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Raglan, the New Zealand town aiming to dump the plastic bag

The useful life of a supermarket bag can be counted in minutes. It will then be dumped, taken to landfill or end up in the bellies of our fish and seabirds. Venetia Sherson visits a small coastal town that’s leading the charge to ban the bag.

Raglan is a classic west-coast beach town. Flanked by a mystical mountain and a fractious ocean bar, it has a couple of supermarkets, one pharmacy, just under 3000 permanent residents and more dreadlocks than a Rastafarian convention. The people who live here – a third are refugees from big cities overseas – are generous. They fundraise for Maui dolphins, organise free curry nights and recycle three-quarters of their rubbish.

Outsiders say Raglan has a green soul. Locals call it tikanga, a word loosely translated as “the right way”.

So, it’s a surprise to walk into the Whaingaroa Environment Centre, where posters advertise permaculture courses, meditation and yoga surfing retreats, to find the conversation dominated by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

“To persuade businesses, we need to be businesslike,” says June Penn, a woman with a wide smile and a persuasive manner. Penn worked for 30 years as an HR consultant in Christchurch before the quakes drove her north. She thought she was eco when she arrived. But she discovered she had much to learn. 

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Penn is co-ordinator of the Plastic Bag Free Raglan (PBRF) campaign, Raglan’s big push to rid the town of single-use plastic carry bags (the sort you get from supermarkets) by the end of 2019. In two years’ time, if you buy groceries from Raglan Four Square, beer from Raglan Wines & Spirits, or snacks from BP 2go, the hope is they’ll be packaged in paper, compostable plastic or “boomerang” (re-useable) cloth bags.

Some retailers have already made the switch. The herbal dispensary no longer uses plastic bags; a local surf shop has devised its own branded paper bags, and Raglan Backpackers provide guests with re-usable jute bags. Penn says more than 60 per cent of Raglan businesses already support the move; 90 per cent of residents say, “Just do it.” 

“We are on target to reach our KPI of 80 per cent by the end of this year.” But, she concedes, without legislation to add muscle, it will be a challenge.

June Penn

Like other towns around the globe – and in New Zealand (Wanaka, Waiheke Island, Whanganui and Collingwood) – Raglan has been spurred by environmental fervour and a growing concern about the volume of single-use plastic bags. More than 1.5 billion are distributed in New Zealand each year. Raglan alone supplies 20,000 a week in the summer, when the population doubles.

Of those bags, some will be re-used as bin liners before being put out with the rubbish; others will be blown into drains, where they will choke the waterways or spill out on to Raglan’s famous black-sand beaches to be swept out to the Tasman Sea.

The world’s oceans are clogged with plastic rubbish. Eight million tonnes ends up in the Pacific, spreading over more than 700,000 sq km – almost three times the size of New Zealand. Larger pieces snare dolphins or turtles, or wash up on beaches where seabirds mistake them for food. Others break down to form a soup of tiny plastic particles below the surface where they’re eaten by fish. A study by the UK’s Plymouth University found plastic in one third of fish; a Belgian study calculated shellfish lovers eat up to 11,000 microscopic plastic fragments in their seafood each year. Most disturbingly, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK charity, estimated that, by 2050, the volume of accumulated plastics in our oceans will be greater than that of fish.

Of all the items of concern, single-use plastic bags are most firmly in the sights of environmentalists. In the 1950s, when the bags arrived on the scene, annual global plastic production was five million tonnes. By 2014, that had risen to 311 million tonnes – 40 per cent of it for single-use packaging.

Lisa Schill, a supporter of the Plastic Bag Free Raglan campaign, in the town’s main street.

Rick Thorpe describes himself as a “chicken farmer”, which is true. But he’s better known as the green genius behind the XTreme Zero Waste recycling centre in Raglan, a place most towns would call a dump, except very little is dumped in Raglan these days. The centre recycles, rehomes and restores 75 per cent of items that would traditionally be buried in the ground. The aim is to achieve zero waste. The centre has become the poster child for other places seeking to reduce landfill, including Auckland.

Thorpe says Raglan people are very clued up – “we can stand on a podium about waste, because we can deal with it” – but it concerns him that single-use plastic bags are still in the mix. “We can keep the majority out of landfill by downcycling them to Asia, but the amount of time and cost in doing this far outweighs any benefits.” He says the useful life of a supermarket bag can be measured in minutes, from being packed with groceries at the supermarket to being unpacked at home. “If they do end up in landfill, it takes a thousand years for them to break down.”

That’s one of the messages June Penn and her team are pushing to businesses in their campaign to persuade them to provide alternatives to plastic bags. A booklet that includes bar graphs and pie charts illustrating use of plastic bags in Raglan outlines the business case for change, including branding opportunities focused on Raglan’s green values. “Capitalising on initiatives utilising the Raglan brand makes good business sense,” it says. Businesses that have become “PBFR-accredited” display a sticker at their stores.

