By Emily Davidson
Most people know that plastic bags are bad for the environment. Yet we continue to use them on a daily basis. This is not because people don’t care about the environment. It is because we are not confronted with the reality of the consequences. Plastic bags are so ubiquitous and convenient that we accept them without a second thought. At no point are we made to stop and consider the impact that this is having on our world.
The Problem with Plastic Bags
On average, plastic bags are only used for 12 minutes. An estimated 1 trillion bags are consumed each year globally. That is over one million bags per minute. However, plastic bags take between 400 and 1,000 years to break down. Plastic bags never biodegrade; they photodegrade. This means they break down into smaller and smaller toxic pieces that continue to devastate the environment. These plastic particles contaminate soil and waterways, and are ingested by animals, including humans. Plastic debris contains high concentrations of persistent organic pollutants such as which interfere with hormone systems and can cause tumours and developmental disorders. The long-term impact of environmental ingestion is not yet known.
Approximately plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean. Sea life struggle to differentiate between the size, shape and texture of plastic bags and proper food. If they are not suffocated in the process of swallowing the bag, they will die slowly and painfully from toxicity or intestinal blockage. Over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths are caused by plastic bags every year. Ninety-four per cent of all birds have plastic in their stomachs. It is estimated that in the hundreds of years it takes to break down, one bag has the potential to kill one animal every three months due to unintentional digestion or inhalation.
Perhaps the best visual representation of the impact of plastic bags on the environment is the Pacific Trash Vortex. This is a ‘gyre’ of marine litter in the North Pacific Ocean. It is made up of suspended plastics, including plastic bags, that have been trapped by currents. This toxic mass of human waste is now estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Its impact on marine ecosystems is catastrophic. This is one of five major gyres that exist today.
Recently, the world’s deepest plastic bag was found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This was part of a wider study into the spread of ocean pollution, which found that nearly 90% of debris in our oceans is plastic. Evidently, no part of our world has been left untouched by the human appetite for convenience. The price for each brief usage of a plastic bag is the introduction of a toxic pollutant that will outlive our great-great-great grandchildren.
Recycling: The Ambulance at the Bottom of the Cliff
A prevalent idea is that using plastic bags is fine so long as you recycle. However, a closer look at the process of recycling shows it is not the silver bullet we imagine it to be.
A clear indication of this is China’s recycling ban. New Zealand sends its recyclable plastics to Asia, because the volume of waste produced domestically is insufficient to justify opening specialised recycling mills. Similarly, countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Japan have relied on China to buy and handle their plastics. However, hazardous waste was often mixed in with plastic materials. The toxins from these materials were being released into the environment, and contaminated waste was being dumped into rivers. This contributed to grave air quality issues and polluted drinking water. China has responded with the recycling ban, which came into effect on 1 January 2018.
As a consequence, New Zealand and other countries can no longer export their plastic waste to China. Waste processing plants in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand will now manage the majority of the world’s waste. China’s ban greatly reduces the available processing capability and increases the cost for those wanting to recycle. An Australian town has been sending recyclable waste to a landfill because it can no longer afford to recycle it. In the United Kingdom, low grade plastic is stuck in storage facilities with no market to move it. These materials are likely to be burned.
Furthermore, a 2011 report by the Institute of Developing Economies recognised the concerning development of environmental problems in Asian countries resulting from inadequate processing facilities. In particular, plastic bags are often burned or sent to landfill because recycling them is expensive. They don’t melt easily, and are not readily reusable in their original form.
Recycling is a positive and important part of waste management. However, it is not a panacea for the sheer volume of waste that we are producing. The rate at which we generate plastic waste is far greater than our capacity to manage it. China’s ban is a wake-up call, and an opportunity to turn our focus to waste prevention.
What is New Zealand Doing?
In 2012, the New Zealand Government ruled out a compulsory charge on plastic bags at supermarkets, despite evidence that a small fee could dramatically reduce usage. For example, plastic bag usage dropped by 90 per cent in Wales following the introduction of a 5 pence charge per bag. This small financial incentive was sufficient to make people pause and consider whether they really needed that plastic bag. Clearly, people can adapt to reusable bags. At that time, three states in Australia had banned plastic bags. However, our government preferred to put the onus for progress on industry.
Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises have now committed to phasing out all plastic bags by the end of 2018 in their New World and Countdown stores respectively. In Countdown alone, this ban is estimated to eliminate 350 million plastic bags a year. There are no plans to ban plastic bags in any of the other major supermarkets owned by Progressive Enterprises (SuperValue and FreshChoice), or Foodstuffs (Pak’n’Save and Four Square).
Hopefully, this bag ban will be more successful than Foodstuffs attempted to introduce a 5 cent plastic bag levy at New World, Pak’n’Save and Four Square stores in 2009. This resulted in a 65 per cent drop in plastic bag use. This massive drop in usage illustrates that the convenience of plastic bags is worth no more than 5 cents for most people. Compared to the devastating environmental impact, it is hard to understand why they are still in mass circulation. However, the levy only lasted one month due to negative public reaction. Perhaps public awareness has progressed to the point where the minor inconvenience of bringing reusable bags is not insurmountable today.
The leadership shown by our major supermarkets is encouraging, but legislative action would have stronger results across all retailers. In light of the extensive problems caused by plastic bags, this is clearly necessary. Earlier this year, a 65,000 strong petition was handed to Parliament calling for a ban on plastic bags. This highlights the fact that public opinion is aligned with the 30 countries who have legislated to regulate single use plastic bags with bans or levies. For example, in 2002 Ireland introduced a bag tax which resulted in a 90% drop in bag usage. The European Union will require an 80% reduction of plastic bags by 2019. Sixteen countries in the African continent have bag bans and taxes in place. In the United States, there are 133 different anti-bag regulations. Canada has voluntary anti-bag actions and incentives for stores and bag usage has dropped by 50%. ‘Clean and green’ New Zealand is lagging behind.
The New Zealand Government needs to take strong legislative leadership on this issue. Plastic bags cannot be used frivolously any longer. We have no right to subordinate the welfare of the environment to thoughtless convenience. A tax or ban would help people recognise that we must take responsibility for the waste we produce, and the impact it has on our world.
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