Plastic bag fee mulled

00:43, Apr 05 2009

The Government is investigating plans to sting shoppers with a 5 cent charge for every plastic supermarket bag.

Based on a "polluter pays" scheme, the initiative would push grocery shoppers to reduce the one-billion plastic bags used each year.

But rather than funding environmental research or sustainability schemes, the cash would help boost supermarket profits.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said yesterday that New Zealanders were over-using plastic shopping bags, and officials were considering whether to legislate bag charges.

"We are a country of just four million people, we use over a billion bags a year, and to me that's excessive," Dr Smith said.

He had asked the Environment Ministry to investigate a "polluter pays" scheme that would see charges of about 5c introduced for each plastic shopping bag.

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The ministry would report back in about two months.

The scheme would apply only at supermarkets, where nearly 80 percent of plastic shopping bags are handed out.

Because plastic bags are light and compressible, they make up only 0.2 percent of New Zealand's waste but, because they are not biodegradable, they stay in landfills for decades.

Dr Smith dismissed a ban on plastic bags but said international experience showed that even a small charge reduced bag demand. "When things are free, people tend to overuse them."

A NZ35c tax on plastic shopping bags in Ireland, introduced in 2002, cut their use by more than 90 percent and had raised millions of euros for environmental projects.

The New Zealand charge could be brought in under a product stewardship section of the Waste Minimisation Bill, which comes into effect on July 1.

Money generated by the user-pays scheme would go back to the supermarkets, rather than into a cash pool, Dr Smith said. "I don't see this is as some sort of cash cow, what's important is changing consumer behaviour."

Prime Minister John Key said on TV One's Breakfast show today that it was too early to say whether he would throw his support behind such a scheme.

"We would need to see whether it would be effective and what it would achieve," he said.

While such a move could be considered a form of tax, the goal was to turn people away from using plastic bags rather than tax them for it.

However, he said there was "nothing wrong with changing the balance of taxes", provided there was some benefit as a result.

Mr Key said he hadn't had any discussion or advice from the Environment Ministry and it would take a couple of months for the ministry to report back to Dr Smith.

Progressive Enterprises spokesman Bill Moore said the company which owns Foodtown, Woolworths and Countdown believed voluntary efforts made "the most sense".

"But if the Government were to mandate a charge on plastic bags, we would, of course, support this."

Progressive and Foodstuffs launched the "Make a Difference" campaign two years ago to cut plastic bag use. Checkout operators ask shoppers if they need a plastic bag when they buy four or fewer items. The campaign has helped cut plastic bag use by 14 percent.

Meanwhile, a nationwide "Get Real" push began yesterday, wanting supermarkets to charge a levy of between 20c and 30c a bag.

Organiser Angus Ho said the money could go to public education or environmental projects.

Borders book store cut plastic bag use by 80 percent in a year with a 10c levy.

North Island Pak 'n Saves already charge 5c a plastic bag.

The Warehouse will charge 10c a plastic bag from April 20, with the profits going to community groups.

- with NZPA

The Dominion Post