Why is New Zealand so far behind the movement to ban plastic bags?

by Venetia Sherson / 01 October, 2017

Tasty jellyfish or plastic bag?

New Zealand lags behind in banning or reducing single-use plastic shopping bags. At least 12 countries and hundreds of states, cities and towns have outlawed them; dozens more have imposed a tax on their use.

In Rwanda – a land-locked East African country where half the population lives below the poverty line – plastic bags are confiscated at the border. Enforcement agents also cut the plastic wrapping from negligent travellers’ suitcases.

In China, where they describe the effects of discarded bags as “white pollution”, a ban on ultra-thin plastic bags was introduced in 2008. Italy, India, Tanzania, Taiwan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Botswana, Macedonia and Brazil have also imposed bag bans and restrictions. The Bangladesh government was the first to impose a ban in 2002, because of safety hazards when bags blocked drainage systems during the monsoon. 

A sign at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda, where a ban on plastic bags means they’re confiscated at the border.

All these countries have one up on New Zealand, where – despite various attempts – no laws have been passed to ban or charge for single-use bags. Closer to home, plastic bags are banned South Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

In the United States, there is no national ban, but California – the state that has defied President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord – voted in November last year to ban plastic bags state-wide. Many US towns have independently imposed their own bans.

In Europe, the European Parliament passed a directive in 2014 to reduce plastic-bag use by half by the end of this year, and by 80 per cent by 2019. Italy has banned the distribution of lightweight plastic bags not from biodegradable sources; France has banned bags under 50 microns. The Netherlands implemented a ban last year but exempted bags used for food products, such as fresh fruit.    

Plenty of other places have chosen not to ban plastic bags but to discourage their use by imposing a fee. England, Northern Ireland and Wales have a five-pence levy on all single-use bags. In the first half of 2015, when the charge was imposed in England, the number of single-use bags dropped by seven billion. Denmark, which introduced a tax in 2003, has the lowest plastic-bag use in Europe, with four bags per person a year. In countries like Portugal, Poland and Slovakia, where there is no tax, each person on average uses 466 bags a year.

However, the news isn’t all good. Nearly a decade after it imposed its ban, Rwanda is struggling to combat a lucrative black market for plastic bags.  

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.

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