Saturday, November 24, 2018

Plastic bags have an exit date

Today New Zealand’s Associate Minister for the Environment, Eugenie Sage, announced that all plastic shopping bags will be banned by the middle of next year. TVNZ’s “One News” report is above. This announcement gives certainty to everyone, and time to make adjustments. There are also more details, which gives more clarity to everyone.

All of the talk so far has been about “single-use plastic bags,” which doesn’t really mean much. Many people do, in fact, reuse “single-use” bags, so more clarity was needed.

“We are including bags under 70 microns, with the exception of lightweight bags made of synthetic fabric and designed for multiple use over a long life,” the Minister said. “Degradable plastic bags will also be included, which covers oxo-degradable, biodegradable and compostable plastic bags.”

The announcement was about shopping bags, and there was no mention of other plastic bags, like bin liners. So far, I’ve found no decent alternative to plastic bags, since the cornstarch ones are both fragile (prone to ripping) and expensive. I know that there are problems with degradable plastic bags, but I wonder how relevant they are for a properly managed landfill, which prevents contamination of groundwater and which shouldn’t provide a way for plastic to “escape”. I have no idea what our household's long-term solution will be.

These changes provide opportunities for entrepreneurs. It gives paper bag makers a chance to raise their game and expand their products by making them cheaper, primarily, but also better for a variety of situations.

There’s also an opportunity for paper bag makers to offer bags specifically designed to line household rubbish bins, and the wetter bins found in kitchens. I know my mother and her mother (and so on) had to wash out their wastebins, but if people are too busy and/or tired to cook meals from scratch these days, I can’t imagine that they’ll have the time or energy to wash out their rubbish bins every week—or even more often, possibly, if they have a big family.

Finally, there’s an opportunity for makers of resuable shopping bags to make ones that appeal specifically to men. Most reusable grocery store bags are so bland they’re boring, or they range from feminine to extremely feminine. Men will need reusable bags in the future, and someone ought to target them specifically.

What those opportunities have in common is that the solutions must meet consumers’ needs, not force them to do things differently, or use inappropriate solutions. That’s something the Government understand, too, and that’s where I have concerns.

The Minister said, “I have also set out a work programme to tackle our wider waste issues, which includes expanding the waste disposal levy to all landfills,” something that some folks on the Left strongly advocate. They argue that too-cheap landfill charges encourages dumping rather that reducing waste. I have no doubt that’s true, however, it’s unreasonable to expect ordinary people to single-handedly reduce waste when the majority of products they buy are overpackaged.

Government will need to use its regulatory power to force manufacturers and retailers to cut down on excess packaging. One way to do that is to require retailers and manufacturers to accept packaging returned by customers. Imagine if people could get rid of all the stupid polystyrene packaging manufactures insist on—that alone would greatly reduce the volume of rubbish the average household sends to landfill every year. The effect would be requiring manufacturers and retailers to pay to dispose of the packaging, and that would provide a financial incentive for them to reduce packaging in the first place. This isn’t that hard—they just need the will, and financial incentives can help them find it.

Meanwhile, people do need to get better about minimising waste. As I’ve said before, we compost all compostable kitchen scraps and garden waste. For us, most of what’s left is uncompostable and non-recyclable packaging, and now and then some yucky stuff. That's the easy part.

There are other, more intensive things we can do. For example, we could buy used rather than new, or we can refresh what we already have—upcycling is all the rage, apparently. We can garden what we can, but if time and space are short, we can still grow things like salad greens and herbs in containers (we’ve done that). We can cook in bulk and freeze the meals in advance (I hope to do that and similar). All these things reduce the amount we need to buy, the amount of packaging we need to dispose of, the fuel we use to buy the stuff, and the money we spend on them. But we need to learn how to do it, and we need to make the effort.

Banning single-use plastic shopping bags is the easiest thing to do, and the next steps will require everyone—government, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers—to play a part. I don’t think we’re anywhere near ready for those next steps, but banning the single-use plastic bags is a good first step.

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