Plastic pollution? (Almost) Business as Usual – why the plastic bag ban is barely a victory

A pile of crumpled plastic bags.
A pile of crumpled plastic bags.

Plastic waste is a clear concern to New Zealanders. And so it should be. More than 103,000 Kiwis signed petitions calling for an end to single use plastic bags. At an announcement last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said they’d listened, and announced what many are seeing as a success, a (reported and perceived) ban on single use plastic bags.

Supporters were celebrating all over the media. The announced move to ‘ban single use plastic bags’ was seen as a victory against plastic pollution; a saviour for our marine life, otherwise choking on ingested plastics; it’s a boon for our clean, green, pure environment; a show of leadership.
But as with most policy announcements, the devil is in the detail. And though it might seem churlish, if you look closer, this is more a victory for public relations than it is for our environment. As usual, political measures are too little, too late, and not even what they seem.

The Government’s consultation document on the ‘Proposed Phase Out of Single Use Plastic Shopping Bags’ signals some narrowing of the definition and scope of what’s planned. Despite what was publicly celebrated, this is a proposed ban on single use check out bags only. And even then, the consultation document says, the end proposal may provide an out clause for small retailers, and not be a comprehensive ban at all. And in reality, the document recognises, many shopping bags are used more than a single time, for bin liners, or other purposes.

In the perfect policy world, a problem definition would match its solution. But in the Government’s consultation document, it’s recognised that plastic shopping bags are a marginal part of our plastic pollution problem.

Plastic of all sorts is everywhere. It’s (over) used in packaging, in consumer goods, construction and transport. Most plastic is on a one-way trip to the landfill. It makes up 80-85% of marine pollution and it’s estimated that by 2025 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. That says a lot both about how much plastic is making its way into the oceans, and how many fish we’re collectively extracting. But plastic of unknown origin is the bulk of marine plastic waste. Second is food wrapping and containers, cups and lids, and then plastic bags.

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New Zealanders use an estimated 750 million shopping bags per annum. That’s a lot of plastic. But of much bigger scale is all the genuinely single use plastic that almost every consumer item comes in, necessarily – or not. Even when nature has provided a perfectly good wrapper, like in fruit and vege skins, it almost always comes wrapped in a supplementary plastic cover. A tiny margin of consumer plastics are recycled, and at least 90% makes its way to land, sea or air. Photos of Greymouth’s old landfill, exposed by the tide, washing plastics onto a wild west coast beach, shows the ultimate problem with that. We might think that throwing plastics away to landfill solves the problem, but with all those plastics that face no ban in sight, there is no away. Meanwhile, efforts from consumers to ‘do the right thing’ by recycling via local soft plastic recycling schemes are actually just sending plastics to stockpile or landfill in developing countries.

So instead of celebrating the ‘ban on single use plastic bags’ that seemed to take over facebook late last week, I could only gently try to remind people it was a proposed ban on check out bags only. There is nothing in the discussion document about all the other single use plastics that virtually every single thing in the supermarket comes in. There was nothing there about plastic nurdles or fishing waste. At this rate of progress, there will still be more plastics in the oceans than fish by 2025, and kids of that era will still be wondering why ‘leaders’ now, didn’t do more when we had the warnings, and the chance.


  1. Dead right. The pretence to give a fuck is as thin in substance as the hair on my scalp is.
    grant robertson says he cares about ‘business’. What business? He’s never once mentioned the dirty old farmer, our primary industry, which will be quite the earner when people start to flee their homelands when they begin to broil.
    jacinda adern is all smiles and a-babied, and good on her etc, blah. But I still see people living in the dirt and zero mention of the biggest elephant in the crib. That of re nationalising OUR stuff and things. NOT theirs. To make going to your shit job a mite more palatable knowing you can take a train anywhere and you pay pennies for electricity.
    And not once do I hear any Left politician ask ” Where the fuck’s our money then?” Look at our history, a history $-built on food production and this might sound surprising, but people still need to eat. And all the while the Right politicians keep their heads down while they, and their mates spend that money. It sure as shit isn’t my neighbour on 670 acres, farming sheep. He owns a shitty second hand Japanese car, a shitty Japanese people mover thing to traffic his kids about and he works from day light until dark seven days a week. I’m not exaggerating! And he’s a fourth generation sheep farmer on the ‘family’ property! WTF ? Springs to mind.
    Jacinda Adern’s gubbimint would be better advised to ban stupidity.
    A word on plastic. From memory from an article I read in National Geographic some years ago. It was a study into rubbish dumps and the ecology of dumping rubbish.
    According to that article, the best thing to do with plastics is to bury it. Not recycle it, or God forbid, burn it. Plastic, once buried, just sits there. For centuries, in some cases. It doesn’t rot, as such, so it doesn’t give off methane, a curse of, for example, decaying buried paper in an anaerobic environment.
    Labour is all yap-yap. Just like National. Same-same, but different.