Rick Thorpe and his wife, Liz Stanway, at the XTreme Zero Waste recycling centre in Raglan.

Karamea Puriri walks on Raglan’s black-sand beaches every day. She is so incensed by the sight of plastic bags caught in rock pools, dunes and trees that she posts pictures on Facebook alongside images of orca swimming in the harbour. Brought up in the US, she has links to Ngati Kahungunu on New Zealand’s east coast but has grown to love the west coast and her town’s feisty commitment to the planet’s health. 

In her job as administrator for Raglan Chamber of Commerce, she accepts businesses have concerns about extra costs. But she’s proud the 90-member chamber is a partner in the PBFR campaign. “The chamber is quite different from many other chambers. It has the same values as the community. It was common sense to join the campaign.” She says some Raglan businesses are metres from the harbour and “rubbish blows down the street every day”.

“When we approached the businesses, it wasn’t a battle at all. They support the sustainability of businesses and of the environment.”

Still, not all Raglan’s businesses are convinced. In answer to the question, “Does your business support going PBF?”, 29 per cent of those that provided single-use plastic bags were unsure or neutral and 11 per cent said a flat “No”. Green thinking may be mainstream, but it’s not universal. And Raglan is a small town; finding business owners who openly oppose the push is difficult. One, who spoke on the grounds he wasn’t named, said it was a “kooky idea” driven by people who had no idea of the finances of doing business. “Do they realise the cost of the alternatives? They would have to be passed on to consumers. If a customer can get something cheaper from down the road, they’ll do that.”

June Penn acknowledges alternatives are costlier. “Businesses are driven by KPIs around margins and profit. If the supply chain enables them to give bags away ‘free’, they can reduce costs to the customer.” A typical supermarket, she says, might spend $40,000 annually on single-use plastic bags. Compostable bags would cost more than three times that amount. “If I could show the numbers to demonstrate there would be a marketing edge, that would be great.”

She says ideally the move would be enforced by regulation. “Every town, community and country – including China – that has successfully become plastic bag-free, has been backed by regulation.”  International data shows even a 10c levy on plastic bags leads to a 75-80 per cent reduction in use.

The idea of introducing a compulsory levy has gathered momentum. A Waste Management Institute of New Zealand (WasteMINZ) study last year showed roughly two-thirds of Kiwis would support a levy if charities benefited from the money raised. In June this year, mayors from Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin asked other mayors to join the call on central government to institute a national levy on single-use plastic bags or give local authorities the power to do so themselves. Some New Zealand retailers, including Pak’nSave and The Warehouse, already charge for their use. Countdown on Waiheke Island last year voluntarily phased out single-use bags. It now provides re-usable or compostable bags that can be bought at the store. Other supermarkets say they’d support a compulsory charge if it was applied across the board. New World is seeking feedback from its customers about whether they'd be prepared to pay for bags.

But before the election the Government was reluctant to budge. Environment Minister Nick Smith said he does not think the move is justified. Associate Environment Minister Scott Simpson told Radio New Zealand in June he was personally opposed to using “blunt regulatory changes to solve the problem”. He wants to take a closer look at what has worked overseas. The Green Party said that if it’s part of the next Government, it will place a 15c charge on plastic bags at checkouts, with the money raised going to waste-minimisation projects.

Others remain unconvinced a levy is the right way to go. In Australia, where three states have banned the bags, opponents say supermarkets simply substituted “boutique” bags made from heavier plastic. Nevertheless, in its 2015-16 National Litter index, national body Keep Australia Beautiful found plastic bag litter “fell significantly and almost immediately after a [ban] came into effect”.

Many people argue there are better options than targeting retailers. They say manufacturers should take responsibility for their product’s complete life cycle. Sandra Murray, co-ordinator for the anti-waste New Zealand Product Stewardship Council, believes change will only come if manufacturers are responsible for collecting their products and dealing with their disposal. “If they had to pay the cost, they would change the materials used.” Rick Thorpe, who deals daily with the end-of-life outcome of thousands of products at the Raglan recycling centre, agrees. “Waste is a social issue, best managed by the people who produce waste.” 

Raglan campaigners remain hopeful levies will be introduced. In the meantime, they continue to try to turn their town by choice.

Visitors to the town are asked to take a reusable bag when they go shopping or refuse a plastic bag if one is offered; every household in Raglan has been issued with a jute shopping bag; a voluntary sewing bee held monthly in the town hall has made hundreds of cloth bags from recycled cloth; visiting backpackers are encouraged to sew bags to support the movement.

Penn says she wants the campaign to be successful and sustainable. “We’re asking people to do it, because it’s the right thing to do.”

To this endangered green sea turtle, photographed in the Atlantic, a plastic bag resembles a tasty jellyfish.

Meet the Plasticarians

More people in Raglan are going one step further than plastic bags.

