The launch of my Members’ Bill last week, which would introduce a 15 cent charge on single-use plastic bags at the check-out, has generated a lot of comment on mainstream and social media. From The Paul Henry Show at the start of the week to RNZ’s Wallace Chapman on Sunday, there’s been considerable media and public interest. And we know we’re making headway when WasteMINZ devotes workshop time to the issue during their annual conference as they did last week.
Heaps of people agree with the concept of introducing a charge on plastic bags to reduce their use – it’s a mechanism that has made significant reductions in plastic bag use all around the world. Most recently is the UK, where a 5p charge was introduced in October last year. In the first six months, single-use plastic bag usage was reduced by 85 percent, and the levy generated nearly 30 million pounds for charities.
But some people are critical, and the National Government has made excuses as to why a plastic bag charge wouldn’t work in this country. So let’s take a look and see if those criticisms and excuses stand up or not.
Debunking plastic bag myths
1) Plastic bags are only a small part of the problem of packaging waste.
Yep, that’s right, but we use about 1.6 billion each year in NZ. It’s because they’re so lightweight that they only take up a small part of landfills, compared to say, tyres. However it’s when they enter the marine environment that they’re most hazardous – killing around 100,000 sea mammals per year who mistake them for food, or become entangled in them as they break down. They also break down into micro plastics that are eaten by fish and enter our food chain. Who wants to eat fish that’s full of plastic particles?
Plastic bags may only be a small part of the problem we have with waste, but we have to start to reduce our waste somewhere, and plastic bags are the obvious starting point. I see plastic bags as the gateway drug to other waste issues.
2) NZ only contributes a small amount of plastic pollution to the environment when judged on a global scale so we so we don’t need to do anything.
That kind of reasoning suggests we shouldn’t do anything about any issues – including reducing our climate emissions – which brings me to the point that if we got rid of plastic bags all together it’d be the equivalent of taking 3000 cars off the road in terms of reducing our emissions.
3) Charging for plastic bags will lead to more plastic use because retailers will use thicker bags to get around the law.
Nope, not with my bill. It’s any plastic bag used at the check-out; even compostable ones.
4) A charge on plastic bags leads to an increase in food born illnesses from things like raw chicken leaking into reusable bags.
Nope. My bill proposes that there be no charge for plastic bags used for food safety. Also, just wash your reusable bags if you’re worried.
5) People die from contagious diseases from filthy reusable bags (according to David Seymour)
Nope. The study this concern is based on was commissioned by the American Chemistry Council has been debunked.
6) You have to use a reusable bag hundreds of times before it uses the same ecological foot print of a single use plastic bag.
There’s so many different re-usable bags that this one is hard to answer. A survey in 2006/2007 by the UK Environment Agency, which looked at plastic bags versus cotton bags, paper bags and those reusable ones made from recycled plastic (LDPE and non-woven is PP) that are sold at most stores, says that paper bags have to be re-used 3 times, mixed recycled plastic (LDPE) reusables 4 times, non-woven PPs 11 times and cotton bags 131 times!
I haven’t found any further corroboration of this study – but other bags are not considered, like jute or hemp bags – and I guess what also isn’t considered is that cotton bags aren’t called ‘bags for life’ for nothing.
It’s worth noting that this study also said that the environmental benefits of reusing a single-use plastic bag for a bin liner before sending it to landfill outweigh the benefits of recycling it.
7) I can recycle my plastic bags now so I’m protecting the environment.
Recycling is what you do after you’ve failed to avoid, or reduce or re-use. Plus, it’s resource intensive and costly.
The NZ Packaging Forum announced the creation of a soft plastic recycling drop off scheme in July last year and started rolling it out in November as a response to the Say No To Plastic Bags campaign I ran last year and the vote from councils at the Local Government NZ conference calling on the government to introduce a levy or phase out single use plastic bags.
The scheme involves transporting the plastic to Australia for recycling and is financially unsustainable – the Government allocated $1.2 million of the Waste Minimisation Fund to it. The Packaging Forum reported to the WasteMINZ conference last week that they had recycled something like 60 million plastic items over the space of a few months. That’s less than 1 percent of the 1.6 billion total plastic bags we use every year.
The other thing is, the scheme targets the same people who already use re-usable bags.
8) Putting a charge on single-use plastic bags is another tax and disadvantages those on low incomes, bloody Greenies!
Nope it’s not a tax. You have to pay your taxes by law. You can avoid paying the charge on the plastic bag by bringing your own, using a box or carrying stuff in your hands.