The politics of plastic

Tauranga waterfront: getting plastics out of waterways and oceans is a key aim of the plastic bag ban. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The ban on single use plastic bags may be just the start of bold moves by the Government on waste, but it will need to carefully chart a course between what the Greens want and what business will let them have, Thomas Coughlan reports.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern capped off her first week back from maternity leave by announcing her Government will get rid of single use plastic bags by July next year.

The proposal is being put out to consultation so the final detail of what it will look like, including which bags are banned and what might be exempted is not yet finalised. But what is currently proposed is a mandatory phase out of single-use shopping bags, including biodegradable bags, over the next year. Bin-liners and plastic bags for rubbish collection will be exempt.

In what is being seen as a big win for junior coalition partner the Greens, the Government decided on an outright ban rather than a compulsory levy on the use of plastic shopping bags.

The previous National Government was gearing up to tackle the issue, after pressure from local government to either impose a national levy on single use plastic bags, or give local authorities the right to do so themselves. But National's Associate Environment Minister Scott Simpson didn't believe a mandatory ban was feasible, saying he fancied the UK model where retailers charge shoppers a small fee for plastic bags and keep the money themselves to distribute to charities of their choice.

Now the Associate Environment Minister is Green MP Eugenie Sage, and the announcement of the ban at Wellington's Lyall Bay beach had an unambiguously political message.

Both Ardern and Sage loudly talked-up the policy as an achievement for the Green Party and evidence of what can be done when the party is in Government.

Ardern acknowledged Sage’s leadership on the issue, saying she had “really driven the agenda for the Government around waste minimisation”.

“Right from the beginning, from the time that we formed government, sitting around the coalition table, this was one of the things that we said was pushed for in the Confidence and Supply agreement because it meant so much and it means a lot to this Government,” she said.

And there may be more wins for the Greens on the way. 

“There’s going to be more to come in the waste space,” Sage told journalists.

The consultation document also gestures towards a far more ambitious waste-minimisation agenda, saying the Government is going to take “a circular economy approach to design waste out of the system”.

A circular economy is one in which resources can be constantly used and reused depending on need. It is the opposite of a linear economy in which resources are extracted, used and then disposed of forever.

“The capacity of Earth is finite, while the human population and our aspirations for material consumption keep growing,” the document says.

But moving towards a circular economy will most likely require business to step outside its comfort zone and go far further than a simple plastic bag ban.

Ardern was also swift to pay tribute to the business community for “leading the charge” on plastic.

Representatives from The Warehouse and Countdown were present at the bag ban announcement, along with other retailers. This was itself significant. Retailers are among the most pessimistic of sectors in business confidence surveys as they are highly exposed to the Government’s minimum wage increases.

Ardern even noted that business and consumers would lead the next phase of waste minimisation, such as the elimination of plastic straws.

The resources of the planet are finite, but the Government is learning the hard way this week that the patience of the business community has limits too. Both Labour and the Greens will be hoping business backs any bold moves on waste yet to come.