    • The district council here promotes the burying of organic matter in plastic bags, and that DOES generate methane under the anaerobic conditions that apply, whereas not putting the organic matter in plastic and leaving it on the surface would permit aerobic decomposition.

      Like practically everything else the council promotes, the policy is purely superficial, unsustainable and counterproductive.

  2. You are absolutely right Christine.

    It’s all show and no substance. Plastics have to be eliminated at source…plastic packaging for vegetables, fruit, meat, cereals, drink containers etc.

    And no one has any intention of doing a thing about any of that in the consumption-driven economy we live in, a consumption-driven economy which is fast running out of natural resources.

    Interestingly, the district council here promotes the use of plastic bags for a number of purposes (all unsustainable) and refuses to recycle them. Not that recycling helps…that’s just another confidence trick that provides short-term profits for a corporation. Most plastics are not recycled but end up in landfills anyway.

    Plastics are everywhere, even on the beaches of Svalbard:

    Only the collapse of the global economy, due to declining oil availability, will fix the plastic predicament. And when that happens people will then be burning plastic for heart.

  3. True enough.
    Banning of single-use plastic bags is welcome. but ultimately only useful as a first step in the reduction of wholesale use of plastic.
    The problem is the easy-to-use, throwaway consumer culture that we have. This promotes laziness and indifference.
    The ban had to be official because the organisations doing it on their own initiative would always be shafted by those that didn’t give a s…t.
    So a small pat on the back for the government but don’t get too cocky about it just yet.

    • too true mike,
      “The problem is the easy-to-use, throwaway consumer culture that we have. This promotes laziness and indifference.”

      as i have suggested on TS, it isn’t bags we need to do without, it is supermarkets.

      eat seasonal and local.

  4. It’s the easiest thing to ban because there are almost no consequences to banning it. It’s a good start. In my town we already banned these bags a couple of years ago – entirely on a voluntary basis. Anyone who moans that it’s not going to make a difference gets offered a role with the organization that organized the ban because they’re now moving on to plastics that are harder to replace.

    I would just say to the government, congratulations, what are you doing next?

    Incidentally we found that our community group had to work with shopkeepers and bag suppliers to find alternative bags, be they hessian, cloth, or compostable plastic. This was actually a big hurdle for small businesses who don’t have the time to scour the country looking for options but with a small amount of funding our group was able to sort the problem fro them. Another group of people got excited by the work and started making cloth bags for free out of material off-cuts. These became so popular that tourists keeping taking them with them when they leave.

    Pro-tip: Sew up the bottom of a singlet and you have an instant bag!

  5. My local Hastings New World has done a reasonable job at encouraging people to use their own bags.
    At the same time, it sells bananas in trays, and meat specials come as three individually wrapped packs of meat, wrapped together in yet another tray and layer of plastic.
    I’ve seen many pallet deliveries being entirely wrapped in heroic layers of plastic film when they first arrive.

    I’m torn between thinking the plastic bag thing is a crock, and on the other hand thinking that it will encourage awareness and consumer pressure could start pushing back through the supply chain, hopefully all the way to the Hawkes Bay Horticultural Industry.
    The middle class consumer might not mind crap weekly wages for the pickers, but I’m sure the plastic issue will get some traction in Te Awanga.

