Professor Ian Spellerberg examines the debate over plastic shopping bags.
OPINION: If I were to act on the advice of many letters and articles to The Press, I should not be wasting my time writing this article; I should have better things to do than write about plastic shopping bags.
Some say the debate about plastic shopping bags has been magnified out of all proportion to draw attention away from other packaging issues. For example, what about the plastic and foam trays used for packaged meat and take-away meals? What about plastic cups and the ubiquitous food wrap?
Others say supermarkets are delighted about the plastic shopping bag debate because it diverts attention from all the other environment-related issues they could be asked to face.
To ban or not to ban; is that the question?
The merits of plastic shopping bags and the arguments for banning plastic shopping bags have been widely debated in many countries for many years. Several countries have already taken action.
Here in New Zealand, there have been efforts to try to dismiss the issue, but it seems it is an issue that will not go away.
Retailers are trying to promote responsible use of plastic shopping bags. However, several groups concerned about the use of plastic shopping bags have combined efforts under the alliance of "Kiwi PlasticBag Concern".
Perhaps, it's time to try to summarise.
* The arguments supporting plastic shopping bags in New Zealand appear to be the following:
* They are a valuable product of innovative industrial design
* They are a cost-effective way of carrying purchases
* Customers demand them
* Plastic shopping bags can be put to multiple uses
* Disposal of organic waste from the kitchen is not possible without plastic shopping bags
* By weight and by volume plastic bags amount to a very small part of the material going to landfill
* The number of bags contributing to litter is very small
* Not all plastic bags are created equal, as some are biodegradable
* To introduce a ban would be another gain for the "Nanny State"
Looking at the bigger picture, plastic shopping bags are not an issue. We have much more important environmental issues than plastic shopping bags to worry about.
The arguments against plastic shopping bags in New Zealand seem to be as follows:
* They contribute to litter in cities and the countryside
* Plastic shopping bags are a source of pollution
* They cause harm to both terrestrial and aquatic animals
* Their production is an unnecessary waste of petroleum resources
* There are alternatives (durable, long-lasting, environmentally friendly shopping bags)
* Banning them would be a gesture of good environmental stewardship
* A growing number of retail outlets have agreed to discontinue the provision of plastic shopping bags
* A growing number of people are using the alternatives
* A growing number of countries overseas have already banned plastic shopping bags
The problem of plastic shopping bags might not be a big environmental issue, but it is a small and simple issue to resolve.
Not all the discussion has been about banning or not banning plastic shopping bags.
There has been much discussion about making sure every bag is full and that as few bags as possible are used by each customer.
More recently, there has been vigorous debate about charging for bags. That appears to work because it does result in fewer bags being used. However, as pointed out in letters to the editor, plastic shopping bags have never been free.
A while ago I had a long discussion with a major supermarket chain about the provision of plastic shopping bags.
There was much willingness to introduce ways of limiting the number used. Many ideas were forthcoming.
However, when asked the question "why not ban their use?", there was no reply.
Why don't supermarkets have an answer to that question? Perhaps they believe that such a ban would have a significant effect on their trade? On the other hand, such a ban could be seen as being an environmentally responsible retailer and result in increasing trade. The growth in environmental responsibility is not going to go away.
My dear Mother, were she with us today, would be amused about the debate. I recall that for many years she had several durable and colourful shopping bags in various sizes. Out shopping, she was never without her shopping bags. So shopping was possible before the plastic shopping bag.
Furthermore, many other tasks, such as dealing with kitchen waste, were possible before the widespread availability of plastic shopping bags.
To ban or not to ban, is that the question?
In my opinion, the issue is not about plastic shopping bags. The issue is mainly about product design. That is, designing products that have minimum impacts on the environment.
Plastic bags are just one of the many poorly designed, environmentally unfriendly products. Other examples include non-refillable plastic pens, non-reusable plastic fast- food containers, outdoor heaters, leaf blowers, and electric carving knives. Why is it not mandatory for all products to be designed so that their manufacture, use and disposal has minimum impact on the environment?
All product designers should be required to address standards for minimum impacts on the environment along with other criteria, such as safety, function, durability, and aesthetic appeal. Product designers have a lot for which to answer and I am tempted to suggest they all be required to attend courses by The Natural Step Environment Foundation.
Dealing with plastic shopping bags at the end of their life is not addressing the issue. It is simply dealing with a problem caused by poor product design.
Lack of regulation probably doesn't help either.
Stand outside a supermarket and try talking to those people laden with plastic shopping bags. In my experience, most people don't care. The bags are readily available and, therefore, are willingly accepted.
So why have I bothered to write this article? The reason is simple. The plastic shopping bag debate is an indicator of a much bigger and more serious challenge facing all of us. That is, the unsustainable use of nature and the environment. However, just one small step at a time can do a lot to help reduce the human ecological footprint.
Therefore, it is very important that New Zealand does ban plastic shopping bags. We can do without them, they are a drain on resources and they do have an impact on nature and the environment.
Say no to plastic shopping bags and show that you care.
* Ian Spellerberg is a professor at Lincoln University and is vice- president of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand.
- The Press