State governments in Australia have backed a code drawn up by retailers that will phase out plastic bags in supermarkets by 25% per year over four years.

Starting in 2004, retailers will work hard to convince shoppers to bring their own bags or buy reusable hessian or calico bags in stores.

It had been suggested that shoppers might face a punitive plastic bag levy, but ministers have decided to keep that as a last resort if targets on reducing the use of plastic bags are not reached.

Retailers are keen to take the initiative on reducing plastic bag use rather than see a strict edict come down from above. For example, Australian Fast Foods’ Red Rooster chain is replacing 70% of its plastic bags with paper ones from September 2003. Meanwhile Woolworths’ Tasmanian spokesman, Michael Kent, said customers buying a few items in express lanes will not be offered bags.

Australians reportedly use six billion plastic bags a year.