Bag ban tip of the plastic iceberg

1:16 pm on 6 October 2017

When Countdown called me on Wednesday morning to tell me the company was going to ban plastic bags, I think I screeched into the phone.

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Children protested the use of plastic bags outside Parliament earlier this year Photo: RNZ / Mei Heron

How often does a multinational have great news for an environmental group like Greenpeace?

The detail - that the supermarket chain would phase out single-use bags by the end of 2018 - was even better news.

That's really good. Even the Green Party has only been talking about a phase-out policy over three years.

No more single-use plastic shopping bags via Countdown after the end of next year: that's 350 million bags out of the waste system per year.

Laid end-to-end those bags would stretch for 147,000km - three and a half times around the world.

Tens of thousands of New Zealanders signed Greenpeace's petition to ban the bag in the two months since it launched. This is a victory for people power. This is a victory for marine life and our oceans.

The devastating impact plastic bags have on marine life really hit home for me, as it has for so many others. It's heartbreaking to think of sea turtles suffering a painful death because of plastic in their bellies.

But banning the bag is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plastic pollution. Our oceans are choking on plastic waste. It's estimated that if we keep polluting at the current rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean within 33 years.

The plastic waste issue is so vast, so embedded in every part of our modern lives, it's hard to know where to begin.

Plastic can now be found at every corner of the world's oceans - from bottles and packaging to tiny microplastics - threatening one of our planet's key life-support systems, harming marine life and even ending up in the food on our plate.

Up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year - a truck load of rubbish every minute. Up to 90 percent of seabirds and one in three turtles have ingested marine plastic. One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. And more than half of the 500 billion plastic bottles manufactured each year are thrown away after a single use, ending up on beaches, in landfill and in our oceans.

Coca-Cola alone increased its production of plastic bottles by a billion last year and is estimated to produce 100 billion single use plastic bottles a year, many of which end up in our oceans.

Say that figure out loud: 100 billion. It's difficult to comprehend.

It's great that Countdown is leading the way with this ban. Now we need other big companies to follow their lead, and we need governments to create legislation that will compel those who don't.

New World's BagVote failed to even offer customers the option to ban the bag so now, in contrast, seems like little more than greenwash.

If we're to have any hope of tackling the immense problem of plastic pollution, we need large companies and politicians to be bold and take decisive action, rather than dismal half-measures.

And while we wait for our new government to legislate on the issue, it's time for other supermarkets to do the right thing: be bold, and match Countdown's ban on the bag.

* Elena Di Palma is Greenpeace New Zealand's plastics campaigner.

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