Banning plastic bags and straws may be good PR, but are we actually helping the environment?

Big businesses have announced a raft of plastic reduction initiatives, and the New Zealand Government is prioritising better waste management.

But are we doing enough to become more sustainable? 

Countdown is gaining a reputation as a leader among supermarkets after instituting a suite of plastic recycling and reduction efforts.

It was the first supermarket in New Zealand to commit to phasing out single-use plastic bags and it took straws off its shelves on October 1.

It was a founding participating store in the soft plastics recycling scheme, where store-goers drop off their used plastic bags and packaging.

General manager corporate affairs and sustainability Kiri Hannifin says removing plastic packaging from bakery products is planned for October, and Countdown has also informed suppliers it will no longer sell biodegradable or oxo-degradable plastic bags.

More broadly, Countdown is reviewing the use of plastic and packaging across the business, aiming to remove and reduce unnecessary packaging. It has already removed 70 tonnes this year from across the business.

Countdown is one of 12 businesses to have signed the Plastic Packaging Declaration, committing it to use 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their New Zealand operations by 2025 or earlier.

Soft-drink bottling company Coca-Cola Amatil has also signed the declaration* and is honing its recycling efforts.

Almost all of Coca-Cola Amatil NZ's plastic bottles, aluminium cans and glass packaging are now 100 percent recyclable, and the company has upgraded its technology so that their bottles are lighter in weight, thereby using less plastic.

Corporate affairs manager Mr Neil Waka says "not all plastic is bad plastic". He says the company is "taking steps to close the loop on plastic use for a circular economy to ensure we are using much less virgin [new, non-recycled] material".

However Greenpeace has spoken out against the Plastic Packaging Declaration, calling it an "industry-led false solution for tackling the scourge of plastic pollution in our oceans."

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Emily Hunter says that more recyclable plastic should never be the long-term goal because most plastics can only be recycled a finite number of times.

"When we send bottles to recycling, the majority are sent overseas to developing countries in South East Asia already struggling with the export of waste," she explains.

She says some countries engage in incineration, while others can't handle the volume of the global plastic imports so plastics leak into the communities and environment.

Ms Hunter also points out that, in the manufacture of recycled products, other chemicals and more virgin plastic is needed.

The plastic itself also reduces in quality every time it is recycled.

"We need to prioritise reusable over recyclable options," Ms Hunter says.

The problem with reusables


In some cases, single-use plastics are still the best option. The example of single-use syringes within the healthcare sector was given during an enquiry by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton.

There are also food safety risks with reusable alternatives, seafood company Sanford chief executive Volker Kuntzsh says.

The company plans to replace the majority of its polystyrene polybins with biodegradable alternatives by May 2019.

"The aim for us is to replace non-degradable with biodegradable options to get the best solution for food safety and the environment," Mr Kuntzsh says.

While banning plastic straws seems laudable, the ban will impact some members of the disabled community.

Emily Tilley, acting spokesperson for advocacy organisation Disabled Persons Assembly, says the organisation is frustrated to see retailers and other businesses banning plastic straws when a viable alternative has yet to be identified.

"For some consumers, paper straws present a choking hazard, and bamboo and metal options are difficult to use as they don't bend," she says.

"DPA are consulting with our community to try and come up with creative solutions that can be a win-win for reducing environmental impact and for everyone wanting to be able to consume beverages with dignity."

But it would also be misleading to limit the plastics reduction conversation to recycling and reusables.

How to be plastic-free


Greenpeace proposes a four-point plan in its campaign for a Plastic Free NZ, designed to split the responsibility of reducing plastic production and consumption between government, corporates and consumers.

1. Ban the reusables

With the Government's initial plastic bag ban consultation complete and the microbeads ban in force, this is one area where the politicians are leading the charge.

2. Bottle deposits everywhere

The plan advocates for a national Container Deposit Scheme (CDS) where consumers would receive a small monetary incentive for returning plastic bottles to drop-off sites. Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage says such a scheme is just one option, while Mr Waka from Coca-Cola Amatil says it is "not the silver bullet".

3. Plastic pollution levy

Minister Sage is working on making the current $10/tonne levy more widely applicable.

The levy currently only applies to a small proportion of New Zealand's waste, covering around 30 percent of waste dumped at only 11 percent of the approximately 400 landfill sites.

4. National reduction targets

Minister Sage told Newshub she is not looking at implementing targets at this stage, while the Greenpeace plan contends we need the measures to "keep us on course".

The picture for New Zealand, and globally, is even more bleak if you apply the sort of "systems thinking" George Monbiot advocates in this piece for The Guardian.

Mr Monbiot says we need to stop "overwhelming the Earth's living systems" through lessening our levels of consumerism, rather than replacing one type of coffee cup, straw, etc. with another.

However you spin the need to reduce our country's plastics footprint, it is clear that all stakeholders have a role to play. We need to stop looking for silver bullets and find and action a suite of solutions that work for both people and the environment, now and for generations to come.

*Only the Coca-Cola company are listed on the page but Mr Waka has indicated that Coca-Cola Amatil is also a signatory.