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CHRISTOPHER ZINN: There were such high hopes. Exactly two years ago, Oyster Bay in Sydney's south was launched as Australia's first plastic bag-free suburb.

ALEX HILLS, ANTI-BAG CAMPAIGNER: It's just something I felt very passionate about. We went on holidays to Ireland a few years ago and saw that they completely banned them and there was a levy, and environmentally I thought that was fantastic.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: A lot's changed since the launch. But the locals have maintained their vigil against the crinkly carry-alls. How much money have you saved through not using plastic bags?

SHOP WORKER: I couldn't say exactly, but I'd say a couple of grand.

POSTMAN: I think it's probably died a little bit, but it's something that's sort of embedded in the suburb.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: They are not alone. Australians have cut the annual use by three billion bags since 2004. And there are plans for a complete phase-out in two years. Free mass plastic bags handouts look destined for the rubbish dump of history. Around Australia, and indeed around the world, various places have put up the barricades against the humble plastic bag. But now, it appears that the tide is turning and a backlash has begun against simply bagging the bag.

PHILLIP WEICKHARDT: We're not advocates for plastic bags, we're simply saying in a colloquial term, "look before you leap".

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: The rationalists claimed there had been no cost benefit analysis of banning the bags, that they formed less than 1% of the litter stream and were usually reused by householders. In short, bags were well designed, and the benefits of doing the right thing had been hyped.

PHILLIP WEICKHARDT: We're saying 99% of those plastic bags perhaps are used properly and are disposed of properly.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: But the green lobby argues even 1% of litter equals 75 billion blowing bags, which have a dire impact on wildlife.

PHILLIP WEICKHARDT: All our draft report says about that is that the facts about the damage to wildlife are uncertain. We've only been able to source one reference to statistical evidence around this.

JOHN DEE, PLANET ARK: It's the only kind of litter that kills marine life, it's the only type of litter that can kill cows for example. And so to say that somehow it's not important when it's killing so many animals, it's a ridiculous statement for the Productivity Commission to make.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: At Australia's major bag manufacturer in Melbourne, production is going full bore. The plastic industry has been defending its product as safe and sustainable for years.

MICHAEL CATCHPOLE, PLASTICS & CHEMICALS INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: I think plastic bags have been unfairly demonised by some people making an argument based on emotion. The bags do have a very legitimate use. But if they do find their way into the litter stream, then they're visible. We need to address that.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: The great plastic bag debate only occupied a couple of leaves of the 400-page report, but it was enough to make the environmentalists see red.

IAN KIERNAN: We're going to come back in the strongest possible way to say that we are going to maintain our vigour and our efforts to increase the reduction and the usage of plastic bags and keep pressuring the Government for a total ban of one-use plastic bags in 2008. That's our position; we're not letting up on it.
Learn English Spotlight
What does plastic bag-free mean?

we look at some ways to use the word 'free'.

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