The tide is turning on plastic bag use

by The Listener / 13 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Plastic bag

Sir David Attenborough. Photo/BBC

Among the most striking and unsettling moments of 2017 was when Sir David Attenborough spoke of his Blue Planet II film crew finding albatrosses trying to feed their chicks plastic waste.

“The albatross parent has been away for three weeks gathering stuff for her young,” the naturalist said at the launch of the television series, “and what comes out? You think it’s going to be squid, but it’s plastic. The chick is going to starve and die.”

Attenborough urged drastic reduction in the world’s use of plastics. Who could possibly disagree? Our own precious dolphins, the World Wide Fund for Nature warns, are being threatened by solid rubbish such as plastic shopping bags, which they can mistake for squid and ingest, with fatal consequences.

The evidence is compelling that our plastic habit is a leading threat to biodiversity. Now, at last, there seem to be signs of a public and even a political will to reduce our dependence on plastic.

Our two major supermarket chains have promised to stop providing single-use bags this year. We’ve just outlawed microbeads in cosmetics.

In Britain, MPs are considering a levy on disposable takeaway cups, after learning that though they can be recycled, they rarely are. Hearteningly, several major cafe chains have already started, with levies and/or discounts for customers who bring their own non-disposable cups. This follows the success of Britain’s 9p levy on plastic bags, which now raises tens of millions of pounds for charity each year and has reduced the number of bags used by more than 85%.

California has banned single-use bags and levies 10c for every multi-use bag, and most other American states have either informal or statutory sanctions against plastic bags. As if the world needed a further prod, China has announced it will no longer import plastic waste for its recycling industry, saying it has more than enough of its own.

Perhaps the best news, though, is this is one area where the little things we all do really count. Research suggests the worst plastic pollutants, especially of the marine environment, are trivial items we use every day, with little thought. Most are single-use disposable items, which could be recycled, made from biodegradable materials or, ideally, replaced with multi-use substitutes – all without putting humankind to any more trouble than the fleeting inconvenience of changing a small habit.



Drinking straws, coffee cups, supermarket bags and plastic packaging such as cling wrap are all convenience items with a very small “c”. Many New Zealanders can remember a world without them. Groceries were packed in paper bags, fresh food with the added protection of waxed paper. Many shoppers used a stretchy “string” bag to tote awkward items. Straws were made of paper, and recycling bottles and cans was a worthwhile pocket-money project. Things made of plastic were expected to be durable, not temporary or extraneous. Yet strangely, these were not the Dark Ages.

How much progress have we really made with all these “convenience” products? Every year, the post-Christmas chore of cramming stiff moulded plastic and icebergs of polystyrene into the bin gets more arduous. Is the notional extra hygiene of plastic and polystyrene trays encasing our supermarket fruit and vegetables really the difference between sickness and health? Do sushi and other foods really need all that packaging?

Suddenly it’s not cool to be one of those people who must take a plastic bottle of water everywhere. On the contrary, the trend is in the opposite direction: people are happily toting their own permanent cups for takeaway beverages.

As the Los Angeles Times remarked a year after the enforcement of California’s ban, civilisation survived. Shoppers were not impoverished by the token charge for reusable bags, and warnings about food-borne diseases from the bags proved groundless.

“Most [consumers] adjusted quickly, perhaps because they intuited that something was not right about all those plastic bags hanging from trees, caught up in storm drains, clumped by the sides of freeways and floating in the ocean.”

Alongside a crackdown on plastic use, we urgently need creative thinking about how to recycle more materials. It’s not only consumers but also big industries, such as construction, that generate horrendous plastic and polystyrene waste.

Yet prevention is infinitely preferably to cure. The time has arrived when casual plastic use is rightly becoming as socially unacceptable as smoking and smacking.

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more
A brief and brimming history of sh*t
87922 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Books

A brief and brimming history of sh*t

by David Hill

Midas Dekkers' history of faeces favours sensible over sniggery.

Read more
Is the battery of the popular Nissan Leaf degrading too early?
88392 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Technology

Is the battery of the popular Nissan Leaf degradin…

by Peter Griffin

A group of Kiwi citizen scientists claims to have discovered a problem with the battery in the world’s best selling electric car - the Nissan Leaf.

Read more
Goodbye Hamilton, hello Kirikiriroa: The growing push for Māori place names
88338 2018-03-15 09:05:34Z Social issues

Goodbye Hamilton, hello Kirikiriroa: The growing p…

by The Listener

The adoption of Māori place names may take some effort, but it's worth it.

Read more