The use­ful life of a su­per­mar­ket bag can be counted in min­utes. It will then be dumped, taken to land­fill or end up in the bel­lies of our fish and seabirds. Vene­tia Sher­son vis­its a small coastal town that’s lead­ing the charge to ban the bag.

North & South - - In This Issue -

Vene­tia Sher­son vis­its a small coastal town that’s lead­ing the charge to ban the sin­gle-use plas­tic carry bag.

Raglan is a clas­sic west-coast beach town. Flanked by a mys­ti­cal moun­tain and a frac­tious ocean bar, it has a cou­ple of su­per­mar­kets, one phar­macy, just un­der 3000 per­ma­nent res­i­dents and more dread­locks than a Rasta­far­ian con­ven­tion. The peo­ple who live here – a third are refugees from big cities over­seas – are gen­er­ous. They fundraise for Maui dol­phins, or­gan­ise free curry nights and re­cy­cle three-quar­ters of their rub­bish.

Out­siders say Raglan has a green soul. Lo­cals call it tikanga, a word loosely trans­lated as “the right way”.

So, it’s a sur­prise to walk into the Whain­garoa En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre, where posters ad­ver­tise per­ma­cul­ture cour­ses, med­i­ta­tion and yoga surf­ing re­treats, to find the con­ver­sa­tion dom­i­nated by KPIS (Key Per­for­mance In­di­ca­tors).

“To per­suade busi­nesses, we need to be busi­nesslike,” says June Penn, a woman with a wide smile and a per­sua­sive man­ner. Penn worked for 30 years as an HR con­sul­tant in Christchurch be­fore the quakes drove her north. She thought she was eco when she ar­rived. But she dis­cov­ered she had much to learn.

Penn is co-or­di­na­tor of the Plas­tic Bag

Free Raglan (PBRF) cam­paign, Raglan’s big push to rid the town of sin­gle-use plas­tic carry bags (the sort you get from su­per­mar­kets) by the end of 2019. In two years’ time, if you buy gro­ceries from Raglan Four Square, beer from Raglan Wines & Spir­its, or snacks from BP 2go, the hope is they’ll be pack­aged in pa­per, com­postable plas­tic or “boomerang” (re-use­able) cloth bags.

Some re­tail­ers have al­ready made the switch. The herbal dis­pen­sary no longer uses plas­tic bags; a lo­cal surf shop has de­vised its own branded pa­per bags, and Raglan Back­pack­ers pro­vide guests with re-us­able jute bags. Penn says more than 60 per cent of Raglan busi­nesses al­ready sup­port the move; 90 per cent of res­i­dents say, “Just do it.”

“We are on tar­get to reach our KPI of 80 per cent by the end of this year.” But, she con­cedes, with­out leg­is­la­tion to add mus­cle, it will be a chal­lenge.

Like other towns around the globe – and in New Zealand (Wanaka, Wai­heke Is­land, Whanganui and Colling­wood) – Raglan has been spurred by en­vi­ron­men­tal fer­vour and a grow­ing con­cern about the vol­ume of sin­gle-use plas­tic bags. More than 1.5 bil­lion are dis­trib­uted in New Zealand each year. Raglan alone supplies 20,000 a week in the sum­mer, when the pop­u­la­tion dou­bles.

Of those bags, some will be re-used as bin lin­ers be­fore be­ing put out with the rub­bish; oth­ers will be blown into drains, where they will choke the wa­ter­ways or spill out on to Raglan’s fa­mous black-sand beaches to be swept out to the Tas­man Sea.

The world’s oceans are clogged with plas­tic rub­bish. Eight mil­lion tonnes ends up in the Pa­cific, spread­ing over more than 700,000 sq km – al­most three times the size of New Zealand. Larger pieces snare dol­phins or tur­tles, or wash up on beaches where seabirds mis­take them for food. Oth­ers break down to form a soup of tiny plas­tic par­ti­cles be­low the sur­face where they’re eaten by fish. A study by the UK’S Ply­mouth Uni­ver­sity found plas­tic in one third of fish; a Bel­gian study cal­cu­lated shell­fish lovers eat up to 11,000 mi­cro­scopic plas­tic frag­ments in their seafood each year. Most dis­turbingly, a re­port by the Ellen Macarthur Foun­da­tion, a UK char­ity, es­ti­mated that, by 2050, the vol­ume of ac­cu­mu­lated plas­tics in our oceans will be greater than that of fish.

