Breaking Down Plastic: New Zealand's Bag Ban
By Talia Parker
As of July 1st 2019, plastic bags are legally banned in New Zealand.  Plastic bags for purchasing meat or produce, carrying pet excrement and lining bins are allowed,  as are plastic bags without handles.  Plastic bags have been an integral part of the shopping experience for decades. With so many exceptions and specific rules about microns and handles, it can be hard to get one’s head around this massive policy change. So why it has come into force? What are the consequences for both consumers and the environment?
There are two main reasons for the ban. The first is clear – plastic wreaks havoc on the environment. Theories of how long plastic bags take to break down range from 20 years  to 1000 years.  The lower estimates involve significantly less time than some other plastics (such as bottles, which take 150 years), but plastic bags have the added danger of being frequently eaten by animals.  For example, research found that 52% of sea turtles have ingested plastic . Reusable bags may not be environmentally neutral, but they are heavier, and therefore less likely to blow into the sea and impact marine life or ecosystems.  Plastic bags also use 4.5 times more energy to produce than reusable bags, and will never break down completely, unlike biodegradable bag options (though these biodegradable options do emit slightly more carbon dioxide as they break down).  If plastic bag consumption continues at its current rate, then the weight of all the plastic in the ocean will exceed the weight of all the fish in the ocean by 2050.  Clearly, lessening the amount of plastic that we use is critical for protecting wildlife and the planet.
Several retailers including Cotton On and Countdown offered reusable bags before the ban came into force. If this change would have happened organically, why did the law intervene? This writer would argue that retailers are not equipped for the task of making such a change. Retailers still provided plastic bags alongside reusable alternatives – the plastic bags were free or inexpensive, while the reusable bags cost more. The incentive to remember to bring a reusable bag when a free or virtually free alternative will be available is not exactly enticing. Once a consumer has forgotten, the desire to buy yet another reusable cotton sack that they will never remember to take to a shop again is virtually nil. The only way to break this cycle is to give the consumer no alternative. Retailers were never going to make this call because it seemed, on the face of it, to be unpopular. Their main concern is their bottom line. The government’s concern is the wellbeing of its citizens and in order to protect our wellbeing, we need to have a healthy environment. By failing to protect our ecosystems, our leaders would be failing to protect us.
This is justification enough to support a legal ban, but more evidence can be provided in the form of accountability. The ban allows citizens to bring complaints against those who continue to provide single-use plastic bags and 180 were lodged in the first month of the ban.  Consumers would not be able to hold retailers to account in this way if it were a voluntary change in store policy. Bringing the issue under legal protection provides a guarantee that retailers will be forced to protect the environment, and that the decision to do so is not subject to the whims of what is prima facie ‘popular.’ Legal banning also sends a clear message to retailers that the government is taking this issue seriously, presenting a strong incentive for compliance.
The second reason is to do with patterns of behaviour. In 2019, 96% of Kiwis lived in a household where the person who did the shopping regularly used reusable alternatives, which was a 26% increase from 2018. This research indicates that Kiwis were on the way to phasing out plastic bags themselves, speaking to the increased visibility of the issue and the environmental responsibility of New Zealanders. With data like this indicating that phasing out plastic would not be a massive inconvenience for the vast majority of Kiwis, phasing out bags would have seemed like an important way to reduce the amount of plastic affecting our environment. Whilst the impact of any policy is variable, it is obvious that something has to be done to change our consumption habits, and reusable bags seem like a fair compromise.
So how right has this been proven? Do Kiwis adore their reusable new supermarket experience? As with every issue, it depends on who is asked. Some businesses have attempted to get around the ban. One Auckland restaurant made headlines by simply cutting off the handles of their plastic bags and continuing to use them. Whilst a clear example of Kiwi ingenuity, this obviously violated both the effectiveness and the spirit of the ban. It would seem to be damning evidence that the various exceptions to the ban render it ineffective. However, the same restaurant has since announced that it has switched exclusively to paper bags and that the handle-cutting was merely a temporary measure to use up their leftover stock – the owner even said they supported the ban. 
However, other businesses have not been so happy. An anonymous business owner said his customers complained about their hot food tearing through paper bags, claiming his business went down 30% as a result.  While there are some who claim the ban is “virtue signalling garbage” that distracts from the bigger environmental issues and risks making us complacent,  no massive public outcry is observable. The ban seems to have arrived without much of a reaction in terms of annoyance or inconvenience. What there has been debate about is the efficacy or viability of the ban itself,  which will be dealt with later in this article.
As always, we must make sure we keep an eye on those with the greatest needs when we make any institutional change. Environmental policies can have a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable, such as “energy codes” (similar to building codes) which reduce the value of houses for lower-income owners.  There is some concern that banning plastic bags could burden lower socio-economic groups the most heavily, as they would be required to purchase bags once received for free. Though this fear is valid, it can be mitigated. The Ministry of Environment has admitted to the issue and suggested several possible solutions, such as providing those in need with free reusable bags and partnering with food banks to distribute bags with food parcels. 
Unfortunately, the biggest question is also the most complex: Does banning plastic bags work? Yes and no. A study conducted in the United Kingdom found that a reusable cotton ban needs to be reused 131 times in order to contribute less to global warming than a non-reused plastic bag.  The same study also found that repurposing plastic bags for use as bin liners after using them for shopping lessens their environmental impact. Whilst these results show that switching from plastic to other bags doesn’t solve the problem completely, it can be seen as an important part of shifting our cultural dependence on plastic in general towards reusable alternatives.
Less plastic in the world is an objectively positive thing for the environment. As mentioned, it will help protect marine life, conserve energy, and signal a government shift towards environmentally conscious policies. However, it will not be enough in isolation. Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, stated that “as important as banning single-use plastic bags is in terms of reducing it as a source, it’s not going to change the world.”  Some environmentalists argue that plastic bags are a minor problem compared to other environmental issues such as biodiversity loss through habitat destruction.  However, the average consumer can’t do much about industrial pollution, overfishing or mass habitat destruction. Those changes need to happen at the national and international levels.
The enormous impact that our modern lifestyle has on the environment can seem like an overwhelming, insurmountable challenge. Focusing on plastic bags could be a valuable way to make a small, but still helpful, environmental change. Discovering that we can make this change without too much pain to consumers or businesses could catalyse us to face some of these bigger challenges. Aside from voting for politicians with strong environmental policies, all the average citizen can reliably and consistently regulate is their own behaviour. If we put less plastic into the world, the environment will benefit. Global warming is the Rubik’s Cube of crises; all the different parts need to be involved before a solution can be reached. Plastic bag bans are still in their infancy and time will tell the true extent of their effectiveness — but being unable to solve the problem instantly is no excuse not to take the first step.
Image sourced from Pexels.com
The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site.
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