  6. Excellent Post Christine,
    I think a good way to get rid of the unnecessary plastic packaging and wrapping is to carefully package this rubbish and post it back to the manufacturers or retailers.
    If you send it without adding postage the receiver gets charged double the postage, and of course you would not put your senders address on the back of the parcel.
    Just imagine if Countdown & New World received 1000’s of envelopes filled with useless packaging – they would soon realise that we mean business when we say – NO MORE PLASTIC.
    When I was a kid every home had string shopping bags.
    We need to get our acts together and force these users of plastic to realise we want a cleaner world for our children and their children children.

  7. Excellent Post Christine,
    I think a good way to get rid of the unnecessary plastic packaging and wrapping is to carefully package this rubbish and post it back to the manufacturers or retailers.
    If you send it without adding postage the receiver gets charged double the postage, and of course you would not put your senders address on the back of the parcel.
    Just imagine if Countdown & New World received 1000’s of envelopes filled with useless packaging – they would soon realise that we mean business when we say – NO MORE PLASTIC.
    When I was a kid every home had string shopping bags.
    We need to get our acts together and force these users of plastic to realise we want a cleaner world for our children and their children’s children.

  8. However, as the old management maxim goes, it is easier to change systems than peoples perceptions. In the first nine months of office Jacinda Ardern has managed to put it on the records two important departures from the norm, oil and plastic. Change moves at glacial speed, at least this is a start. Could you imagine either happening under a National govt.

    • one thing about national/the tories is that they get on with doing what they campaigned on..they said they wd flog off state assets – were elected..did it…labour promised alot – and to date has seriously under-delivered..

      ardern promised reform of cannabis prohibition with a one-word emphatic answer..

      what we ae getting is med-pot only for those inder a death-sentence – and that must be big-pharma products at over a grand a month..

      and a feckin’ non-binding referendum in two years time…

      how could that be more/less of an under-delivery on promises made..?

      • will she have the chutzpah to claim/promise ‘reform’ again..?..

        ..on the run-up to the next election..?

        y’know..!..i reckon they are planning on two bites of/at that apple..

        try it on again with another one-word promise..?.

        (polirical)-grifters gotta grift…

        meanwhile..nothing much changes – where it really matters…

        but don’t worry..!

        grant robertson keeps on telling parliament that labour ‘has a longterm plan’…

        yeah..of even more neoliberal incrementalism…

      • we can’t fix poverty – ‘cos we ‘can’t afford it’..

        but we can spend billions on feckin’ new war-planes…

        bah..!..humbug thy name is labour…

        • What was that saying about a fishing education. Guess I’m having whole baked fish tonight.

          We can’t just throw billions at poverty with out teaching poor people how to make a living properly. There’s no subsidy for jobs jobs jobs.

          • to end poverty there is – it’s called a universal basic income..

            set at the proper level..and financed by – i dunno – a financial transaction tax..?

            would end poverty in one fell swoop…

            and would create an economic all that money wd churn back into the economy…

            so there is an alternative to arbeit macht frei…eh…?

          • If you ever want to debate on a UBI and a FTT, I’m your man. You’d be like the 5th person to try me on it.

            The major difference is payroll tax has hundreds of tax points, and state taxes is a lifestyle tax with hundreds of thousands of tax points. Thus FTT is not a revenue generator it’s a lifestyle tax, so I dodge it by financializing the workforce or just trade in USD… lmfao

            Prove me wrong, you and others keep calling me out on shit and acting like I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll literally prove that this system is more valid than my new one or any claims you have if you want to test me, get it in.

            • um..!,,i don’t recall ever ‘calling you out’..butif you are a supporter of the current system – the t.i.n.a. neoliberal-incrementalism – i’ll call ya as full of shit from square one..

              many countries have a ftt…we are almost an outlier in not having

              and a universal basic income makes so much economic-sense it has support from the left and the right..

              go on…give it yr best shot..

              you do seem to be champing at the bit..

            • Stamp duties are nothing new. I’v prepare way to many tax returns for my age. Automated is ‘automated’ at best if there is anything more than an online tax portal involved in a return.

              And I won’t go into the assumptions and presumptions this tax would make on ‘transactions’ since every one of them are not only not right, they’re not even wrong.


