1 Jun 2017

'It's time to levy plastic bags' - local councils

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 1 June 2017

Councils around the country want a levy on single-use plastic bags and are calling on the government to step up and impose one.

They say the country's landfills are clogged with the non-biodegradable bags, which also blow away into waterways, damaging marine life.

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Photo: 123rf

The government-backed soft plastic recycling scheme, where returned plastic bags are made into other plastic products such as park benches, dealt with 25 million of those those bags last year - less than 2 per cent of the total used.

New Zealanders use more than 1.6 billion plastic bags every year.

A survey by Wasteminz, which represents the waste, resource recovery and contaminated land sectors, found two thirds of respondents would support a levy on plastic bags if the money went to charity.

Dunedin mayor and Local Government NZ vice president Dave Cull said plastic bags were a real problem for councils.

Mayor Dave Cull is a lightning rod for disaffection.

Dave Cull Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

"It's a sufficient problem for the local councils at the conference last year to pretty much unanimously endore a remit asking the government to have a levy or allow councils to levy.

"There are environmental costs, there are cleanup costs, there are - just the look of the place, apart from anything else."

Wellington City Council spent $20,000 last year just on fencing to keep plastic bags within its landfill, he said.

"If people had to pay for them [single-use plastic bags] they might use them more than once, or it might encourage them not to use them at all - it takes them out of the system, it reduces the number that are being used and it therefore reduces the number that are flapping about the place causing a problem."

A levy was a first step in managing the problem, he said, not a complete solution.

"I don't think that anybody thinks that this is a silver bullet ... we could have asked to have them to be banned altogether, [we were] unlikely to have got such support so let's start with a levy, make them more expensive."

Sandra Murray, coordinator of anti-waste lobby group the Product Stewardship Council, said forcing the producers of plastic bags to be responsible for clean-up would drive them to be more innovative and would likely mean there is no waste in the first place.

"That cost at the moment is largely being funded by the public purse - they've put more money into it than the packaging industry.

"If they were fully responsible for collecting up all of those billion-worth of bags and recycling them in some way then they would find a cheaper way of doing it."

"You can say to the industry 'we expect you to collect 85 percent of the bags back in and then they might put an incentive system in place for example a deposit on the bag or they might make those drop-off points more readily accessible.

She also suggested the producers and retailers could work with councils to include a service in kerbside recycling where a pouch would carry all the residents' plastic bags being used each week.

Such schemes could work as long as councils - and by extension ratepayers - did not have to pay.

"Recycling is not a service that pays for itself, so if you are going to start adding on additional materials you actually need somebody who's responsible to start paying for that and that shouldn't be the concils or the ratepayer.

"[In passing it back to the producer] what you're doing is externalising the actual cost of those bags ... what we have to do is make sure the producers bear that cost in itself and then that cost comes back to the sales price."

She expected that if producers had to pay the cost they would change the materials they used.

There are other risks however: when Ireland chose to tax plastic it led to a massive uptake of paper bags, production of which leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions and requires wood.

She said there were plant cellulose bags which were compostible and other materials that were being investigated as a possible alternative.

At least a 10c levy would also needed for it to be effective, she said, and it would need to be introduced across all retailers or producers as otherwise it would raise the issue of 'freeriders'.

"You get some people doing it and some people not - and the people doing the good thing are disadvantaged in the marketplace because people can go and shop somewhere else with [a retailer] who doesn't."

Associate Minister for the Environment Scott Simpson said he thought dealing with the problem of plastic bags was a conversation the New Zealand public was ready to have, but he did not want to use blunt regulatory changes to do so.

"I think Kiwis do want to have that conversation and do want to make those changes.

"There hasn't been a single day when I haven't talked to officials or somebody about plastic bags and where we should go on it, so it's an area that is of great interest to me, and I want to continue having that conversation with officials, with the sector, with retailers and I want to have a look at what really works overseas."

National MP for Coromandel Scott Simpson listens to a submission to the Health Select committee on a petition to permit medically-assisted dying.

Associate Minister for the Environment Scott Simpson Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate - Cox

"New Zealanders I think like to make choices themselves and I'm not personally a fan of heavy-handed regulation," he said.

He said the indications were that soft plastic recycling schemes were increasingly effective and the idea should not be written off.

"The funding for that comes largely through a wonderful little scheme called the waste minimisation fund... people putting product into landfill pay a price and part of that goes to the territorial authority that administers the landfill and part of it goes into this fund.

"So there's a nice circular sort of symmetry about where that money comes in and I like that, I personally like that model."

He said he was fairly new to the role but he had the issue in his agenda.

"Give me a few weeks, let's have another chat in a month or so."