Action needed to reduce our use of plastic

Posted by Karen Driver

I pledged to be plastic free for July. This is a campaign that was run in 83 countries with the aim of reducing the use of single-use plastic. I failed. I count myself as very aware of the issue and the need to avoid plastic but it’s hard.   Plastic is everywhere, even if you don’t use plastic bags for shopping – bags in cereal boxes; inside many food packaging containers; plastic toothbrushes; plastic wrappers on Air NZ sweets; etc. Have you ever tried to get a snack at an airport that doesn’t have some plastic associated with it? I failed again – my fresh frittata was served on a plastic plate – they no longer use reusable plates.

Plastic shopping bags were one of the obvious and easy targets of the July campaign. More countries, cities and states are already considering or have implemented bans on these plastic bags (i.e. Ireland, France, San Francisco, California). Many others have imposed levies on their use. Although plastic bags make up only a small percentage of our waste going to landfill, we know that more don’t even get there. We’ve all seen bags floating in our rivers and flying around the streets when it’s windy. These generally end up in our seas if we can’t catch them – ready targets for our marine life to feed on. In Australia, CSIRO’s recent three-year marine survey found that the density of plastic ranges from a few thousand pieces of plastic per square kilometre to more than 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. Plastic can entrap marine animals and, if eaten, can block the intestines. Plastic does not decompose in the ocean, it breaks up into tiny fragments, which get eaten by fish and even smaller animals like phytoplankton. The effect on our marine environment and our food chain is just one of the concerns behind the worldwide move to stop using plastic bags. All this information has been out there for years, and yet nothing changes. This is one of the reasons why legislation is being used worldwide to target the problem.

So what about New Zealand? There are campaigns for regions/cities to go plastic bag free, e.g. Raglan and Picton, which are having some success but, to make a real change, it’s time for our government to come on board. Therefore, it was great to see plastic bags being discussed more in the media in July. The first of the two initiatives that received wide coverage was the Government’s partnering with the retail sector and the packaging industry to fund a trial of a new recycling services for plastic bags across Auckland. OK, we know that the recycling of plastic bags is not available through our Nelson and Tasman kerbside schemes and so, in theory, having more infrastructure to recycle them would be good – but it doesn’t actually address the problems. Plastic bags are too widely available for free. They are generally used once and their average life is 12 minutes; if they are recycled they are such low-grade plastic that the products they are made into are low grade, and what will be the cost (physically and environmentally) of collecting bags in the South Island, delivering them to a plant, and recycling them? Recycling is NOT the answer. We need to stop or at least reduce their use. Personally, I would vote for a ban but realise there is very little chance of that happening. The second, much more inspiring news was the Local Government New Zealand’s (LGNZ) remit at their recent conference for the Government to impose a compulsory levy on plastic shopping bags at point of sale. This was supported by 89% of Councils. Local governments’ view is that imposing a compulsory levy at the point of sale will act as a deterrent, reducing the total number of single use plastic bags produced. The introduction of levies in countries like Denmark, Ireland and China has led to a dramatic reduction in plastic bag use. Our Councils are the ones that generally deal with our rubbish – whether recycling or landfill. The costs of doing so are borne by us ratepayers. The levy would be used to cover the costs of dealing with the plastic bags – meaning those who use the bags pay for their recycling/recovery. We need to start reducing the amount of waste we generate as a nation. Plastic bags are relatively easy to target and we know that legislation has proven successful in achieving reduction elsewhere. Let’s get behind the LGNZ’s remit and support change.

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