Per­cep­tion vs sci­ence

The Northland Age - - Opinion - Dr Muriel New­man

On Au­gust 10, Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda

Ardern an­nounced,

“We’re phas­ing out sin­gle-use plas­tic bags so we can bet­ter look af­ter our en­vi­ron­ment and safe­guard New Zealand’s clean, green rep­u­ta­tion . . . Ev­ery year in New Zealand we use hun­dreds of mil­lions of sin­gle-use plas­tic bags — a moun­tain of bags, many of which end up pol­lut­ing our pre­cious coastal and marine en­vi­ron­ments and cause se­ri­ous harm to all kinds of marine life, and all of this when there are vi­able al­ter­na­tives for con­sumers and busi­ness.”

This is at odds with a con­sul­ta­tion doc­u­ment pro­duced by the Min­istry for the En­vi­ron­ment on the ban­ning of plas­tic shop­ping bags, which states, “We do not yet know the full na­ture or ex­tent of the im­pacts of sin­gle-use plas­tic shop­ping bags specif­i­cally, and marine mi­croplas­tics gen­er­ally. The Gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal takes a pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach to re­duce the risk of them con­tribut­ing to long-term im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man health, as well as their wider so­cio-eco­nomic and cul­tural im­pacts.”

In other words, the Gov­ern­ment wants to ban plas­tic shop­ping bags even though there is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence of harm to our en­vi­ron­ment. So what does the con­sul­ta­tion doc­u­ment say that might jus­tify the ban? In short, noth­ing.

The PM also ex­plained, “It’s great that many peo­ple are al­ready chang­ing the way they shop. But it’s im­por­tant we take the time now to get this right so we can help all New Zealan­ders ad­just their shop­ping habits.”

Ac­cord­ing to Jacinda Ardern, the best way to help New Zealan­ders ad­just their shop­ping habits is to use the co­er­cive power of the state to force them to do so through a law that for­bids their use and im­poses a $100,000 fine for non­com­pli­ance.

Mean­while, ac­cord­ing to the con­sul­ta­tion doc­u­ment, New Zealan­ders’ use of plas­tic bags has de­creased markedly over the last few years un­der the vol­un­tary regime that is cur­rently in place. Ki­wis now use around 750 mil­lion plas­tic shop­ping bags each year, or 154 per per­son, less than half of the bags used in 2005. Min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment Green MP Eu­ge­nie Sage, who shared the stage with the PM for the an­nounce­ment, said many coun­tries had suc­cess­fully taken ac­tion on ‘plas­tic pol­lu­tion’ in re­cent years. “Pub­lic calls for ac­tion have en­cour­aged a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing su­per­mar­kets, to move on sin­gle-use plas­tic bags. We want to sup­port their ef­forts by en­sur­ing the re­tail in­dus­try moves to­gether in a fair and ef­fec­tive way.”

The sup­port the min­is­ter is so ea­ger to give to the re­tail in­dus­try is a pu­ni­tive pro­hi­bi­tion regime and the threat of a $100,000 fine. The re­al­ity is that in­dus­try groups have al­ready vol­un­tar­ily em­braced the goal of fur­ther re­duc­ing the use of free plas­tic shop­ping bags. Many ma­jor re­tail­ers are com­mit­ted to phas­ing them out al­to­gether. So with huge progress al­ready be­ing made, why is Labour propos­ing the ban? Iron­i­cally, the so-called ‘sin­gleuse’ plas­tic bags are in fact typ­i­cally reused by house­holds. In com­par­i­son, there is end­less plas­tic pack­ag­ing that is not only truly sin­gle-use, but is al­most im­pos­si­ble to open and even harder to dis­pose of, that most peo­ple would be happy to see re­placed. But these are not the easy tar­gets that plas­tic bags have be­come, and so are ig­nored by en­vi­ron­men­tal zealots.

"The Gov­ern­ment wants to ban plas­tic shop­ping bags even though there is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence of harm to our en­vi­ron­ment."

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