Single-use plastic bag ban – Expert Reaction

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Single-use plastic bag ban – Expert Reaction
10 August 2018

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The Government has pledged to rid the country of single-use plastic shopping bags over the next year.

The Government has released a consultation document for people who want more information. It is asking for public opinion on a date for which the phase-out should be complete, which bags should be included, whether any retailers should be exempt, and how best to help people with the transition.

The SMC gathered the following comments from experts, please feel free to use these in your reporting. More comments will be added next week.
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Dr Joya Kemper, sustainability marketing lecturer, University of Auckland, comments:
“The decision to push for a phase-out rather than a levy makes it an easier pill to swallow for consumers.

“Consumers are ready for action to be taken. There’s been a shifting tide in consumer attitudes towards plastic bags which probably comes down to media attention on the negative impacts of plastic and a flow on from the microbeads ban.

“The consumer response to the recent Countdown and New World initatives to ban bags has been positive, which should pave the way for a policy that nudges consumers towards buying reusable bags. Back in 2009 – when the voluntary 5c levy on plastic bags was trialled – there was huge consumer backlash. But now, international research has shown consumers and retailers are more receptive to means to reduce consumer bag consumption, be that through a tax, levy or outright ban.

“There is good evidence that bans do change consumer behaviour. Outright bans in specific Australian territories have shown up to 75% increase in people taking their own bag and a reduction in bag sales. In fact, there’s good data to back up any of these suggestions to reduce plastic bag use.

“The ban is likely to cover a large majority of retailers, but even if some become exempt, it will become a social norm not to provide plastic bags. It’s likely a stigma will arise around those still providing bags which will eventually push the whole retailing industry to ditch plastic bags and encourage reusable carrying methods. This may then shift attention to other areas – like plastic packaging of food – and move society towards reducing plastic waste and creating a circular economy rather than a linear economy.”

No conflicts of interest.
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Professor Thomas Neitzert, Professor of Engineering, AUT; President of Engineers for Social Responsibility, comments:
The Government has announced to phase out single use plastic bags within the next 12 months. This is an appropriate time-frame, considering other countries, developed and developing, are already ahead of us.

“While the public debate continued on for a number of months, supermarket stores seem to be leading the initiative of a phase out and consumers are changing their behaviour. More and more customers are bringing their own reusable shopping bags and are reaching for paper bags for fruit and veg. This time the Government’s action might actually be in sync with public opinion.”

What kind of bags should be banned?
“It looks like the Government wants to use the definition of a bag with a handle. This seems to be an appropriate definition for a shopping bag at the check-out counter vs other bags for food, meat or other produce. Without such a clear definition the discussion about different kinds of single use bags would be opened up and the ban might be delayed.

“This does not mean other types of bags should be continued on, but it would tackle successfully one product, which is large in quantity and effect.

“It makes sense to ban all types of plastic bag materials, i.e. degradables, bio-degradables and compostables. Reason being, they all hang around in the environment for many months and even years causing harm. They might be manufactured according to a standard, but Mother Nature has not read the standard.

“Some supermarkets are currently experimenting with some novel bag materials, but they all cannot guarantee a speedy disposal of them. As far as the harm to the environment and marine life are concerned, avoidance, reusable bags and paper bags are superior options.

“The discussion might also be around the thickness of bags and causes for exemption. Thicker bags are being used by hardware stores and clothing outlets for examples. They can be substituted by larger paper bags, card-board or reusable bags. A thickness limit leaves the door open for manufacturing of bags, which are just a smidgen thicker than the threshold value and we would be back at square one and an even harder to dispose material.

Should any retailers be exempted?
“I can’t see any reason why certain retailers should be exempted of a ban of plastic bags. In these days we are using all sorts and sizes of plastic bags, but the main reason for their use seem to be convenience and cost.

“As far as the argument of convenience is concerned, we can think of other, more sustainable solutions like multi-use bags and bags made from a renewable resource. The cost of plastic bags made from crude oil might be affected in the future from an increase in the price of oil as it already happened during the oil price shocks of the past.

“The transition to a life without plastic bags is already happening. Shops are offering now, sometimes in parallel to single use bags, bags of a different material like paper and multi-use bags. Until we all get used to having a shopping bag in the car or folded up in a pocket of our jacket, shops will be happy to sell or give us a reusable bag with their branding.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

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