It took a year, but parliament’s Local Government and Environment Select Committee has finally reported back on the petition calling on the government to reduce and phase out single-use plastic bags. The petition, in the name of Rebecca Bird from Our Seas Our Future and signed by over 16,000 people, asked for a levy on each bag with the ultimate goal of phasing them out completely.
The select committee made no recommendations for action. Interestingly, this do-nothing approach came hot on the heels of reports from the UK where, since October, large retailers have been required to charge a five pence levy on single use plastic bags. In the first six months there has been an 85% drop in the use of single use plastic bags and nearly 30 million pounds has been gathered in revenue for distribution to charities.
Across the country there is growing concern about the impact of plastic on the environment – particularly the marine environment. Groups like Collingwood’s Bag Ladies, Waiheke’s Bring Your Own Bags, Gisborne’s Flag the Bag and Palmerston North’s Carrying Our Future are actively working to reduce the 1.6 billion of them used in New Zealand each year. Their focus has been on consumers taking their own bags and retailers voluntarily deciding not to offer them – and there have been varying levels of success. The trouble with this though, is that the good behaviour of shoppers and retailers is undermined by there not being a consistent approach. On Waiheke Island where I live for example, despite our local supermarket charging for compostable bags at the checkout and most of our shops signing up to reduce plastic bag use, single use plastic bags are still available on the mainland which confuses the hell out of locals and visitors alike.
The government’s response to the growing clamour for action on plastic bags was to introduce the soft-plastic recycling drop-off trial hatched with $1.2 million from the Waste Minimisation Fund by The Packaging Forum. It’s hard not to see something like this as a cynical attempt to deflect public attention away from the call for a levy on plastic bags, especially as the announcement coincided with Local Government New Zealand passing a remit also calling for a levy on plastic bags.
The trouble with this scheme is that recycling is expensive and it is what happens after we’ve failed to reduce or reuse. Plus it targets the same environmentally aware shoppers who already take their re-usable bags to the supermarket, so doesn’t necessarily work to change consumer use of soft plastic. It doesn’t reduce those 1.6 billion plastic bags or stop soft plastic being blown into the marine environment.
Disappointingly there have been no mandatory product stewardship schemes developed under the Waste Minimisation Act since it was introduced in 2008. I’m aware the government prefers an industry-lead voluntary approach, but I do still feel that regulations and mandatory schemes have their place in reducing waste. Senior retail managers tell me that competition is fierce and profit margins are tight so any action they take that may drive customers to the competition – like voluntarily charging for plastic bags – is too much of a risk. These same managers have said to me that they’d welcome regulation!
With this in mind I am currently drafting a member’s bill to enter into the ballot – and while I recognise that the member’s bill ballot is essentially a raffle, it’s good to remember that the Waste Minimisation Act started out as a Green Party members’ bill.