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.
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.