Plastic bags have had their day – so what's next?

by Bill Ralston / 28 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Plastic bags nz

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Bill Ralston has phased single-use plastic bags out of his life and is feeling pretty good about it. 

Just to emphasise how virtuous I am, I’d like to point out that I have phased out single-use lightweight plastic bags. Actually, this slightly green move was imposed on me by my wife, the bloke at the shop and Jacinda Ardern. The Government is talking of banning the bags in the next year or so, many grocers are ceasing to provide them and my spouse decided to take unilateral action and bought a clutch of reusable bags from the supermarket.

I’m not so sure about the phrase “single-use” plastic bag. At our house, over the years, they were used at least twice: as rubbish bags, children’s lunch bags and doggy-doo receptacles when we were out on a walk with the pooch. However, I am now convinced they are bad for the environment and I take pleasure in refusing when shopkeepers offer them.

“No thanks. I’ll carry the stuff loose in my arms,” I cry, having forgotten the reusable bags left behind in the boot of the car. “I’m saving the planet.”

The environment may benefit from the convenience I have sacrificed but I am not sure I am better off for it. It occurred to me recently that the boot of the car is often also used to convey rubbish to the dump, is the home of my grubby gumboots, and assorted dirty tools litter it. I now wash the reusable bags weekly and keep my fingers crossed that they don’t contaminate the groceries with bubonic plague.

Government bans on lightweight plastic bags are nothing new. California got rid of them two years ago and data shows bag pollution on the beaches has fallen by half. Many other countries and provinces have done the same, although Kenya got a little carried away and made trafficking in plastic bags a crime with a penalty of up to four years in jail. Please do not tell that to Eugenie Sage.

According to a Government consultative document, plastic bags make up 0.001% of waste in landfills, which does not sound a lot. So the questions is, what do we ban next? Plastic drink bottles and containers? Polystyrene? Why not? Aside from cost, there is no real reason we cannot return to the days of tin, paper and glass containers.

The only problem with that is the Government may eventually experience a backlash from folk who finally rebel at being told what to do. This was something the last Labour Administration discovered, when, having run out of sensible legislation, it decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and limit the flow of water from shower heads. The electorate responded by voting them out.

It is unlikely, however, that Labour will face a similar backlash over the plastic-bag ban. The only people I have found opposing the move are Act (or whatever it may soon call itself) leader David Seymour and his mate Rodney Hide.

I guess there is a libertarian argument that people should be free to use things that foul the countryside and choke whales at sea, but I am happy to have my liberty impeded in that regard if it eliminates the reported two billion single-use plastic bags in New Zealand that clog our communities, waterways and oceans every year.

Worldwide, an estimated trillion single-use bags are produced annually. When dumped, they don’t decompose but break into pieces.

Honestly, hearing that, I would be just as happy to get my produce in a paper bag.

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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