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Plastic bag ban plan gets a boost

The campaign to ban single-use plastic bags has been boosted by the big guns of environmental activism. 

Greenpeace New Zealand is stepping up, having launched a video and petition calling on the Government to ban supermarket bags. 

Getting plastic bags banned is a world-wide, 10-year strategic aim of the group and campaigns have been running internationally for 18 months. However Greenpeace NZ has decided it's only now that the time is right to push the issue. 

"A lot of good work has taken place by local groups," says spokesperson Elena Di Palma. "It's time to add our weight to the argument." 

Spiralling out of control

Greenpeace says New Zealanders use around 1.6 billion bags every year. "They're used for an average of only 12 minutes, yet each one can take a thousand years to degrade," says Di Palma. "New Zealand's plastic waste problem is quickly spiralling out of control."  

A series of recent events made Greenpeace officially jump on the bag ban bandwagon.  One was publicity over the discovery of an enormous floating island of plastic, eight times the size of New Zealand, in the South Pacific. Another was a move by two Australian supermarkets, Woolworths and Coles, to stop giving single-use plastic bags to customers within the next year. 

Then there was the viral video of or rescue workers trying to extract a plastic straw from the nose of a turtle. (Here's the link, with a warning: Di Palma says it's excruciating to watch.) Di Palma says plastics have a devastating effect on marine life as fish, seabirds and other animals mistake the broken-down bits of plastic for food. 

"Recent research shows that one-third of all turtles that wash up on New Zealand beaches have died from consuming plastic. Turtles are known to mistake plastic bags for their favourite food - jellyfish - and swallowing the plastic can be fatal for them. Plastic bottle tops, balloons, plastic cutlery, and straws are some of the worst culprits."

A pied shag deals with a plastic bag at Western Springs Lakeside Park. Photo: Cathy Casey

She says it's estimated that if we keep polluting at the current rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean within 33 years.

"Many communities around New Zealand are realising the seriousness of this unseen problem and taking action.People everywhere are already doing their bit, from sewing cloth bags to buying reusable coffee cups, but now it’s time for the Government to step up and take immediate action,” says Di Palma.

Levy or Ban?

Di Palma says a lot of great work has already taken place towards reducing plastic bag usage, and a petition has already garnered 15,000 signatures. Greenpeace has 50,000 members in New Zealand and hopes to bring that pressure to bear. Half the country's mayors, including those in Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, have signed a letter asking the government to act - or to at least give councils the power to act. But new Associate Environment Minister Scott Simpson favours a levy over a ban, as has happened in the UK. Their system has the added attraction of raising money for charity. 

Simpson has set up a working group looking at ways to reduce plastic bag consumption. He doesn't think an outright ban would work, predicting pushback from New Zealanders. But Di Palma doesn't think a levy would work - for long. She says we've seen with moves by The Warehouse to charge for bags, that while that encourages people to bring their own shopping bags for a short while, soon the charge is simply accepted as part of the price of shopping. "We think changing people's behaviour to the reusable bag model is the way to go," she says. "Shoppers need to get into the mindset of taking their own bags with them." Di Palma says a levy is not enough: it doesn't solve the problem of single use plastic bags.

What happens when you forget to bring your bags to the supermarket?  Di Palma says supermarkets can make reusable bags from materials that are better for the environment available to buy at reasonable prices. Asked if supermarkets could just stock up with US-style paper bags, she say they also have an environmental cost. 

Greenpeace wants politicians to introduce plastic bag legislation within the first 100 days of the new government, but it hasn't made much headway with any of the parties over this issue yet. Even the Greens - the only party to have a policy on this - favour a mandatory levy over a ban. Di Palma says Labour appears disinterested in the issue - "National hasn't even entered into discussions with us over it ... we have tried."

What about .... dog poo?

Yes, well. Of all the objections raised over banning plastic bags, this seems to be the turd in the ointment. "We've been talking about using paper ... about composting in parks. That will be a challenge," admits Di Palma. "There are bio-degradable plastics but we're reluctant to say it's a solution - a lot of 'bio-degradable' products are labelled eco-friendly but they're not really.

Di Palma refers to a trial in a New York dog park where dog owners pick up after their pets with corn-based bags, and place the waste in special bins near the park entrance. Once a week a composting company takes it away - the trial has been a success. 

Newsroom went in search of responsible dog owners to ask them what they would do if they couldn't use old supermarket bags to pick up poo. 

"Oh. I hadn't thought of that," one man said as he bent down in expert fashion with a plastic bag over his hand and flipped it inside out to clean up after his two boisterous dogs. Another bloke with three plastic bags scrunching in his shorts pocket (giant German Shepherd) mused over the problem for a while. "I suppose it's not a question of what would you (use) ... but would you?" he said. A young man running with three energetic dogs had actually had this conversation with a friend in Germany, who used specially made, very thick, paper bags. "It's not ideal, especially in the wet ... but if it's for the environment I suppose .....". A fourth man decided it would be best to carry a little spade with you and bury it, or have little cesspits in parks for depositing poo. It took a woman to point out you can actually buy dog poo bags off the supermarket shelf. These, presumably, like bin liners, would still be for sale.  

Di Palma's obviously not keen on swapping one plastic bag for another, suggesting that when it comes to bin liners they could use potato or corn starch bags, or even old newspapers. Or, don't use them at all and empty the bin more often. 

Small scale activism

Communities all over New Zealand have been doing their bit to reduce the number of plastic bags ending up in landfills. A scheme by supermarkets to get people to return their bags for recycling hasn't taken off, and some activists are working out their own initiatives. One of those is in Titirangi, which has launched its own plastic bag-free initiative. Love Titirangi campaigner Michele Powles is pleased that larger groups like Greenpeace are now taking notice of community support for the issue. 

"Kiwis want plastic bags out of their communities. In a recent Waste Management Institute of New Zealand study two thirds of those surveyed supported a plastic bag levy to reduce usage," she says.

A plastic bag-free campaign launched in Titirangi in July. Photo: Elton McAleer

"We hope that with the added support of groups like Greenpeace and the media, we will start to see the government take real steps towards following the lead of dozens of other countries and eventually banning plastic bags from New Zealand." 

Powles says many communities are looking at schemes overseas such as the Boomerang Bags one in Australia, in which fabric bags are provided in drop off points outside shops. They can be taken without charge and then returned. That's the scheme that Love Titirangi has adopted, with Powles saying that the over 2000 bags that have gone out into the community are starting to boomerang back. 

"Retailers in the West Auckland community are reporting a huge drop in plastic bag usage and are really happy with the positive response from their consumers." 

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