Catch them if you can. Image: Supplied

Is this the end of the road for the humble plastic bag?

Our two supermarket chains have agreed to get rid of plastic bags by the end of this year. Does this mean the end of the seemingly humble plastic bag? Rebecca Stevenson caught up with Wellington City Council’s Roderick Boys to find out why we need to say goodbye to them, for good.

Plastic bags were a hot topic in 2017, in no small thanks to the bout of corporate one-upping that broke out between Foodstuffs and Progressive (or New World versus Countdown if you prefer). It is now widely agreed that plastic bags are a bad thing, and in the numbers that we are using them, a very bad thing.

Wellington City Council resource recovery manager Roderick Boys is in charge of Wellington’s waste. He says the impact plastic bags, in particular, are having on the environment is “truly devastating”. Boys is co-chair of the Wellington Region’s steering group tasked with developing a new joint waste plan – with a goal to reduce waste by a third by 2026. He’s also a co-ordinator for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, trying to stop us chucking out an estimated 122,000 tonnes of food each year.

The supermarkets are part of a soft plastics recycling trial, so I can take plastic bags in and recycle them – but many of us are still throwing them in the bin (the soft plastics recycling scheme only captured around 2% of soft plastics last year). What happens to my plastic bag when it goes out in the rubbish?

Your plastic bags are buried in the landfill where they will stay for many hundreds, or potentially even thousands of years. Wellington City Council is drilling some new landfill gas wells right now (pictured below) so you can see what landfill looks like when you dig it up. You can see that plastic is, while black and dirty, still very recognisable and a dominant part of the landfill composition.

Once my plastic bags end up in the landfill, they should be all good though, right?

While the vast majority of bags are buried, a small proportion escape. International research suggests the rate of escape from landfills on a windy day is approximately 100 bags per day. However, this research is likely not reflective of the situation for the ‘windy’ Wellington Region. Our observations and the necessary clean-up efforts suggest it may be many more.

That’s not much! Why should I be concerned?

In the absence of actual data for Wellington, you could take another approach to understanding the scale of the problem. There’s an estimated 1.3 to 1.6 billion single-use plastic bags used in New Zealand every year. Within the Wellington Region (which is about 10% of New Zealand’s population) you could assume we landfill around 10% of those single-use bags, so that’s around 130 million bags into the region’s landfills every year (356,000 per day). With such colossal numbers entering the landfills every day, it’s no wonder they escape on windy days despite our efforts to cover them over quickly and fence them in. So it’s simply a consequence of the overwhelming numbers.

Plastic, plastic, everywhere. Image: Supplied

Do you have any idea how many get loose?

Landfills are all about weight and material types. For example, we know that 34,000 tonnes of plastics, most of which are not recyclable, go into the Wellington region’s three landfills every year. So how much of that ‘plastics’ weight is plastic bags? Again, we don’t know, it won’t be much of the total weight, but that’s exactly why they are more likely to become wind-blown litter that escapes a landfill.

What do councils do to try and stop them escaping?

At the Southern Landfill, WCC has invested in improving the stationary fencing and mobile fencing, the latter can be adjusted to wind direction. These fences are designed to catch your flyaway bags and do a very good job of it. It might look bad, but these fences really do a great job of preventing the majority of your plastics from escaping. When waste is deposited at the landfill it is compacted and covered over quickly to reduce the chances of plastic bags becoming airborne. We also have clean-up crews recovering those bags that have escaped the fences.

The best thing that councils have done recently is more than 90% of New Zealand’s mayors supported a nationwide levy on plastic bags, which would significantly reduce the number of bags coming into landfills in the first place (for example, a 5 pence levy in the UK saw an 85% reduction in single-use plastic bags).

A lot of people still seem sceptical that plastic bags cause any issues other than looking unsightly blowing about. What evidence have you seen of the damage they can cause when they are loose?

