Our reliance on plastic bags is a relatively new phenomenon – they were not in common use in grocery stores until 1982. Today, they offer a cheap, easy way of transporting our purchases. However, the high gains from plastic usage come at a high cost. Consumer habit and the life cycle of a plastic bag means that they are having devastating impacts on the environment.
Plastic bags are rarely recycled, whether it be because they become ripped, dirty, or are simply thrown away. In the UK for instance, only 1 in 200 bags is recycled (0.5%). In the EU, only 6% are recycled. This contributes to the ever-increasing manufacturing and consumption of plastic bags – over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide. It is estimated a New Zealander uses an average of 200 bags per year. Plastic bags made of polyethylene can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and some biodegradable bags break down into flakes which are then ingested by marine life or birds. Even when bags do finally break down minute toxic substances seep into the ground and waterways. Considering the long life cycle of the average plastic bags, the effects of our excessive use of them can be seen worldwide.
First, they litter waterways, beaches, and reserves. Second, they pose a threat to wildlife, especially marine life. Marine animals (especially turtles) as well as birds often mistake plastic for jellyfish and squid, and are killed as a result of ingesting it. In northern France, a minke whale washed up on a beach had 800kg of plastic bags and other packaging in its stomach. Plastic is now found in 90% of seabirds. Large amounts of floating plastic accumulate in the Pacific Ocean due to the tidal currents – the largest is thought to be the size of Texas. It is estimated that these patches of plastic have grown tenfold each decade since the 1950s when they were first discovered. The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment has said that plastic bags exacerbate flood events by clogging drains. It is recognised by the United Nations as a global problem.
What is the rest of the world doing about it?
- In 2002 Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags, which has reduced their use by 95%. The revenue from the tax is put into an Environment Fund.
- In 2002 Bangladesh banned plastic bags and brought in a $15 fine for using a plastic bag. This was a response to deadly floods caused by plastic bags blocking drains.
- Denmark, Wales, Italy, Scotland, Germany, England, some states in the US, Mexico, Brazil, some states in Australia, China, some countries in Africa, France, and Belgium, are all countries that have either banned plastic bags or put a charge on using them. This has resulted in at least an 80% decrease in usage, with some countries decreasing usage by as much as 96%.
Why haven’t we banned them?
In 2015 OSOF presented a 16,000 signature strong petition to Parliament, where we and other academics presented a case for introducing a levy on plastic bag usage. The Ministry for the Environment and the Environment Select Committee held that plastic bags only make up 2% of waste going into landfill and only 10% of plastic waste. Instead, they support a soft-plastics recycling pilot project and encouraging better consumer behaviour (“Be a Tidy Kiwi”). The petition was unsuccessful.
What can we as individuals do about it?
There are achievable and affordable alternatives to the plastic bag.
- Bring your own reusable bag to the store. I have never had a shopkeeper bat an eyelid when I simply say “it’s fine without a bag thank you, I’ve brought my own”
- Avoid bagging produce as much as possible. Opt for produce that does not come pre-packaged. Bananas, carrots, broccoli, and other large produce can either be peeled or easily washed at home. For produce that rolls around, bring your own reusable mesh bag. They are often available from your local organic food store, some supermarkets, or online, from sites such as www.rethinknz.com
- Forgo bags entirely and load the groceries back into the shopping trolley to take them to the car, and from there unload into a cardboard box or washing basket
- Follow us on Facebook at Plastic Free New Zealand or keep up to date on our petitions by checking out our Take Action page.
Contributor: Katherine Neville-Lamb