              It is used to record the purchase/sale of a portion of a company. Each of the hundred or so lines on a in the transaction space can be filled with a number to come up with a final bottom line number of where the money comes from and where it goes. Any one who’s filled out an IR-3 for can tell you that the actual form is the metaphorical tip of the iceberg of how complex the actual transaction is…

              So does the transaction tax work like a sales tax where only the bottom line numbers representing the buyers / banks and sellers? Or do we turn it into a VAT where fractions are parceled out that include the broker, the investor, the regulator, the retailer, the CFDs, the local government sewer authorities, and etc.? OR do we go ultra sales tax and include ALL OF THE ABOVE getting hit with the full tax as well as the bottom line numbers?

              This is why economists should leave political science to political scientists.

              They seem to think that this scheme will decreased compliance costs. But like the sales taxes that are often promoted as having the same advantage over income tax, nothing could be further from the truth. Income tax as it currently exists just makes the cost very visible. The problem with any sort of transaction tax is that you rely upon third parties to collect that tax for you and then pay it to you. This is not simple, and it won’t suddenly make the IRD smaller. As for a UBI we’ll get one in about 50 years because the economy won’t be able to produce enough payed employment, not because of anything you can dream up.

  9. agreed..!..this is p.r.-b.s..

    and a textbook example of neoliberal-incrementalism at work/play..

    do a little – puff it up to look more than it actually is – and make the qualifications/conditions to render it toothless in reality..

    and a studied ignoring of the real problem..

    (c.f. poverty/homelessness/broken one-word promise to end cannabis prohibition

    and should their proposed med-pot only for those under a medical-death-sentence come to pass – this will/must set a new benchmark in that dark art of can it not..?..that soupcon of sadism clearly taking it over the line..

    meanwhile – rome continues to burn – and the/our emperors continue to do nothing/s.f.a..nowhere near enough..

  10. its a toothless start, but fuk them its gonna be up too us to save mother earth, i like the post packaging back idea, im gonna start doing that, if enough money costing moves are made they will change their evil ways, besides the more protest action the better, it gives the gutless poli,s incentive to obey our wishes, knowing they wont rock the boat its up to all of us to do exactly that

  11. Anyone who complains they need plastic bags for their rubbish bin liners is invited to venture down to the coast and pick up what they need. There’s more than enough, flying around; floating in the water; entangled in trees and bush, to satisfy their demand.

  12. Massive solar powered steam punk recycling plants and electric dump trucks that can hover on water like a back to the future movie.

  13. Politics is the art of the possible. Yes, this ban is a baby step, but it’s a significant change that can be achieved in the short term. It signals to shoppers that we need to start changing our habits, and demanding the packaging industry change what they put in front of us. It puts the packaging industry on notice that the new government has a ban stick, and is willing to use it. It signals to companies that make, distribute, and use disposable plastic, that they need to start developing replacements that compost. It signals to investors that its worth putting money into companies doing this product development, and pioneering the selling the of the products (packaging based on cardboard, waste potato, fungus etc).

    Ultimately, plastic pollution is a global problem, that needs a global solution. Piecemeal reforms by individual governments can only have a limited effect. What we need is a global treaty, where governments set bold but achievable targets for reducing plastic use, and hold each other accountable for how much plastic their country manufactures and uses, like they did for CFCs and other ozone-depleting gases. The shopping bag ban is not enough, but at least it’s a small step in the right direction, rather than the wrong one.

  14. Apparently half of all plastic rubbish released into the environment happened in the last 13 years….What is going on?
    Policy here in NZ at the least should be: Ban supermkts from using any plastics in products they sell, provide paper bags not ‘single use’ plastic .
    Stop farmers wrapping hay bales in plastic, contractors buildings in plastic! Why? Oh why, why, why! So much plastic everywhere, also in your non natural fibre blankets and clothes, which enters the waterways as micro plastic fiber. Bad. Very Bad. So, almost a hopeless situation unless Drastic action is taken at a political level worldwide.

    • The conversion of oil into plastics increases every year, as the human population increases and populations become more urbanised.

      ‘Ban supermkts from using any plastics in products they sell,’

      A great idea in theory but in practice that would mean no milk, no cheese, no cream, no yoghurt, no meat, no shampoo, no toothpaste, no washing up liquid, no ice cream, no frozen peas….

      The ban would have to be implemented at the manufacturer’s packaging stage of production, and would result in a massive surge in the use of treated cardboard, which has an awful environmental profile.

