets by 2020, make all Coles Brand packaging recyclable by 2020 and divert 90% of all waste from landfill by 2022,” he said.

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