Single use plastic bag ban – Expert Reaction

The Government has pledged to rid the country of single-use plastic shopping bags over the next year.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage made the announcement in Wellington on Friday morning.

“We’re phasing-out single-use plastic bags so we can better look after our environment and safeguard New Zealand’s clean, green reputation,” Ardern said, according to the NZ Herald.

Ardern said plastic was the single biggest subject school children wrote to her about, and this year 65,000 Kiwis signed a petition calling for an outright ban on bags.

The Packaging Forum, an industry group with a focus on recycling said a ban would set a level playing field for the retail industry, but wants to see compostable and degradable plastics included in the proposal, Stuff reported.

“New Zealand does not yet have a standard for compostable packaging, nor does the current infrastructure take most of these products in the volumes presented, which means they will mostly end up in a landfill,” Soft Plastics Recycling Scheme manager Lyn Mayes said.

Confusion around biodegradable and compostable plastics made recent headlines following a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, who said the Government needed to step in and assume greater responsibility.

The Government has released a consultation document for people who want more information and is asking for public opinion on the date the phase-out is to be complete by, what bags should be included, if any retailers that should be exempted, and how best to help people with the transition.

The SMC gathered the following comments from experts, please feel free to use these in your reporting. More comments will be added next week.

Dr Joya Kemper, sustainability marketing lecturer, University of Auckland, comments:

“The decision to push for a fade out rather than a levy makes it an easier pill to swallow for consumers.

“Consumers are ready for action to be taken. There’s been a shifting tide in consumer attitudes towards plastic bags which probably comes down to media attention on the negative impacts of plastic and a flow on from the microbeads ban.

“The consumer response to the recent Countdown and New World initatives to ban bags has been positive, which should pave the way for a policy that nudges consumers towards buying reusable bags. Back in 2009 – when the voluntary 5c levy on plastic bags was trialled – there was huge consumer backlash. But now, international research has shown consumers and retailers are more receptive to means to reduce consumer bag consumption, be that through a tax, levy or outright ban.

“There is good evidence that bans do change consumer behaviour. Outright bans in specific Australian territories have shown up to 75% increase in people taking their own bag and a reduction in bag sales. In fact, there’s good data to back up any of these suggestions to reduce plastic bag use.

“The ban is likely to cover a large majority of retailers, but even if some become exempt, it will become a social norm not to provide plastic bags. It’s likely a stigma will arise around those still providing bags which will eventually push the whole retailing industry to ditch plastic bags and encourage reusable carrying methods. This may then shift attention to other areas – like plastic packaging of food – and move society towards reducing plastic waste and creating a circular economy rather than a linear economy.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

Professor Thomas Neitzert, Professor of Engineering, AUT; President of Engineers for Social Responsibility, comments.

“The government has announced to phase out single use plastic bags within the next 12 months. This is an appropriate timeframe, considering other countries, developed and developing, are already ahead of us.

“While the public debate continued on for a number of months, supermarket stores seem to be leading the initiative of a phase out and consumers are changing their behaviour. More and more customers are bringing their own reusable shopping bags and are reaching for paper bags for fruit and veg. This time the government’s action might actually be in sync with public opinion.”

What kind of bags should be banned?
“It looks like the government wants to use the definition of a bag with a handle. This seems to be an appropriate definition for a shopping bag at the check-out counter vs other bags for food, meat or other produce. Without such a clear definition the discussion about different kinds of single use bags would be opened up and the ban might be delayed.

“This does not mean other types of bags should be continued on, but it would tackle successfully one product, which is large in quantity and effect.

“It makes sense to ban all types of plastic bag materials, i.e. degradables, bio-degradables and compostables. Reason being, they all hang around in the environment for many months and even years causing harm. They might be manufactured according to a standard, but Mother Nature has not read the standard.

“Some supermarkets are currently experimenting with some novel bag materials, but they all cannot guarantee a speedy disposal of them. As far as the harm to the environment and marine life are concerned, avoidance, reusable bags and paper bags are superior options.

“The discussion might also be around the thickness of bags and causes for exemption. Thicker bags are being used by hardware stores and clothing outlets for examples. They can be substituted by larger paper bags, card-board or reusable bags. A thickness limit leaves the door open for manufacturing of bags, which are just a smidgen thicker than the threshold value and we would be back at square one and an even harder to dispose material.

Should any retailers be exempted?
“I can’t see any reason why certain retailers should be exempted of a ban of plastic bags. In these days we are using all sorts and sizes of plastic bags, but the main reason for their use seem to be convenience and cost.

“As far as the argument of convenience is concerned, we can think of other, more sustainable solutions like multi use bags and bags made from a renewable resource. The cost of plastic bags made from crude oil might be affected in the future from an increase in the price of oil as it already happened during the oil price shocks of the past.

“The transition to a life without plastic bags is already happening. Shops are offering now, sometimes in parallel to single use bags, bags of a different material like paper and multi-use bags. Until we all get used to having a shopping bag in the car or folded up in a pocket of our jacket, shops will be happy to sell or give us a reusable bag with their branding.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

Dr Bodo Lang, Head of Department, Marketing, Auckland Business School, comments:

“New Zealand has been lagging behind other countries on the issues of plastic bags. To affect fast behavioural change of not just some but all consumers, there is only one way to go: legislation. Think seat belts, helmets for cyclists, or the use of asbestos in buildings. Eliminating plastic bags, or at least significantly reducing their usage, falls into this category.

“While soft measures, such as higher prices and education can ‘nudge’ some consumers towards desired behaviours, fast, systemic behavioural change requires legislation.

“However, the devil will be in the detail and therefore the success of this proposed change will depend on a number of factors. We know that as soon as an option, let alone the dominant option as is the case for plastic bags, consumers exhibit something called reactance.

“Reactance is a target market’s negative reaction towards the withdrawal of an existing option. Reactance works in a number of ways: It makes the newly introduced alternative (i.e. non-plastic bags) less desirable, it creates a stronger-than-before preference for the withdrawn option (i.e. plastic bags), and it creates negative reactions towards the agency that is seen to be affecting this change (e.g government, retailers). How successful the switch to non-plastic bags will be, will depend on how well the various organisations involved in the change handle these challenges.”

No conflicts of interest declared.