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The tide is turning on plastic bag use

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.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.

Photo/BBC

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.