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Picking up on the plastic bag problem

The Green Party’s latest campaign goal, led by Roche, is to connect different individuals working on the issue of single-use plastic bags and guide them to take action together. The goal is to pressure the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, to declare single-use plastic bags a priority product under the waste minimisation act.

“Globally, our stance is really bad, and our waste management habits and our consumer habits undermine our perception of being a clean, green country,”  Roche says.

“We use one billion single-use plastic bags every year in New Zealand, and the average time they are used for is 12 minutes.

“The pollution is not a deliberate act by consumers, it’s simply because they are lightweight, single use and they are disposable.

“This means they end up in our environment, disintegrating into microplastics and entering the food chain,” she says.

Ms Roche says that while major retailers are not going to change voluntarily, they would welcome regulation.

However Greg Harford of Retail NZ says that experience, especially in the grocery business, has tended to show that there would be a significant consumer backlash to introducing general charges for plastic bags.

“Retailers provide plastic bags in order to meet customer demand.  There is ongoing customer demand for bags to carry shopping home, but retailers are actively trying to minimise the number of plastic bags distributed each year,” he says.

Experience at The Warehouse doesn’t necessarily reinforce Harford’s concerns. The retailer charges customers for plastic bags, and has seen around a 70 percent reduction of plastic bag waste.

Harford says a programme aiming to remove soft plastic bags from the waste stream is being developed by the Packaging Forum. The scheme will involve encouraging customers to return their “soft plastics” (anything you can scrunch up easily) to retail outlets, which will recycle them. This will occur initially in Auckland, with a national rollout if successful.

A recent podcast by US-based National Public Radio’s Planet Money series explores the difficulties of recycling plastic bags.

The show discusses how recycling plastic bags only happens when the companies involved can make a profit. Plastic is sold from America to Asia to be made into anything from tooth brushes to carpet and coffee makers.

However, when oil prices drop, new plastic is cheaper and there is no point in recycling plastic bags.

This is particuarly true of dirty plastic bags, which take a lot of washing and processing before the plastic is usable, and often block up the machinery.

A lobby group in Palmerston North called Carrying Our Future is working towards a plastic bag free future for Palmerston North, they hope to lead the way as the first New Zealand town to get rid of plastic shopping bags.

The group are looking for public support for a voluntary system to eliminate the use of plastic bags.

They are also supporting a report on a remit proposed by the Palmerston North City Council, which could go before Parliament. It urges government to impose a levy on plastic shopping bags at point of sale. The remit will be voted on at a local government conference in Rotorua this September.

The remit has already been passed by Horizons Regional Council, Hauraki District Council, South Wairarapa District Council, Taupo District Council, Napier City Council and Dunedin City Council.

Learn more about the majestic life of the plastic bag:

Auckland entrepreneur Fi diverts more than 40 used plastic bags from landfill to create each ReMaterialise recycled bag. Branded versions are available for small business owners and corporate gifts.

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