An estimated 40,000 plastic bags go to landfill in New Zealand every hour and around 1.6 billion are used every year in this country. But overall, they are a small proportion of the waste stream, comprising only 0.2 per cent of landfill waste and 1.5 per cent of litter. Each single use plastic bag is used for an average of only 15 minutes to carry goods from the shop to the car and the car to the house, before being disposed of. Their production is resource intensive and wasteful – fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, other production costs, and especially if disposed of improperly, an environmental threat. Each of those bags takes from 20 to 1000 years to break down, if ever.
Apparently plastic bags make up most of the rubbish in the ocean. They float about looking like jellyfish so get mistaken as food by marine life such as turtles, fish and whales, and when they do finally break down into micro-particles, they attract heavy metals like cadmium and lead, and contaminate marine organisms.
More than 30 countries around the world have either banned single use plastic bags or imposed levies to reduce their use. Bangladesh was the first country to introduce such a ban in 2002. Even in the UK and US states like California, governments and the public recognise the need to address the wasteful use of resources and consumer convenience epitomised in plastic bag use and disposal.
Not all these countries have applied complete plastic bag bans. In the UK, bans only apply to companies with over 250 full-time equivalent employees. Small businesses are exempt, recognising the administrative burden on smaller companies. Plastic bags required to maintain food hygiene are also exempt, for example those carrying meat or fish. But once levies and bans are introduced, even partially, plastic bag consumption and waste decreases significantly. In the UK, plastic bag use fell by 80 to 90 per cent in the year after levies were installed.
Last year, New Zealand’s Local Government and Environment Select Committee considered a petition signed by over 16,000 people, calling for levies and a phased-in ban on single use plastic bags. A ban on the bag has been supported by Auckland’s Mayor Phil Goff, who says five to six million plastic bags could be saved with a partial ban here.
However, the Parliamentary Select Committee rejected a ban or levy, saying that many plastic bags were reused as bin liners, a function important enough to justify their retention; the benefits of such a ban might not outweigh the costs, as alternatives might not be any better; and plastic bags are just one part of the waste stream, by volume not a significant one.
Plastic is a pervasive product of convenience in all our lives. A ban or levy can clearly be effective in reducing use, waste and disposal. In the absence of Government leadership, we have a problem of both supply and demand.