Editorial: Time to tax the plastic bag
OPINION: The war on plastic bags is now a global struggle, and New Zealand should join it.
This week a proposal for a compulsory levy on plastic shopping bags will be debated at the Local Government New Zealand conference. In fact, the time for debate is over. Now we need action.
Plastic bag levies, or even outright bans, are now common throughout the world, because bags are an environmental menace. They break down slowly and so they continue to blight the landscape and kill sea life and animals for many years.
It has been estimated that the world uses about a trillion single-use plastic bags each year. Millions end up in the ocean where they kill sea life and birds, including endangered species. Cattle deaths from swallowing bags are a problem from Texas to India to Africa. The bags clog drains and cause floods. Light plastic bags can blow for hundreds of kilometres and blight the rural landscape.
Taxes on plastic bags have proved surprisingly effective, as is shown by a major 2014 report for the American Earth Policy Institute. Denmark brought in its levy more than 20 years ago, and within a year usage had dropped 60 per cent. Ireland's 2002 levy is one of the most celebrated: it reduced the average use from 328 bags per consumer, the Institute reported, to 21. .
Plastic manufacturers, of course, say fewer bags will mean fewer jobs. But the days are gone when environmentally destructive industries can succeed with these kinds of arguments. If everyone stopped smoking many tobacco workers would be out of work. That is no argument for stopping the war against big tobacco.
The industry also argue that bans and levies don't always work. But usually this is because they have not been properly enforced. The Earth Institute found India's poor results were due to lack of enforcement and pressure from the plastics industry.
Just why does a small levy, of perhaps five or 10 cents a bag, typically have such a big effect on behaviour? A study by Argentinian researchers in 2012 found that one group of shoppers disliked the new levy but started using their own bags because of the cost. But another group of shoppers supported the charge for environmental reasons. The new charge forced customers to think again about their behaviour. It was a nudge to change their usual habits.
The plastic bag advocates have one surprising argument: using your own bags repeatedly can kill you. A 2012 study by George Mason University found that the switch to reusable bags was killing about five people a year in San Francisco, because their bags were left unclean and grew germs. Keeping meat and vegetables in the same bag is part of the problem. And leaving bags for long periods in the car boot provides a hothouse for bacteria.
The answer, of course, is to clean your shopping bags. There is a similarly short reply to those who say the levies are regressive, bearing more heavily on the poor. Low-income shoppers, like the rich, should switch to reusable bags.
Local Government New Zealand should back the notion of plastic bag levies, and then push the Government for action.