The impact of plastic bags in the environment is truly devastating, especially in the marine environment.  In late 2017 Dr. Lydia Uddstrom of Auckland Zoo shared the sad details of the death of a critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. The turtle was found just south of Mangonui in Northland. Having spent nearly two weeks trying to save the animal, she had this to say:

My colleagues and I found enough plastic inside her to fill a one-litre container – the worst case we’ve ever dealt with. She’d inadvertently ingested everything from plastic bags and packaging to twine, netting, Velcro, a piece of a balloon, and a water bottle top. Amongst all the rubbish, there were a number of hard sharp-edged plastic pieces that must have really hurt as they worked their way through her body. Collectively all this material partially blocked her intestines, which stopped working, causing her whole body to shut down and ultimately meant that she starved to death.”

Unfortunately, plastic bags appear as jellyfish to other species and are mistakenly eaten. A recent New Zealand study found that one in three turtles found dead on New Zealand’s shores contained plastic. Seabirds, whales and other marine animals are also particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics.

Auckland Zoo vet Lydia Lydia Uddstrom with plastic from the stomachs of three hawksbill turtles that died in 2017. Image: Screenshot

How long have plastic bags been a problem?

We’ve found plastic bags from the ’80s in the native bush soils around the landfill that look like new (complete with branding). The reality is plastics bags are made from oil, once underground they take many years to very slowly break up into smaller pieces.

Soft plastics that are not buried and escape the fences will move through urban and forested environments, down streams and then out to and around the oceans. As they do so, they will break up into smaller pieces faster. Once they hit the oceans, those very small bits of plastic are also mistaken for food and bioaccumlate in the food chain, ultimately ending up in humans when we eat fish and shell fish. A recent Canadian study showed that when you eat clams and oysters from the Pacific North West you’re now eating plastic as well.

So what can I do as a consumer to help?

Switch from single use to a reusable bag today. Ideally your reusable shopping bag would be a Boomerang Bag (i.e. made from upcycled textiles) or other woven cotton bags, or a polypropylene bag. All of these options last for many years and have lower environmental impacts. Then put these bags in the back of your car and leave them there. Start this habit now and transition to single use plastic bag free, then when the supermarkets take them away at the end of 2018 you’ll already be sorted.

In addition to taking action on single use plastic bags you can also follow the “Four R’s.” In order of importance, they are:

Refuse – plastics that can’t be reused or recycled. If a store only offers you a plastic bag, tell them you would prefer to be offered a non plastic alternative. If you are buying only one item and heading straight to the car do you even need a bag at all?

Reduce – your consumption of all single use plastics. If you do buy products in plastic; buy products that are recyclable and are made from recycled material already e.g. when shopping, look on the back of clear plastic trays, bottles, etc. for  “NZ recycled plastic No.1 R-PET” (i.e. Recycled PET from NZ). If your local supermarket doesn’t stock plastic trays made from R-PET (as opposed to just No.1 “PET” – made from new plastic) and this matters to you, ask them to.

Reuse – containers that you do buy so that you are not creating demand for new single use plastics. Look for outlets such as Bin Inn and Good For who are happy to refill your existing containers. Check out Zero Waste NZ – all these Kiwis walking the talk are happy to help and offer advice as to where they get their reusable products from, and how to go about avoiding single use plastics.

Recycle – all plastics that can be recycled. If you’re not sure what can and can’t, check your local council’s website, as the kerbside schemes can vary around NZ.

LOOK FOR THE SIGN. Image: Supplied

Why can’t we recycle plastic bags with the rest of the recycling?

Mainly because it doesn’t stack up for businesses to make new products out of recycled plastic bags when that particular type of plastic is cheaper and easier to work with when you buy new. The soft plastics recycling scheme available in supermarkets is a great initiative. However, it is a subsidised scheme and there are only so many recycled plastic park benches you can sell back to local authorities. Further, it doesn’t actually address the issue of the overwhelming tide of new plastics we are all consuming.

Is there anything else people should know?

Three things: It is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 at the current rate of consumption and pollution. A tip for Wellingtonians in particular; if you tie a knot in the bag, it significantly reduces the chance of it becoming airborne when it arrives at the landfill. Paper bags can have a large carbon footprint, so please consider using Boomerang Bags (i.e. made from upcycled textiles) or other woven cotton bags, or polypropylene bags as alternatives to single use plastic bags.

Roderick Boys is resource recovery manager at Wellington City Council.


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