The DP editorial:
The Government has consistently rejected the idea, now common and dramatically effective overseas, of a levy on plastic bags.
That is disappointing but not surprising. Environmental issues have never been among its priorities. Avoiding the “nanny state” label has been.
What is more surprising is to see environmental officials giving their own full-throated defence of doing nothing. Responding to a 16,000-signature petition for a ban or a levy on single-use plastic bags, the Ministry for the Environment proffers the thought that New Zealand does not rank among the top 20 worst countries for plastic pollution.
“There is a common misconception that plastic waste … comes from all countries equally and policies to address the issue should be applied globally,” the ministry argues.
This sounds familiar. New Zealanders have often been given a similar explanation for the country’s ponderous response to climate change: we are little and the problem is large, so it doesn’t matter if we add to the rubbish heap.
This is a lame free-loader’s argument. It is especially inappropriate from a rich country. Terrible pollution in one corner of the world does not justify even a moderate level here.
The ministry also cites contrarian Australian research that suggests the environmental costs of plastic bags are low. As long as the bags head to the landfill, the line goes, there is really no problem. The costs of bans or levies “heavily outweigh the benefits”, so cutting back on plastic bags should be voluntary.
This has a sort of logic if one accepts that plastic bags’ very slow degradation time (up to 1000 years at the landfill) is acceptable, that their oil-intensive production is no issue, and that plastic bag litter is not an ugly feature of too many New Zealand landscapes, or a threat to bird and marine life.
But these are problems. And happily, an effective solution exists: the levy.
There are a number of reasons a plastic bag tax is a bad idea.
- Plastic bags have a minor impact on greenhouse gas emissions compared to a cotton bag. Cotton bags have 131 times the greenhouse gas emissions
- Only an estimated 0.5% of domestic waste are plastic bags
- Most plastic bags are not single use but 90% get re-used for household purposes such as refuse holding
- Plastic bags can actually be recycled – just very few people know this
- A ban or tax on light plastic bags leads to more people buying heavier bags such as trash can liners which have a bigger environmental impact
- Reusable bags tend to have a higher level of bacteria in them causing illness and even death in extreme cases