Of all the items of con­cern, sin­gleuse plas­tic bags are most firmly in the sights of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. In the 1950s, when the bags ar­rived on the scene, an­nual global plas­tic pro­duc­tion was five mil­lion tonnes. By 2014, that had risen to 311 mil­lion tonnes – 40 per cent of it for sin­gle-use pack­ag­ing.

Rick Thorpe de­scribes him­self as a “chicken farmer”, which is true. But he’s bet­ter known as the green ge­nius be­hind the Xtreme Zero Waste re­cy­cling cen­tre in Raglan, a place most towns would call a dump, ex­cept very lit­tle is dumped in Raglan these days. The cen­tre re­cy­cles, re­homes and re­stores 75 per cent of items that would tra­di­tion­ally be buried in the ground. The aim is to achieve zero waste. The cen­tre has be­come the poster child for other places seek­ing to re­duce land­fill, in­clud­ing Auck­land.

Thorpe says Raglan peo­ple are very clued up – “we can stand on a podium about waste, be­cause we can deal with it” – but it con­cerns him that sin­gle-use plas­tic bags are still in the mix. “We can keep the ma­jor­ity out of land­fill by down­cy­cling them to Asia, but the amount of time and cost in do­ing this far out­weighs any ben­e­fits.” He says the use­ful life of a su­per­mar­ket bag can be mea­sured in min­utes, from be­ing packed with gro­ceries at the su­per­mar­ket to be­ing un­packed at home. “If they do end up in land­fill, it takes a thou­sand years for them to break down.”

That’s one of the mes­sages June Penn and her team are push­ing to busi­nesses in their cam­paign to per­suade them to pro­vide al­ter­na­tives to plas­tic bags. A book­let that in­cludes bar graphs and pie charts il­lus­trat­ing use of plas­tic bags in Raglan out­lines the busi­ness case for change, in­clud­ing brand­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties fo­cused on Raglan’s green val­ues. “Cap­i­tal­is­ing on ini­tia­tives util­is­ing the Raglan brand makes good busi­ness sense,” it says. Busi­nesses that have be­come “Pbfr-ac­cred­ited” dis­play a sticker at their stores.

Karamea Puriri walks on Raglan’s black- sand beaches ev­ery day. She is so in­censed by the sight of plas­tic bags caught in rock pools, dunes and trees that she posts pic­tures on Face­book along­side im­ages of orca swim­ming in the har­bour. Brought up in the US, she has links to Ngati Kahun­gunu on New Zealand’s east coast but has grown to love the west coast and her town’s feisty com­mit­ment to the planet’s health.

In her job as ad­min­is­tra­tor for Raglan Cham­ber of Com­merce, she ac­cepts busi­nesses have con­cerns about ex­tra costs. But she’s proud the 90-mem­ber cham­ber is a part­ner in the PBFR cam­paign. “The cham­ber is quite dif­fer­ent from many other cham­bers. It has the same val­ues as the com­mu­nity. It was com­mon sense to join the cam­paign.” She says some Raglan busi­nesses are me­tres from the har­bour and “rub­bish blows down the street ev­ery day”.

“When we ap­proached the busi­nesses, it wasn’t a bat­tle at all. They sup­port the sus­tain­abil­ity of busi­nesses and of the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Still, not all Raglan’s busi­nesses are

con­vinced. In an­swer to the ques­tion, “Does your busi­ness sup­port going PBF?”, 29 per cent of those that pro­vided sin­gle-use plas­tic bags were un­sure or neu­tral and 11 per cent said a flat “No”. Green think­ing may be main­stream, but it’s not uni­ver­sal. And Raglan is a small town; find­ing busi­ness own­ers who openly op­pose the push is dif­fi­cult. One, who spoke on the grounds he wasn’t named, said it was a “kooky idea” driven by peo­ple who had no idea of the fi­nances of do­ing busi­ness. “Do they re­alise the cost of the al­ter­na­tives? They would have to be passed on to con­sumers. If a cus­tomer can get some­thing cheaper from down the road, they’ll do that.”