The Librarian

Merren Tait is a Raglan librarian. Single, quietly spoken and fond of all manner of books, she’s a person you might imagine going home at night to make herbal tea in a china pot and curl up with Jane Austen. Except you would be wrong. 

Tait is a spirited eco-warrior. At weekends, she checks traps for rats, weasels and stoats; on her daily run or cycle, she stops to pick up rubbish; at night, she writes to producers of plastic products, asking them to consider sustainable alternatives. “One firm thanked me for my letter and sent me three plastic gift cards.”

It began, like many revolutions, with an epiphany.

Tait, 39, arrived in Raglan more than seven years ago. She liked the town but couldn’t find a job, so she commuted daily 40km across the Kapamahunga Range to teach in Hamilton. When a position at Raglan’s public library came up, she applied and got the job.

The library is housed in the municipal centre – the hub of local body politics. Tait became familiar with issues that were top of mind for locals. At the same time, she watched a trailer for Midway: A Message from the Gyre (below), a documentary about a remote Pacific Island littered with plastic rubbish and the carcasses of thousands of albatrosses that have eaten it. She wells up even talking about it.

Overnight, she went from armchair environmentalist – “happy to donate money, sign petitions” – to plastic-free crusader. When Raglan celebrated Plastic-Free July – a worldwide campaign encouraging people to refuse to use single-use plastic for a month – she went further, announcing she would live without any plastic at all for a year. It was a publicity stunt, she says, to raise attention and awareness.

She began by purging her home of all single-use plastic products. Pantry items were re-housed in glass jars, tins or cardboard boxes. Bathroom items were replaced with bulk products decanted into reusable containers. She bought toilet paper in compostable bamboo wrapping, bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars from Lush. She made her own toothpaste and deodorant, and tried flax for dental floss (“didn’t work”). If she couldn’t find a non-plastic option, she bought secondhand products; she even dug out her grandfather’s razor that he took to the war.

Other ethical concerns occasionally overrode the use of plastic. “I buy butter in plastic, but only from farms where bobby calves are rehomed.” Sometimes, she’d leave plastic wrapping at the shop to raise awareness, and she asked for takeaway food in a paper napkin rather than a Styrofoam container. She wrote letters to manufacturers.  Other shoppers got to know her. “In a supermarket queue, people standing next to me would refuse a plastic bag.”

Her entire plastic waste for a year – made up of blister packs for prescription medication and pet-food containers for a cat with allergies – filled one small, non-plastic shopping bag. 

A year on, her habits have barely changed. Taking a road less consumptive, she says, becomes easier as time passes – and people need only reference their parents’ practices for guidance. “Sandwiches were wrapped in greaseproof paper, not cling wrap; food was covered with muslin cloths and stored in reusable tins, jars and bottles. If you want to know how to do it, just go ask your mother or your nana.”

The Physiotherapist

Raglan is a magnet for surfers. On a warm autumn day, with a slight offshore breeze, they line up beyond the breakers at Manu Bay, waiting for the fat-bellied swell that could give them the best ride of their life. Which is probably why, on the day before her scheduled interview, Elena Pulido Hidalgo texts to ask if she could postpone until the afternoon.

“Surf conditions are just epic for Monday morning and I’ve been almost a week without surf. And, honestly, I need to go [smiley face].”

She turns up fresh from the sea, hair still damp, carrying a reusable ceramic coffee mug. “But look,” she says, “it has this plastic strip around the middle to stop me from burning my fingers. Why would it need to be plastic?”

Hidalgo is in the early stages of her new regime to live plastic-free. A 28-year-old physiotherapist and yoga teacher from Spain’s southern coast, she came to New Zealand three years ago and set down her backpack in Raglan. She liked the town’s “vibe”, and its environmental conscience.

This year, she decided to live plastic-
free. “It sounds hard, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.” Her definition of “easy” may not apply for everyone. She makes a lot of her own products, including milk (from oats, dates, salt and water). At the supermarket, she uses paper bags provided for mushrooms to transport other products. Some purchases are challenging: toilet paper wrapped in paper is expensive ($2 a roll); so are items like plant-based compostable straws.

One thing stumped her: “When I applied for my residency permit, the Immigration Department asked that I send back my papers in a plastic courier bag. In my own interests, I thought I should do that.”

The Student

Demian Rosenthal, 27, is a new-age hippy: anti capitalism, strong on the environment, anti meat and pro mindfulness. He left his home in Germany five-and-a-half years ago, because of the pervasiveness of free-market ideology. “I thought it probably wasn’t going to go well for Europe. New Zealand seemed to be far enough away to be safe.”

A former chef, he is now completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Waikato and says, as a student, there are big challenges to living plastic-free. “Specials almost always come wrapped in plastic.” So do the staples of his vegan diet: tofu and tempeh.

He’s frustrated more corporations haven’t changed their packaging. “It’s mind-blowing how we are digging holes in the ground to put our rubbish in, for the next generation to deal with.” 

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