This month, New Zealand’s government announced that it was banning single-use plastic bags. That’s it, within the year, no more plastic shopping bags. The end of an era. Wonderful, isn’t it? Or not. As admirable as it may sound, this ban should not be seen as an example for the world to follow. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. It’s a ‘let’s all pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves we’ve solved the world’s problems’ moment. A canny PR move by a government obsessed with image. Politics is as politics does.
Let’s get a few things clear, plastic bags are terrible. Damaging to the environment, too easily disposed of and certainly a right nuisance when they split and spill your shopping all over the road. Considering Aotearoa New Zealand’s pride in its clean and green image, it’s certainly not hard to understand the motivations for a ban. But that doesn’t instinctively make it the right policy. It is true that we must seek to reduce our usage, and even reliance, on all single use plastics, not just bags. After all, Madonna was right. We live in a material world. And all that material is plastic.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement, motivated by the petitions of school children who see plastic bags as the most pressing generational issue, appears more as virtue signalling than having any substance. Yes, single use plastic bags are bad, but so are their replacements. A recent Danish study concluded that plastic bags are better for the environment than their cotton cousins. The ‘guilt free’ cotton bag must be used a whopping 150 times to offset its climate impact.
Similarly, a 2014 study from Northern Ireland concluded that across all measures of environmental impact (usage of energy and water, greenhouse emissions, and solid waste production), the humble, yet much detested, plastic bag significantly outperforms its alternatives. Sure, paper bags might be easier to dispose of, but they’re also less likely to be reused than plastic bags. A paper bag needs to be used 43 times to offset its climate impact. Not to mention the fact you sure don’t want to be carrying your shopping home in a paper bag on a rainy day.
Secondly, reuse is key. Don’t many of us use our plastic shopping bags as bin liners? When this is taken into consideration, the facts become even starker. If all plastic bags were to be reused as bin liners, a cotton bag would have to be reused 327 times to give it a smaller carbon impact. By which point you’ll probably be surprised if it’s still intact. Indeed, not everyone reuses their plastic bag as a bin liner. But even if 40% are to be reused in this way, the carbon equivalent usage figure for cotton bags is 173. For paper bags this is much lower, but it is still 4. It is hard to imagine someone using the same paper bag four times.
With all political virtue signalling, these facts matter very little. It’s so much easier to characterise a paper bag, or anything that’s just not plastic, as much friendlier for the environment. No social media feeds are filled with images of paper bags killing our marine life and littering our streets, because it just doesn’t happen. That in no way means, however, that paper bags, or any other alternative, are better for the environment. Instead they also release three times more greenhouse gases and more air pollutants, leading to greater atmospheric acidification and also more solid waste. This all culminates in a far greater and longer lasting footprint on our environment. We must also not overlook the fact that plastic bags only account for a minor share of society’s overall plastic usage. Think about your plastic drink bottle, the plastic bag that your fruit comes in, plastic cutlery, plastic shampoo bottles and plastic takeout containers. The list is endless.
The Ardern government’s decision makes a feel good headline, but disappointingly entirely overlooks the greater, systemic issue of plastic usage, particularly in the food supply chain. Though even here we must acknowledge the positive flip side of the coin. The Economist, for example, in March reported how waste in various food production lines has been as much as halved through the use of plastic vacuum packaging. In a world of ever-increasing mouths to feed, the opportunities and innovations advanced by plastics must not be cast aside and snubbed. If we turn our noses up at plastic, though we might feel virtuous, we ultimately may be doing the environment more harm than good.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that plastic bags are our environmental saviour. It is a well-known fact that they’re not. I don’t need to write an article highlighting the damages that plastic is causing to our marine life and overall environment. However, a ban is not the silver bullet that it claims to be, far from it. Moreover, it nullifies the possibility of more effective, and more economically beneficial, policy alternatives. As most Britons will know, Scotland’s successful 5p plastic bag tax cut usage by 80% in its first year. That’s nearly 700m fewer bags used each year, and nearly £7m raised in revenue.
Scotland’s is an example of an environmentally and economically sound policy, one to which New Zealand’s government should have looked before making a rash decision for the sake of a feel-good photo and media coverage. But no savvy politician would ever forgo the opportunity for such a headline.
Reuse is crucial, and minimisation is key. For now, I will continue to reuse the plastic bags that I have as lunch bags, as rubbish bags, and to keep my books from the rain when necessary. When I go shopping, I never take a plastic bag if I don’t need it. This afternoon, my backpack looked as though it was about to explode as I lugged my groceries home.
However, we must also acknowledge that plastic bags still have an important, and irreplaceable, role to play in minimising our waste and reducing our carbon footprint. It’s the only way we’re really going to make a difference in saving our rapidly deteriorating environment. Sure, they might not be perfect, but they’re a heck of a lot better for our environment than their alternatives. This must not be forgotten.