      Theoretically glass could be used as a replacement for some plastic packaging. But we need tor recognise how badly we deal with recycling glass.

      Superficially biodegradable plastics might appear to be the answer. However, they are much more expensive to produce than alkene-based polymers and have disadvantages of their own.

      As with most of the predicaments we face, the root of the plastics predicament are global human population overshoot and industrialism, which not being addressed anywhere.

      So the plastic predicament will continue to get worse (along with every other industrialism-induced predicament) until industrialism collapses. That collapse will be very ‘ugly’ but is inevitable.

      • Good points, true to a great extent, and agree about manufacturing but much more could be done, if supermkts used a bulk deli style and things were wrapped in waxed paper, just one idea. Paper bags. What did supermarkets used to do?

  15. Here is a good analysis of why the plastic ‘problem’ is will get much worse (until the global economic system collapses):

    ‘The One Oil Industry That Isn’t Under Threat
    By Nick Cunningham – Aug 15, 2018, 5:00 PM CDT

    Peak oil demand might be near, but the consumption of oil for plastics will keep demand elevated for decades. Indeed, the IEA has said that plastics and other petrochemicals are the only sector in which oil consumption could continue to grow well into the 2030s.
    Rising plastic consumption is driven by population growth, higher median incomes and urbanization. Plastic production and consumption has absolutely skyrocketed over the last two decades and the growth in emerging economies such as China and India will ensure that consumption continues on its steep upward trajectory.

    While there are multiple feedstocks for plastics, solvents and other derivatives, the two main feedstocks are ethane and naptha, which come from natural gas and crude oil.

    Oil demand in the transportation sector is expected to peak, and while there is a great deal of disagreement over when we might arrive at that date, many forecasts converge at around the 2030s as the most likely period. But long before then, oil demand for transportation will begin to slow as more and more electric vehicles cut into the market share of the internal combustion engine.

    With oil demand in transit slowing, petrochemicals take on a larger role. Over the next two decades, petrochemicals could account for the largest portion of oil demand growth, and by 2035, petrochemicals will “account for almost all growth” by 2035, according to a new report from Wood Mackenzie. Surging petrochemical production and consumption largely comes down to plastics.

    To be sure, the ghastly levels of plastic in the world’s oceans and waterways have sparked a nascent movement to ban plastic, at least in some form. Starbucks made headlines when it recently announced plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020. In their place, Starbucks will use a recyclable strawless lid and alternative materials for straws. The company also said it would spend $10 million to develop compostable cups.

    Meanwhile, governments are also slowly beginning to target plastic. States and municipalities have placed taxes on plastic bags at the checkout counter, or banned them altogether. Europe is mulling a ban on plastic bags. “However, in their current form, these decisions are likely to have only a marginal impact,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote in an August 3 research note. “While a clear risk to our view, we do not see enough support for recycling and alternatives for now to significantly move the needle on petrochemical oil demand.”

    Consumption is rising because plastic is extremely cheap, so finding alternatives is tricky. “Plastics are incredibly efficient and cost effective and finding alternative solutions for their myriad applications and benefits is not easy. It’s also going to be more expensive and few want to incur the burden of higher costs,” Wood Mackenzie wrote. “The aspirations to curb plastics is long on intentions and short solutions.” There are a variety of bio-based alternatives that companies are exploring, but “plastics are just too efficient to be easily replaced,” WoodMac concluded.

    WoodMac noted a few upsides to plastics, including reduced food spoilage, reduced transit costs and fuel consumption. “If plastic food packaging is banned, spoilage increases and this will lead to more land, water, pesticides, equipment and so on being consumed. In the end, is this better for the environment?” Paper is often cited as an alternative to plastic, but paper production has a larger carbon impact than plastic, WoodMac says.

    Still, a shockingly low percentage of plastic is recycled. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, packaging accounts for about 36 percent of plastic production. But only 14 percent of plastic in packaging is recycled, with the rest either incinerated, littered or sent to a landfill. Sorting is a big issue because different materials need to be processed in different ways. Meanwhile, as the volume of plastic in individual packaging is reduced, it becomes less profitable to recycle. This practice, known as “lightweighting,” actually leads to reduced recycling rates. Plus, plastic replete with food and drink is too dirty to recycle and ends up discarded into a landfill.

