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Coles New World introduces biodegradable plastic bags.

PETER THOMPSON: The retail giant, Coles New World, is promoting environmentally friendly products in its supermarkets. Coles has announced a number of innovations, including the introduction of biodegradable plastic bags. At present, the tens of millions of bags used in supermarkets don't break down in the environment after disposal. Plastic bags are useful for a few hours but remain in the environment forever.

The Victorian Minister for Planning and the Environment, Tom Roper, is far from euphoric about the breakthrough, though. Mr Roper says the new bags should be thoroughly tested before going into supermarkets, and Mr Roper joins me now from our Melbourne studio. Good morning, Mr Roper.

TOM ROPER: Good morning.

PETER THOMPSON: What are your concerns?

TOM ROPER: Our concerns are that the photodegradable bag certainly deals with the litter problem. It will self-destruct if left out in the sun for a period of time, but it may well threaten the very excellent recycling schemes for plastic that are now under way, because the photodegradable bags simply won't be able to go into the recycling stream in the same way, and it will add very significant cost. We're putting a lot of effort in Victoria into persuading people that plastics can be used again and indeed, Smorgons, one of our major private companies, is busily turning plastics, at the moment, into wood-type products which is an excellent use of a scarce resource.

PETER THOMPSON: But what proportion of bags are going to be recycled, are being currently recycled, for example?

TOM ROPER: A small proportion but a growing proportion and, indeed, in one of the schemes in Melbourne people are encouraged to put out their plastic bottles and containers in their ordinary bags that they get from the supermarkets. The difficulty with the photodegradable bag is it will have to be sorted out and separated from the rest of the plastic, and most people simply won't do that.

PETER THOMPSON: Is it perhaps, though, a better idea than recycling, in the long run?

TOM ROPER: Well, you've got to attend to what the actual problem is, and the photodegradable bag will deal with the litter problem, but bags are not basically a litter problem; things like straws and bottles and so on are.

We are not criticising Coles-Myer for wishing to have more environmentally satisfactory products. What we'd like them to do is to talk to us, talk to the EPA about the way in which they can achieve that best, and the last thing we want is a situation where what has been great community response to recycling gets damaged by an unintended effect of a major company's effort.

PETER THOMPSON: Now, Coles didn't talk to you or your department?

TOM ROPER: No, they didn't. We would have wanted to talk to them about that, and also about whether there are any heavy metals in the bags themselves. We'll be talking to them this week about that.

PETER THOMPSON: Do you know the answer to that question? Are there going to be metals and residues from these bags?

TOM ROPER: Well, that's what we don't know. We need to get the technical information on what makes up the bag. In a lot of these bags, in fact, heavy metals are used for colouring, and we need to check that out.

PETER THOMPSON: If they'd come along to you, what could you have done, other than talk to them?

TOM ROPER: Well, we would have, I believe, gone through with them the various options that are open in terms of bags. We would have also said to them, before they introduce such a major exercise, can we talk about what its effect on recycling is. We are unsatisfied, at the moment, with our level of glass recycling. Our aluminium recycling is improving and, for the first time, we've now got real possibilities of plastics recycling, and these very important experiments are being placed at risk.

PETER THOMPSON: So you think recycling should come first, rather than these bags breaking down.

TOM ROPER: Certainly, because of the fact that bags are a different kind of problem. They are not a litter problem, so photodegradability is less important. It could mean that the program that Smorgons and others have got under way really becomes financially impossible, because the key to it at the moment is that any person can put their plastics in. They don't have to be sorted; they can go straight into the industrial and manufacturing process.

PETER THOMPSON: So Coles hasn't come to you. Are you going to go to Coles?

TOM ROPER: We are going to go to Coles. I suppose we're not proud in these matters. If they didn't think it through first, we're quite happy to talk to them afterwards.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, Mr Roper, thanks for joining us this morning. From our Melbourne studio, Tom Roper, the Victorian Minister for Planning and the Environment.