The ban on misleadingly labelled ‘single-use plastic bags’ is a public relations success for the Government despite being a public policy disaster and a negative for the environment. That is probably why the just released ‘Rethinking Plastics in New Zealand’ report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor looks like political low-hanging fruit. If banning single-use plastic bags was so easy, then banning plastic kitchenware, cotton buds and fruit stickers is a good news story waiting to be written.

 

The Government’s plastic bag ban was cheap and opportunistic. The big players in the retail sector had long decided to stop providing free plastic bags and were in the process of eliminating them by the time the Government announced the ban. One supermarket chain had gone further, eliminating plastic straws and replacing with paper or bamboo versions. The hard work had already been done by big business. The Government piggybacked on their efforts to take some of the credit by banning plastic bags when it was obvious they were not going to be available in any case. The victory is somewhat hollow, as we’ve seen with innovations from tobacco giants (cigarettes with a small cap in the filter that can be crushed to change the flavour from regular to menthol), genuine entrepreneurs will always outsmart politicians and bureaucrats. My local roast shop provides takeaway customers with a legal handle-free ‘single-use’ plastic bag. 

 

The ban on plastic bags is feeble smoke signalling. Virtue signalling without any virtue, due to overwhelming evidence the reusable replacements are much worse for the environment. As for the next plastics being eyed up for criminalisation, the Government openly admits it doesn’t even know what environmental impact the products have in New Zealand due to significant data gaps throughout the production, consumption and disposal process. That literally means they don’t know if there is a problem, but rather than wait to obtain the evidence, they’re going to ‘fix’ the problem at the same time. While you let that bizarre conundrum sink in, let’s briefly reflect on the impact of the ‘single-use’ plastic bag ban,

 

It is hard to know whether reusable bags are better than single use bags for more reasons than you’d think, and I’ve uncovered more than I thought researching this article. The three main reasons for this are 

 

  • Type of bag: there are many different types of disposable paper and plastic bags. There are an even greater number of different types of reusable bag including recycled plastic, paper, cotton and tote.
  • Focus: what environmental issues are you trying to solve? Energy or natural resource use? Pollution? Emissions or carbon footprint? You need to measure all environmental impacts, not one aspect.
  • Variables: What method was used to produce the bag and how far did it travel to be used.

 

A simplified formula could be written as :

Total Environmental Impact = Cost of Production + Cost of Use + Cost of disposal 

 

The results of studies on global warming impact and environmental impact are as varied as the range of reusable bags themselves, so I’ve settled on one of the most commonly-cited. So the watermelons don’t accuse me of cherry-picking corporate propaganda, I’ll go with a 2018 study from Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food. The study found if factors such as manufacturing impact on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution and human toxicity are taken into account, then single use plastic bags (low-density polyethylene) have the least impact compared to every other option.

 

This table below, using data from the Danish government study, compares the environmental performance of LDPE bags to other bags – assuming the LDPE bags are reused once as a trash bin liner before being incinerated (the best form of disposal, according to the report).

 

Bag Type Reuses to have same climate change impact Reuses to have the same cumulative environmental impact (water use, energy use etc)
Recycled Plastic 1 2
Non woven polypropylene 6 52
Woven polypropylene 5 45
Recycled PET 8 84
Unbleached paper   43
Bleached paper 1 43
Polyester 2 35
Conventional cotton 52 7100
Organic cotton 149 20000

 

The woven/non-woven polypropylene are the standard reusable bags you’d buy in your supermarket for $1; each of which need to be used 45-52 times each before their environmental impact is the same as the humble single-use plastic bag. If you go shopping once a week; it would have to be used for a year. Assuming you actually can achieve that, what about your fellow shoppers who always forget to bring them and have a collection in the cupboard under the stairs. For every reusable bag they use once, you’d have to get double the shopping trips out of yours (90-104) to break even.

 

Textile recycling infrastructure is quite rare, so this report presumes they cannot be recycled, hence cotton bags needing to be re-used 7100 times to achieve the same environmental impact as a ‘single-use’ plastic bag (make that 14200 if one lazy shopper uses theirs just once). That’s 136 years if you use it while shopping once a week. The organic cotton bags are worst of all (20000 uses, i.e. 384 years of weekly supermarket shops), due to organic yields being 30% lower than conventional cotton on average – and that’s taking the absence of pesticides into account.

 

This is what we know thus far about the plastic bag ban that has already been implemented in New Zealand: The study by the Chief Science Advisor states that 36% of plastic produced is for single-use packaging, which gets environmentalists finger-wagging at supermarkets for excess plastic use, especially in the fruit and vegetable department. Where voters’ fingers wag, politicians sniff for more votes.

 

Bags provided for putting loose produce in are the first cause for complaints. However, these are difficult to replace. They have to be extremely lightweight to avoid being weighed by the scale at the checkout and therefore added to the price of purchase. Paper bags for mushrooms are similarly lightweight but lack the strength to carry heavier products. There are seriously expensive legal ramifications from the Commerce Commission for getting this wrong.

 

Wrapping plastic on single cucumbers, silverbeet, etc. seems wasteful, but it actually considerably extends the life of the produce, reducing food waste and the cost of food production to compensate for that which is wasted, all of which have their own environmental impact. Removing this plastic wrap is worse for the environment than keeping it. Cucumbers, in particular, have thin skin that damages and degrades very quickly without plastic. The humble parsnip and swede also last just a few days when sold loose, but over a week in plastic.

 

Another factor in plastic packaging for produce is organic produce which can be 100-400% higher in price than conventional produce. For an organics seller to be certified by Biogro NZ, they must pass regular audits to convince the certifier that there is no cross-contamination of organic product by conventional product; much more difficult to achieve without plastic protection for the organic product. The higher price makes self-serve checkout fraud very tempting; it is very easy to charge your organic tomato as a regular tomato without being caught, which is why retailers will usually plastic wrap the organic product and place a barcode on it.

