The New Zealand Herald

Hysterical war on plastic bags distracts from bigger issues


It has been several thousand years since the Roman satirist Juvenal summed up distractio­n politics as “bread and circuses”. While Rome’s emperors had good reason to fear their public, they also knew full bellies and gritty entertainm­ent could distract them from almost anything.

Several millennia later and bread and circuses sum up this hysterical war against “single-use” supermarke­t bags.

Now I admit there’s way too much plastic, but my ire stems from the excessive packaging I stuff into these bags for recycling. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters put his finger on the mark last year. Writing in NZME’s The Country, about natural sustainabl­e wool, he pointed to a University of California study which found synthetic fleece lost 1.7 grams of micro fibres in the washing machine, and that grew with time.

While supermarke­t bags are a visual totem to some, non-biodegrada­ble synthetic fibres washed into the food chain in their billions must surely rank up there with banned microbeads. Microscopi­c plastic is now so prevalent that it is being found in tap water overseas.

There’s another dimension to the bread and circuses nature of the anti-bag campaigns and that’s how corporate they seem.

Whether New World, Countdown or Greenpeace, it’s virtue signalling in a wrapper of PR concern. Greenpeace gets a visual scalp to boost donations, meanwhile the supermarke­ts save a sliver of cost while putting a PR issue to bed.

One irony of the bag ban, when it finally happens, is that consumers will have to buy heavier-grade plastic bags to line rubbish bins. If that’s not a single purpose, what is? The plastic bag ban will not even scratch the fingernail of our collective plastic use because it scratches an itch but ignores a far bigger issue.

Having recently spent time in the United Kingdom, I’d describe New Zealand’s efforts on recycling in one word: limp. We get away with it because we kid ourselves that we’re a small country. We’re not. Geographic­ally we’re big and our sea domain makes us vast. We get away with it only because of our low but growing population.

The UK Conservati­ve Government is proving bolder. At the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK would eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. While it abandoned a “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups because it went down like an over-extracted espresso, the manufactur­ers read the Government’s jaw-jaw and are working to stave off a regulatory war-war.

Here, where we’re repeatedly told the environmen­t is taonga, there’s barely a murmur despite close to 300 million coffee cups occupying more landfill than 700 million supermarke­t plastic bags. The bins overflowin­g with cups at most events illustrate what I mean.

The ironies don’t end there; I imagine a fair number of disposable coffee cups were used in focus grouping the plastic bag ban.

When it comes to future policy and direction for the packaging industry here, Norway provides the example. On plastic bottles alone, they recycle an amazing 96 per cent while in “clean green 100% Pure New Zealand”, recycling is closer to 40 per cent.

Since 1976, each bottle and can in Norway has attracted a tax “stick” of about 21 cents and since the 1990s, an environmen­tal tax “carrot” of between 61 cents and a dollar.

Once recycling of a product hits 25 per cent, this environmen­tal tax carrot starts to abate and is wiped when a product’s recycling rate reaches 95 per cent.

That’s more margin for retailers and manufactur­ers, cheaper products for consumers and mutual incentives for an improved environmen­t.

Smartly, the Norwegian Government put these rules in place but left it to industry to come up with the solutions. This has created innovation­s such as reverse vending machines and even Britain’s conservati­ve Telegraph has lauded Norway’s approach. We buy both the bottle and its contents here, but in Norway, they buy the contents and borrow the bottle.

There’s one last irony. In 2015, Norway’s Environmen­tal Protection Agency unsuccessf­ully fought a rear-guard action against a European-wide supermarke­t bag charge. Why? Because for a country that has a massive petroleum industry and an enviable environmen­t, Norwegians recycled 82 per cent of their supermarke­t bags as rubbish bags.

David Broome

is a Wellington-based public affairs consultant and was formerly chief of staff for Winston Peters.

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