Almost 400 alleged breaches of plastic bag ban but no prosecutions

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage.
Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: Newshub

Despite almost 400 alleged breaches of the single-use plastic bag ban, no one has been prosecuted, and the minister in charge says it's because that's "not the aim". 

The Ministry for the Environment has received 375 reports of alleged breaches of the ban since it was implemented in July, most of them in the month following. 

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage told Newshub prosecuting people who allegedly breached the ban is "not the aim" and that the Government's focus is on educating people. 

"It's not the Government's intention here to do a lot of prosecution... What it's about is education and there is a big education programme planned for next year.

"We've seen a major drop in complaints about retailers providing single-use plastic bags, and so I think people have got the message and people are changing their behaviour and that's great."

Ministry data shows there were 183 reports of breaches in July, followed by 65 in August, 40 in September, 42 in October, 31 in November and 14 in December. 

The vast majority of complaints were about clothing stores, with 144 alleged breaches reported. That was followed by other retailers such as pharmacists, as well as takeaway shops, grocery stores and gift shops. 

Almost 400 alleged breaches of plastic bag ban but no prosecutions
Photo credit: Ministry for the Environment

Most of the complaints - 49 percent - were made in Auckland, followed by Wellington with 14 percent of the share and Waikato with 11 percent. 

Newshub asked the police if any complaints about breaches of the ban had been received, and they referred back to the Ministry for the Environment. 

A ministry spokesperson said prior to taking any action on alleged breaches they need to gather a range of information from several sources to verify the allegations and follow due process.

"When non-compliance is confirmed, its significance is assessed to determine the most appropriate response to take."

The spokesperson said the ministry's aim is to encourage and obtain compliance by using a variety of tools "including prosecution if necessary". 

But she said the Government "does not have a goal to prosecute retailers or prosecution targets".  

"If we end up at that point - and we don't want to be in this position - we can prosecute. That is done through the courts, and from there the court can impose a financial penalty. That's costly and time consuming for both parties."

Newshub asked Sage if avoiding prosecutions for breaching the ban might convey a message that the Government is lax with enforcement and discourage New Zealanders from following the rules.

"I think the message is out there," Sage, a Green MP, replied.  

"People feel a bit sheepish when they don't take a reusable bag, so I think we've made considerable gains there and we have stopped millions of single-use plastic bags going to landfill and getting into streams, waterways and the ocean."

The Opposition's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson said the lack of prosecutions is "typical of a Government who likes telling people how to live their lives but is weak at enforcement and follow-through". 

He pointed to the Government's recently announced plan to phase out more single-use plastics, including items such as non-compostable fruit stickers and beverage containers made of hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene. 

"Their recent ban on cotton buds and fruit stickers will likely have the same result," Simpson said. 

Opposition leader Simon Bridges described the latest proposed ban as "hardly transformational", telling Magic Talk earlier this month the Government's focus should be on infrastructure and reducing costs for Kiwi families.

Minister Sage said the ban on single-use plastic bags is "only the start". 

She pointed to the Government's proposal to introduce a regulated stewardship scheme for some "priority products", making companies responsible for where their products end up.

The Government has also proposed increasing the levy rate for landfills by up to $50 in three years.

"We're looking to phase out difficult to use plastics, and doing a lot of work around the landfill levy, and product stewardship schemes for those challenging products like e-waste and tyres," Sage said. 

"People are hungry for change in the waste space. The ban on single-use shopping bags was a start. It has been highly symbolic. We are seeing now a lot of manufacturers looking for alternative packaging."