 

Forget the nonsense peddled by the woke greens; organic food is actually more environmentally damaging as it requires extra plastic packaging to sell, has a lower yield than conventional food, requires greater land area to produce, less efficient inputs in its growth, and a greater proportion of product is wasted. The smoke-signalling marketing around organics is as bullshit as what it grows in.

 

The evidence of the greater harm being inflicted on New Zealand’s environment by new plastic regulations is overwhelming. When you consider 95% of plastic in the oceans comes from ten rivers in Asia and Africa, yet Greens Minister Eugenie Sage doesn’t even know how much plastic finds its way into New Zealand rivers, the entire exercise is blowing a giant smoke signal.

 

The state of California banned ‘single-use’ plastic bags in 2016, resulting in an 18 million kilo reduction in plastic. However, research conducted into the effects of the ban three years later confirmed my suspicions about the elimination of a product so commonly used as a rubbish bag; an increase in purchased rubbish bags weighing in at 5.4 million kilos.

 

Straws haven’t been mentioned in the our media following the Chief Scientist’s report, but plenty of overseas jurisdictions have taken that step. While useful at McDonald’s they’re a nuisance to me in places like bars. I’m a recovered alcoholic so usually will drink Coke Zero while at a bar and usually find a straw in it. I guess they figure if I’m going to drink a kid’s drink they may as well treat me like a kid. Sure I could tell them not to give me a straw but why should I make the extra effort each time? They’re the ones who suck.

 

The growing number of jurisdictions banning plastic straws gives me plenty of evidence of the impact, or lack of it, this step makes. This anti-straw movement took off after a 2015 video of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose went viral. The impact on the Columbian cocaine trade is unknown. Some rather dubious data has been the impetus of this campaign, such as the claim Americans use 500 million straws a day – that was derived from a survey conducted by a nine year old. Some equally dodgy numbers from two Australian scientists formed the claim there are up to (the phrase ‘up to’ is always cause for scepticism – we’re all guilty of covering our doubts with it) 8.3 billion plastic straws  scattered on global coastlines. Even if that were the case, it would account for just 0.025% of the plastic entering oceans each year.

 

Evidently, the impact of plastic straws on the environment is infinitesimal, and, once again, the alternatives may be worse. Starbucks has replaced straws with a sipper lid, the manufacture of which uses more plastic than the straw. McDonalds’ first attempt at the paper straw was a failure as it fell apart in drinks, especially thickshakes. The company replaced it with a thicker paper straw which couldn’t be recycled so had to be disposed of in general waste, though the company claims that waste is burned to create energy. Using paper in itself isn’t good for the environment; it is the third largest cause of air, water and land pollution in the United States, releasing over 100 million kilograms of toxins per annum. Whatever you think of the global warming debate, nobody disputes that trees being used to produce paper are crucial for absorbing carbon dioxide.

 

Plastic cotton ear buds are also in this government’s sights, following bans in Scotland and England. Curiously, their most common use (removing wax from your ear) is not recommended by otolaryngologists. While they will get some wax out of your ear, often more wax will be pushed deeper down into your ear, potentially creating an earwax blockage or even injury to the ear canal. The inventive among you may have used a syringe of water to do the job. “No, no, no,” say the otolaryngologists because it isn’t possible to control the water pressure going into your ear, making it also potentially harmful. What is the safe alternative? Unsurprisingly they say that visiting an ear, nose and throat specialist for an electronic clean is the best, though costliest, option. For the majority of you who won’t listen, bamboo earbuds will probably be the eco-friendly replacement on our supermarket shelves.

 

As for disposable eating utensils, putting this on the ban-wagon is a fairly recent idea, so there is little international evidence of the impact to review. The earliest bans will take effect from 2020 in France and South Australia, while an EU ban waits until 2021. There are already plenty of alternatives, which share a higher price tag too; corn-starch eco-plastics and bamboo utensil. Ironically reusable plastic chopsticks are much better for the environment than disposable wooden ones though you’d think regulators will pick that up. You’d think.

 

Given that the law of unintended consequences almost always brings with it more negative impacts than the initial problem a new law was passed to fix, I have little doubt that in a few years time, I’ll be re-publishing tables from studies showing the ban on plastic eating utensils has caused more harm than the utensils themselves (aside from an increase in aircraft hijacking). However, it’s easy to be a negative nancy and criticise policy. Proposing better policy is a bit more difficult.

 

In the case of ‘single-use’ plastic bags, proposing an alternative is easy – relegalise them. However, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a France-sized body of plastic waste that is difficult to ignore, even though there is no evidence of New Zealand’s contribution to it.

 

The casually named Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been studied for content and there is one product that makes up 46% of of its content: fishing nets. Bjorn Lomberg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre claims that of all the plastics floating in the oceans today, 70% of the various waste comes from fishing activity.

 

So why the hell are New Zealanders tolerating Labour and the Greens smoke-signalling when the steps they are taking address products that have less impact on global plastic waste than our contribution to global greenhouse gases? Scientists actually know quite a lot about the sources of plastic in the ocean and what they are. Nothing being banned by our government will have any impact whatsoever.

An unusual and exceptional result in the 2020 election, that being the one-term government, looks increasingly likely. The only ban that has appeared to be successful is the one on ‘single-use’ bags which they barely did themselves, while other bans such as the haphazard firearms buy-back is crippled by incompetence. If this is the swansong Labour ends the year on, their Year of Delivery pathetically will conclude as the Year of Distraction.

 

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