A vote for the planet

Justin Hofman’s photograph of a seahorse clinging to a plastic cotton bud in the sea off...
Justin Hofman’s photograph of a seahorse clinging to a plastic cotton bud in the sea off Indonesia. Photo: Justin Hofman
The moment has come to kick our addiction to single-use plastic bags, writes Gina Dempster.

A couple of months ago I had my 10-year anniversary at Wastebusters. Yes, for a whole decade I’ve been working on and off to reduce single-use plastic packaging, including plastic bags. It’s been a long haul, and sometimes you wonder whether you’re ever going to get anywhere.

Happily, in the past year, more and more people have been wanting change on plastic bags, and New World has listened. The New Zealand-owned supermarkets are holding a "Bagvote" poll to decide if they should start charging for plastic bags. And they’ve committed to going with what the majority decides.

Gina Dempster, with a reusable Plastic Bag Free Wanaka shopping bag, finds plastic bags lying...
Gina Dempster, with a reusable Plastic Bag Free Wanaka shopping bag, finds plastic bags lying outside the Wanaka transfer station. Photo: Si Williams

People say that charging for plastic bags is a tax or a levy, but I like to think of it as a price. We pay for everything else we take home from the supermarket, why should we expect the bags to be free? The problem with giving away free plastic bags is that everyone loves a freebie. We use 1.6 billion plastic bags in New Zealand a year, but we’d use  many fewer if they weren’t free. Overseas evidence has shown that a small charge (e.g., 5p in England) results in an 80% reduction in plastic bag use, almost overnight.

That’s a massive change from a tiny charge: and it shows that as soon as we have to pay for plastic bags, most of us magically find a better alternative overnight. Suddenly, prodded by the smallest coin in our wallet, our memories are sharpened and we remember to take our own bags to the supermarket. It’s amazing what a tiny monetary incentive can do.

The thing is, plastic bags are not really free when you look at where they end up. Like other disposable plastics, they are costing us big time. They cost us when they end up as litter that will survive long past our lifetimes, for hundreds of years. They cost us when they break down into tiny fragments and pollute the sand on remote beaches. They cost us when turtles and seabirds mistake them for food and eat them.  And they cost us when some of the most beautiful reefs in the world are visually polluted by floating plastics.This is the age of plastification. More and more research released this year is finding that plastic is ubiquitous in our natural world. This month the Guardian reported that 94% of  tap water samples in the US contained plastic fibres. European countries had the lowest rates of plastic contamination of tap water at 72%.

Scientists have also been testing salt, and have found that nearly all samples contain plastic. Microplastics have also been found in German beer, in fish and falling on Paris from the air.  Every week there is fresh evidence of how pervasive plastic is in our planet. It doesn’t go away, and we’re making more and more of it all the time. Here’s a scary statistic that sums up what we’re facing: humans are now buying one million plastic bottles per minute.

The numbers are mind-boggling; it’s easy to glaze over when you read them. But it’s hard to close your eyes to a picture. Photographer Justin Hofman’s photo of a tiny seahorse clinging to a plastic cotton bud has gone viral on the internet. It has also secured him a finalist place in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for the Natural History Museum in London. Hofman took the photo while snorkelling in Indonesia, when the tide changed and debris started washing around him. As the sea became rougher, the 4cm  seahorse first clung to a piece of seagrass, then to the plastic cotton bud. Hofman also shot a photo of it clinging to a long fragment of soft plastic, probably from a plastic bag.

"What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little seahorse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage," Hofman said.

He says the power of the photo is that it attracts and repels at the same time. It sums up the incongruity of making "disposable" items from a material that lasts hundreds of years, and then letting them escape into the natural environment. One day we’ll look back and ask, what were we thinking, making all these single-use items out of plastic?

We can’t keep closing our eyes to the pollution from single-use plastic. The first step is to tackle our addiction to plastic bags. New Zealand is a bit late to the party;  40 countries have already taken action to reduce  plastic bag use. It’s starting to get a bit embarrassing when tourists ask why we’re still giving away plastic bags in "clean, green New Zealand". But there is an upside on being slow to act: there’s now lots of evidence about what works.  We know that a 10c charge is very successful in creating change and reducing the number of plastic bags used. So if you want to see change, go to www.bagvote.nz and put your vote in now.

- Gina Dempster is communications officer at Wanaka Wastebusters.

Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


Bin thinking

Life without kitchen bin liners

Give it a go. A lot of people are scared of life without a bin liner. Try it for a month and see if it works for you.It helps to get your food scraps out of the rubbish as they are what makes it wet and stinky. Find a compost method that works for you.

Your remaining rubbish will be pretty dry and not too smelly and can go straight into the kitchen bin without a liner.

When the kitchen bin’s full, tip all the rubbish into the council wheelie bin or council rubbish bag. Give the kitchen bin a quick wash with some warm water and dishwashing liquid and dry it in the sun.


10 reasons

Ten reasons to vote for a 10 cent charge:

• It’s really effective

A 10c charge in New World stores will drastically cut the number of plastic bags used by 80% (based on what’s happened overseas).

• 1,600,000,000

All those zeros represent the huge number of plastic bags used in New Zealand every year. 1.6 billion bags per year, that’s 348 per person. Ireland used to use about the same, but now they pay 22p a bag, and use just 14 bags per person per year!

• Turtles

Scientists often find plastic bags in the stomachs of turtles, because turtles think plastic bags floating in the water look like delicious jelly-fish.

• Less litter

Plastic bags are light and often escape into the environment and waterways, where they take hundreds of years to break down. Sustainable Coastlines have picked up more than 91,000 plastic bags from beaches since 2008. Since a 5p charge was introduced in the UK, the  number of plastic bags found on UK beaches has dropped by almost half.

• People want change

90% of New Zealand mayors have written to the Government asking for a 10c charge on plastic bags. Two-thirds of New Zealanders surveyed support a 10c charge. Tourists ask why we’re still giving plastic bags away. It’s time for change.

• It’s an easy way to break the habit

When people have to pay for plastic bags, taking their own bags becomes normal. Until the new habit becomes automatic, there’s the safety net of being able to  buy a bag for 10c if someone really, really needs one.

• Money for community groups

New World will give the money raised from charging 10c for plastic bags to community groups,  such as the Starship Foundation and Sea Cleaners. It’s the best option on the tableLots of people would prefer a ban on single-use plastic bags; but there’s no ban on the horizon. A national ban would have to be brought in by the Government; and currently no political party is advocating for a ban.

• Australia’s doing better than us

We all hate losing to the Aussies, but they’re winning on plastic bags.  South Australia, ACT, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have all banned single-use plastic bags, and Queensland will join them next year. 

• Change is contagious

The two big supermarket chains in New Zealand, Foodstuffs (New World, Pak ’n Save) and Progressive (Countdown) watch each other very closely. If New World does something about plastic bags, chances are Countdown might do it too.

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