    Overall, oil and natural gas demand for the production and use of plastic is set to rise substantially in the years ahead, although prices will influence the rate of growth. “It is important to mention that recycling will also be impacted by oil prices. High oil prices lead to high chemical prices, incentivising recycling,” WoodMac wrote. “Low oil prices result in lower virgin [plastic] prices making it difficult for recycled products to remain economically viable.”

    Ironically, EVs could keep plastic consumption aloft. EVs could lead to a peak in oil demand and potentially push the oil market into decline. But that could translate into a structural decline in prices as demand in transportation steadily falls. Cheap oil, in turn, may keep demand elevated in the petrochemical sector, boxing out alternatives to plastic.
    It’s a tough nut to crack. But any campaign to definitively break the fossil fuel addiction is going to have to systematically include a colossal effort to wean the global economy off plastic. As of now, it’s hard to envision. The conundrum of plastic makes the campaign for electric vehicles look easy by comparison.’

    • Good article, thanks for sharing. A couple of points:

      > “Consumption is rising because plastic is extremely cheap”

      Is it really though? Plastic seems cheap because it’s feedstocks are byproducts of refining oil and gas for industrial use. Companies buying these feedstocks don’t have to pay their full cost, because it’s heavily subsidized by these other uses. If this was not longer the case, and the plastics industry had to pay the full cost of mining, refining, and transporting fossil fuels, would this really still be cheap? Cheaper than biological feedstocks that could be grown close to the point of manufacture and use? Cheaper than using waste from other production processes, like the sugar cane waste in Brazil that gets made into biofuel? Somehow I doubt it.

      > “Paper is often cited as an alternative to plastic, but paper production has a larger carbon impact than plastic”

      Citation please. If this is true, it’s because the carbon footprint of plastic is shared with other uses (see above), and paper production is far more globalized than it needs to be. If trees grown in Aotearoa are used to make compostable packaging for us in Aotearoa, I can’t see how that could possible be more carbon intensive than plastics if you look at the full product lifecycle.

      • The entire economic system started to become distorted the moment coal was used in commercial quantities to generate steam for steam pumps; the energy used to dig up the coal was a tiny fraction of the energy released when the coal was burned -the whole point of the strategy.

        The addition of oil [extracted from underground] to the economic system exacerbated the energy and price distortion. (And don’t forget that it was a shortage of whale oil in the mid-nineteenth century that spurred the extraction and utilisation of mineral oil.)

        If the price of oil were to reflect the true cost of extraction, refining and use, and the immense damage oil does to the world, and reflect the true value of oil as an energy source it would have to be an awful lot higher than the current $70-ish a barrel. Let’s say $700 a barrel.

        If oil were $700 a barrel we certainly would not be squandering it the way we do now. And we would have a much more sustainable society.

        However, voters do not vote for a sustainable society: they vote for short-term wealth at the expense of their progeny. And politicians constantly lie to the voters about the state of the world and where we are headed in order to get elected or remain in office.

        As for paper, I suggest you have a look at a paper processing facility. Huge amounts of energy are used to remove logs from forests and transport them to the machinery that chops them up into pulp. The pulp is treated with a brew of ‘nasty chemicals’ to remove the undesirable content of the wood and make the final product acceptable to consumers.

        I know it’s counter-intuitive but once a hole has been drilled and oil or gas comes out there is very little additional energy required. And the conversion of alkenes into polymers doesn’t take a lot of energy, just the right conditions of temperature and pressure.

        On the other hand, pulping trees into fibres and extracting undesirables does take a lot of energy and chemicals, and generates a lot of airborne and waterborne waste.

        In the distorted world we live in energy is taken for granted and is rarely (if ever) accounted for at its true cost.

        Biofuels such as alcohols made from grains or sugar cane are just another scam, promoted on the basis of massive government subsidies. Huge inputs of cheap fossil fuel energy are required to grow the grain/sugar and harvest it and process it. The energy return on energy invested may be marginally above 1:1, if you are lucky.

        This was all demonstrated about a decade ago by Pimmentel and Fridley etc….’The Myth of Biofuels’.

        As with any of these ‘grand schemes’, if it were viable we would already be doing it.

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