June Penn ac­knowl­edges al­ter­na­tives are costlier. “Busi­nesses are driven by KPIS around mar­gins and profit. If the sup­ply chain en­ables them to give bags away ‘free’, they can re­duce costs to the cus­tomer.” A typ­i­cal su­per­mar­ket, she says, might spend $40,000 an­nu­ally on sin­gle-use plas­tic bags. Com­postable bags would cost more than three times that amount. “If I could show the num­bers to demon­strate there would be a mar­ket­ing edge, that would be great.”

She says ide­ally the move would be en­forced by reg­u­la­tion. “Ev­ery town, com­mu­nity and coun­try – in­clud­ing China – that has suc­cess­fully be­come plas­tic bag-free, has been backed by reg­u­la­tion.” In­ter­na­tional data shows even a 10c levy on plas­tic bags leads to a 75-80 per cent re­duc­tion in use.

The idea of in­tro­duc­ing a com­pul­sory levy has gath­ered mo­men­tum. A Waste Man­age­ment In­sti­tute of New Zealand (WASTEMINZ) study last year showed roughly two- thirds of Kiwis would sup­port a levy if char­i­ties ben­e­fited from the money raised. In June this year, may­ors from Auck­land, Welling­ton and Dunedin asked other may­ors to join the call on cen­tral gov­ern­ment to in­sti­tute a na­tional levy on sin­gle-use plas­tic bags or give lo­cal au­thor­i­ties the power to do so them­selves. Some New Zealand re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing Pak’nsave and The Ware­house, al­ready charge for their use. Count­down on Wai­heke Is­land last year vol­un­tar­ily phased out sin­gle-use bags. It now pro­vides re-us­able or com­postable bags that can be bought at the store. Other su­per­mar­kets say they’d sup­port a com­pul­sory charge if it was ap­plied across the board.

But the Gov­ern­ment has so far been re­luc­tant to budge. En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Nick Smith has said he does not think the move is jus­ti­fied. As­so­ciate En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Scott Simpson told Ra­dio New Zealand in June he was per­son­ally op­posed to us­ing “blunt reg­u­la­tory changes to solve the prob­lem”. He wants to take a closer look at what has worked over­seas. The Green Party has said that if it’s part of the next Gov­ern­ment, it will place a 15c charge on plas­tic bags at check­outs, with the money raised going to waste-min­imi­sa­tion projects.

Oth­ers re­main un­con­vinced a levy is the right way to go. In Aus­tralia, where three states have banned the bags, op­po­nents say su­per­mar­kets sim­ply sub­sti­tuted “bou­tique” bags made from

heav­ier plas­tic. Nev­er­the­less, in its 2015-16 Na­tional Lit­ter in­dex, na­tional body Keep Aus­tralia Beautiful found plas­tic bag lit­ter “fell sig­nif­i­cantly and al­most im­me­di­ately after a [ban] came into ef­fect”.

Many peo­ple ar­gue there are bet­ter op­tions than tar­get­ing re­tail­ers. They say man­u­fac­tur­ers should take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their prod­uct’s com­plete life cy­cle. San­dra Mur­ray, co-or­di­na­tor for the anti-waste New Zealand Prod­uct Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil, be­lieves change will only come if man­u­fac­tur­ers are re­spon­si­ble for col­lect­ing their prod­ucts and deal­ing with their dis­posal. “If they had to pay the cost, they would change the ma­te­ri­als used.” Rick Thorpe, who deals daily with the end-of-life out­come of thou­sands of prod­ucts at the Raglan re­cy­cling cen­tre, agrees. “Waste is a so­cial is­sue, best man­aged by the peo­ple who pro­duce waste.”

