Brad Markham: It's time to ban the plastic supermarket bag

A turtle encounters a plastic bag.
Troy Mayne

A turtle encounters a plastic bag.

OPINION: I was calving a cow the other day during an icy downpour and my mind wandered, as it often does. I was imagining how toasty it'd be on the Indonesian island of Bali right now. We went to the tourist hotspot in April to catch up with friends. 

One of the things that struck me as I sat slurping on a watermelon juice in a cafe in Seminyak one day, was the texture of the straw. It wasn't plastic. It was made of paper. Another restaurant offered reusable glass straws.

It turns out Bali has taken the bold move to help stem the tidal wave of plastic choking our oceans. It'll go a step further next year, going plastic bag free.


New data suggested a 2.5 million square-kilometre plastic patch has developed

How is it that struggling places like Bali and even Rwanda can ban plastic shopping bags, but New Zealand can't? Surely someone within the government read the report from the World Economic Forum last year which warned that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

* Researchers map plastic patch bigger than Greenland floating in the Pacific 
Third of seabirds found dead on NZ and Australian shores has eaten plastic
Third of turtles found dead on New Zealand beaches had eaten plastic
Ninety percent of city and district mayors call for plastic bag levy

The report made sobering reading. Each year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world's oceans. That's equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the sea every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to four per minute by 2050. That's 5760 garbage trucks per day.

When calving in the rain, thoughts can turn to warmer climes.

When calving in the rain, thoughts can turn to warmer climes.

Given those already alarming figures, it wasn't surprising when scientists found more than 30 plastic bags and other rubbish jammed inside the stomach of a whale stranded off Norway's coast in February. It was so emaciated it had to be put down. 

NBC News reported a post mortem found no food inside the whale's intestines. 

It was recently revealed a swathe of floating pieces of plastic – larger than Greenland – has been discovered by researchers in the South Pacific. The Sunday Star Times reported much of the waste is believed to have originated in New Zealand.

Not a plastic bag to be seen.

Not a plastic bag to be seen.

Across the Tasman, it's estimated our closest neighbours use between four and six billion plastic bags each year. A few Australian states and territories have already taken action in the war against plastic.

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I was a political reporter in Tasmania when the state government followed South Australia's lead and banned lightweight plastic shopping bags in late 2013. 

To be honest, life didn't change much in our household. We already had reusable shopping bags for our groceries. The only thing we had to buy was a roll of biodegradable bags, to pick up after the pooches on our daily walks.

Last month, supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles announced plans to stop giving out single-use plastic bags in the Australian states yet to impose bans.

Tackling the problem isn't a priority for Bill English's government. Environment Minister Nick Smith wasted no time in handing the issue of single-use plastic bags to new Associate Environment Minister Scott Simpson.

But the campaign for change is gathering steam. Most of the country's mayors have signed a letter calling for a 20 cent levy on plastic bags. 

They want the power to implement the compulsory charge, if central government refuses to.

There's plenty of proof from overseas that levies work. The United Kingdom saw an 85 per cent decrease in the number of single-use plastic bags used at the major retailers after the introduction of a five pence levy in 2015.

Last year 16,000 New Zealanders signed a petition demanding a ban on single-use plastic bags, or at the very least introducing consistent charges for them. 

It was examined by a parliamentary committee, headed by the now Associate Environment Minister Scott Simpson. The Ministry for the Environment told MPs New Zealand isn't a big marine polluter and that a ban would be impractical. The committee's 10-page report included four paragraphs of wishy-washy "conclusions", which said nothing.

Currently, Kiwis use around 1.6 billion plastic bags a year and about 40,000 are sent to landfills each hour. The Ministry stressed they only represent 0.2 per cent of landfill waste. But we've all seen what happens when a gust of wind snatches a plastic bag. Katy Perry even sings a song about it.

I don't think a levy goes far enough. 

The fact is, as plastic weathers it breaks down and is easily mistaken for food by fish. A document produced by the Seafood Industry Council and Maritime New Zealand states that in parts of the world "fish are becoming seriously contaminated by plastic pollution". Plastic ingestion also kills turtles and seabirds. It's time New Zealand played its part in curbing the scourge.

 - Stuff


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