Plastic bag debate

Do you think the government is doing enough…?

On Thu, 10 Aug 2017 at 13:29, James Ayling<[email protected] nz> wrote:
Good afternoon Sarah,
Please find attached a response to your correspondence of 26 June 2017 from Hon Scott Simpson, Associate Minister for the Environment.
Kind regards,
James Ayling | Private Secretary (Associate Environment)
Office of the HonScott Simpson MP

Minister of Statistics | Associate Minister for the Environment | Associate Minister of Immigration | MP for Coromandel

Bowen House, Parliament Buildings, Wellington

DDI  04 817 6651 MOB 022 089 5820 | E[email protected] nz

From: James Ayling 
Sent: Tuesday, 27 June 2017 2:34 p.m.
To: sarah_allen
Subject: RE: Radio NZ 1 June Nine to Noon show

Good afternoon Sarah,

On behalf of Hon Scott Simpson, Associate Minister for the Environment, thank you for your correspondence of 26 June 2017 regarding plastic bags.

Your email has been placed before the Minister and you may expect a reply in due course.

Kindest regards,



James Ayling | Private Secretary (Associate Environment)

Office of the HonScott Simpson MP

Minister of Statistics | Associate Minister for the Environment | Associate Minister of Immigration | MP for Coromandel

Bowen House, Parliament Buildings, Wellington

DDI04 817 6651 | E[email protected] nz

In reply to Sarah’s letter below:

From: Sarah Allen
Sent: Monday, 26 June 2017 6:32 PM
To: S Simpson (MIN) <[email protected]>
Subject: Radio NZ 1 June Nine to Noon show

Dear Minister,

I am writing after listening to Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme on 1 June 2017, when you, Dave Cull and Sandra Murray spoke about single-use plastic bag waste and what to do about it.

I note that Dave Cull reported that Local Government NZ almost unanimously support a levy on plastic bags. Local councils are no doubt very aware of the extent of the problem, as it is they who must deal with excessive plastic bag waste. As at 25 June, twenty-eight of the country’s 67 mayors have so far signed an open letter calling on the government to introduce a compulsory levy on plastic bags. Sandra Murray also made some interesting points in that producers of the bags ought to bear more responsibility for the end-of-life impacts of their products.

I’m sure everyone has heard the maxim, “reduce, reuse, recycle”. As with so many things in life, prevention is better than cure. Reducing the number of single-use plastic bags that enter the waste stream will always be much more effective than trying to deal with them once they have been discarded. This is particularly so with plastics that do not readily break down in the environment and will be with us for at least 20 and up to 1,000 years. Tragically, single-use plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, and we do not actually know how long they will take to break down, although we can be reasonably certain the period will be measured in generations, not in years. In the light of this, we must ensure fewer single-use plastic bags enter our waste stream.

While the Soft Plastics Recycling Project is a promising part of the solution, it cannot be the whole solution. Published figures state that some 25 million plastic bags were recycled last year. This represents less than 2% of NZ’s consumption of single-use plastic bags, which is estimated at 1.6 billion per annum. In addition, this recycling was reportedly only achieved at the significant cost of $18,000 per ton. It is pleasing to note that the Project expects to fulfil its three year goal by 2018 of obtaining full industry funding. This does indicate some responsibility being taken by the organisations who distribute the bags.

Your stated view on Radio NZ was that you do not favour “heavy-handed regulation” and believe New Zealanders like to make choices themselves. Unfortunately, 1.6 billion disposable plastic bags per annum suggests that New Zealanders aren’t necessarily choosing to reduce their plastic bag use. In a country with such a small population, this is quite an astonishing figure. A levy on single-use plastics still gives people a choice – whether to purchase the bag or not. A levy is a reminder to people to consider whether they need the bag or not, and an encouragement to reduce unnecessary consumption. If people still want the bags to line their rubbish bins or pick up dog waste, then bags are available. If people still need the bags to pack their groceries, they can purchase them. What a levy will help eliminate is wastage, for example the situation where a bag is taken for a couple of items that can easily be carried by hand or put in a handbag or backpack.

A levy in a way is in the nature of a Pigovian tax, although borne by the consumer rather than the producer. Single-use plastics have negative consequences that certainly aren’t priced into their cost when they are handed out for free. At the moment local councils (and therefore all ratepayers) and the environment are bearing those consequences. Imposing a levy is an effective way of achieving efficiency in the market by finding a balance between social (or environmental) cost and consumption. Findings from the UK show that a levy is very effective in reducing consumption – Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England saw reductions of an estimated 76%, 71%, 80% and 85% respectively after introducing a levy.

You indicated that you want to research initiatives overseas and look at introducing those that are most effective in New Zealand. If you can find an initiative that reduces plastic bag consumption by 70% or more whilst raising funds that could be put towards further waste minimisation and management initiatives, I’m sure it would gain wide support. So far, no such alternative is evident.

You also said that you are having discussions with industry and looking at achieve results on a voluntary basis. You will no doubt recall the lack of success of voluntary initiatives back in 2009 when New World removed a 5c charge for plastic bags due to customer complaints and competitive pressure. This year, representatives of major supermarkets have been quoted in the press saying any charge would have to be industry-wide. A levy would remove competitive issues and place all retailers on a level footing, whilst encouraging behaviour change and considered decision-making.

On Radio NZ, you stated that you liked the “nice circular sort of symmetry” of soft plastic recycling being partly funded by the Waste Minimisation Fund, which is in turn funded by fees for leaving waste at landfills. The possibility of soft plastic recycling being funded by fees for usage of a significant class of soft plastics, the single-use shopping bag, strikes me as more directly symmetrical and satisfying. The Waste Minimisation Fund already exists as a mechanism into which levies collected could be directed.

I do not suggest that a levy on single-use plastic is the only solution to our waste problems, only that it should be one part of our larger efforts to manage all waste. Please give the introduction of a levy serious consideration, rather than dismissing the idea as heavy-handed regulation.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Allen