Raglan cam­paign­ers re­main hope­ful levies will be in­tro­duced. In the mean­time, they con­tinue to try to turn their town by choice.

Vis­i­tors to the town are asked to take a re­us­able bag when they go shop­ping or refuse a plas­tic bag if one is of­fered; ev­ery house­hold in Raglan has been is­sued with a jute shop­ping bag; a vol­un­tary sewing bee held monthly in the town hall has made hun­dreds of cloth bags from re­cy­cled cloth; vis­it­ing back­pack­ers are en­cour­aged to sew bags to sup­port the move­ment.

Penn says she wants the cam­paign to be suc­cess­ful and sus­tain­able. “We’re ask­ing peo­ple to do it, be­cause it’s the right thing to do.”

week with­out surf. And, hon­estly, I need to go [smi­ley face].”

She turns up fresh from the sea, hair still damp, car­ry­ing a re­us­able ce­ramic cof­fee mug. “But look,” she says, “it has this plas­tic strip around the mid­dle to stop me from burn­ing my fin­gers. Why would it need to be plas­tic?”

Hi­dalgo is in the early stages of her new regime to live plas­tic- free. A 28-year- old phys­io­ther­a­pist and yoga teacher from Spain’s southern coast, she came to New Zealand three years ago and set down her back­pack in Raglan. She liked the town’s “vibe”, and its en­vi­ron­men­tal con­science.

This year, she de­cided to live plas­ticfree. “It sounds hard, but the more you do it, the eas­ier it gets.” Her def­i­ni­tion of “easy” may not ap­ply for ev­ery­one. She makes a lot of her own prod­ucts, in­clud­ing milk (from oats, dates, salt and wa­ter). At the su­per­mar­ket, she uses pa­per bags pro­vided for mushrooms to trans­port other prod­ucts. Some pur­chases are chal­leng­ing: toi­let pa­per wrapped in pa­per is ex­pen­sive ($2 a roll); so are items like plant-based com­postable straws.

One thing stumped her: “When I ap­plied for my res­i­dency per­mit, the Im­mi­gra­tion Depart­ment asked that I send back my pa­pers in a plas­tic courier bag. In my own in­ter­ests, I thought I should do that.”


Demian Rosen­thal, 27, is a new- age hippy: anti cap­i­tal­ism, strong on the en­vi­ron­ment, anti meat and pro mind­ful­ness. He left his home in Ger­many five-and-a-half years ago, be­cause of the per­va­sive­ness of free-mar­ket ide­ol­ogy. “I thought it prob­a­bly wasn’t going to go well for Europe. New Zealand seemed to be far enough away to be safe.”

A former chef, he is now com­plet­ing a Bach­e­lor of Science at the Uni­ver­sity of Waikato and says, as a stu­dent, there are big chal­lenges to liv­ing plas­tic-free. “Specials al­most al­ways come wrapped in plas­tic.” So do the sta­ples of his ve­gan diet: tofu and tem­peh.

He’s frus­trated more cor­po­ra­tions haven’t changed their pack­ag­ing. “It’s mind-blow­ing how we are dig­ging holes in the ground to put our rub­bish in, for the next gen­er­a­tion to deal with.” +

To this en­dan­gered green sea tur­tle, pho­tographed in the At­lantic, a plas­tic bag re­sem­bles a tasty jel­ly­fish.

Karamea Puriri walks on Raglan’s black-sand beaches ev­ery day. She sees plas­tic bags caught in rock pools, dunes and trees, as well as count­less small pieces of harder plas­tic – and is proud of her town’s com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing the health of the planet.

Rick Thorpe and his wife, Liz Stan­way, at the Xtreme Zero Waste re­cy­cling cen­tre in Raglan.

Lisa Schill, a sup­porter of the Plas­tic Bag Free Raglan cam­paign, in the town’s main street. Orig­i­nally from Ger­many, Schill wants to go back to Europe to fur­ther her en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies.

A wind­blown plas­tic bag on SH1, near the turn-off to Raglan.

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