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Single-use be gone: as the Government announces a plastic bag ban, innovative businesses see opportunities to improve

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Friday that single-use plastic bags will be phased out in New Zealand over the next 12 months, a necessary move to preserve the country’s green reputation. What do businesses in Aotearoa either making alternatives to plastic or attempting to phase out its use think about the move?

Following the Prime Minister's announcement, we went to a bunch of companies to ask their thoughts on the decision, how they think New Zealanders will respond, and how their organisations help provide alternatives to plastic use. 

Innocent Packaging

Tony Small, founder and managing director of Innocent Packaging, says the news from the Government is brilliant. Innocent Packaging uses plants and plant waste materials to produce packaging.

“We pitch [New Zealand] as "Pure/Clean Green New Zealand" yet we're one of the highest producers of waste in the OECD. The ban on single-use plastic bags gives us the opportunity to live up to our "Clean, Green" image.”

He says the change will take time, but overall he thinks the majority of Kiwis will adapt well to the change.

For Small’s business, the biggest challenge is making sure its products end up in the correct waste stream.

“We recently launched The Full Package in partnership with We Compost, the first city-wide compost collection of its kind in New Zealand. We started with 50 bins in Auckland CBD and rolled out another 50 this weeks. We've now got 100 collection points for food waste and compostable packaging in Auckland and are in talks with everyone from the Russell Council to businesses in Wellington.”

Remix Plastic

Christchurch woman Anthea Madill is the creator of Remix Plastic, a project that aims to confront the growing problem of plastic pollution. By setting up a small scale mobile recycling unit, Madill is able to create useful items, such as planters and jewellery, while educating others on the extent of the plastic waste problem. 

Madill welcomed the news, saying the only way for it to happen properly is for a government move like this.

“As you know, companies have been hesitant (for numerous reasons) and a blanket decision like this means everyone can stop discussing it and just get on with it.”

She says she thinks for many Kiwis this change has been a long time coming. While people feel guilty for their single-use plastic use but don’t really know how to change those behaviours, Madill says, this will force businesses to offer better options that will, in turn, benefit everyone.

“This takes the pressure of the consumer to drive the change. I feel like there are a few Kiwis that will have their reservations about the change, but at the end of the day it is a decision that is for the benefit of our future generations, so we need to take responsibility for our actions and go with it.”

According to Madill, the most important thing that Kiwis can do to reduce their plastic use is to start being aware of the plastic in their lives.

She encourages people to stop and question if they need [the plastic bag], if there are better alternatives and to just slowly start implementing changes, even small ones, such as swapping out a plastic toothbrush for a bamboo brush or buying veggies loose instead of wrapped.

Sustainable Business Network

For the Sustainable Business Network, the announcement was another positive step towards a circular economy for New Zealand.

Rachel Brown, chief executive of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN), says the environmental impact of plastic packaging, particularly single-use plastic bags, is now well-known, but what many people don’t realise is that there’s a massive economic cost involved too because of resource wastage.

“The cost of packaging waste sits at around $80 billion globally and is rising as the costs of clean up are added. So the phasing out of single-use plastic bags is not only good for the environment, it’s good for the economy.”

Brown admits that as plastic bags “are just the tip of the iceberg”, SBN is working with businesses to better understand New Zealand’s entire plastic packaging system.

“We need to radically change how we design, use and re-use plastics. Members of the Sustainable Business Network are already on a mission to take responsibility for their own plastic packaging. We will continue to work with them and Government to create a ‘new plastics economy’. I hope all New Zealanders will get in behind this and support the retailers and manufacturers who are working to reduce the plastic waste in our environment.”

In a circular economy, the lifecycles of materials are maximised. Their use is optimised. At the end of life, all materials are reutilised. Legislation, such as phasing out single-use plastic bags, is an important way to make the circular economy a reality across the entire economy, says Brown. 

James Griffin, who leads the circular economy accelerator at SBN, says to solve the plastics problem we need unprecedented co-operation and co-ordination across business, the community and Government.

While supporting the Government’s initiative, Griffin adds a note of caution.

“The plastic packaging system is a complex one, which is also connected to other complex systems such as food and medicine," he says.

“We must be careful that any changes we make as we redesign this system do not have unforeseen consequences. The Government has worked well with business thus far and we anticipate they will continue to work flexibly with business as we all work to identify the best way to move forward. What is abundantly clear is that no group, government or country can do this on its own. It’s vital that we all continue to work together on this.”

Compostic

Co-founder Jon Reed says Compostic is really supportive of a ban on plastic bags, and not just single-use.

"Turning to reusable plastic bags is definitely not the answer. We know a lot of these bags will not be reused anywhere near enough times for it to have any environmental impact and are still rubbish that will stay with us for over 250 years. We need to ensure in passing new regulation, that we are doing the right thing and creating a truly circular economy."

He says the company believes that the only answer is compostable bags. 

"They can be design for single or multiple use purposes and if incorrectly discarded will still break down in our atmosphere. Along with other organic waste, compostable bags can be broken down into quality compost within 12 weeks, enhancing said compost as they do so whilst leaving no harmful residues. This represents a full circle economy and hopefully will encourage people to not only compost our bags, but to compost their organic waste with them."

Hopefully, he says, Compostic bags can also help put the spotlight on New Zealand's waste management issues as well.

"There is no excuse to keep sending organic waste to landfill when composting is such a viable option. In doing so we could divert 45 percent of household waste away from landfill which is huge."

Reed says its products have a message for the public to let then know what the product is, and what that means as well as how to dispose of it correctly.

"Our social media pages have been really important to us because it's a great way to connect with our audience, share environmental news and encourage better habits and behaviour. This doesn't just go for bags or our particular products, it's about creating awareness for our environment in general and helping people to change the way they think about how they are consuming."

Paper Plus

Paper Plus’ chief executive Sam Shosanya says the company supports the Government’s mandatory phase-out of single-use plastic bags.

“At Paper Plus we already had a programme of work in place to figure out how to completely switch out single-use plastic bags in our stores and have recently rolled out reusable and will continue to offer paper bags in store for customers.”

First Retail Group

Chris Wilkinson, chief executive of First Retail Group, says most retailers have been preparing for this, driven both by the example the big brands have led, but equally by consumers – some of whom see plastic bags in the same light as smoking and now sugar.

“It has not taken long for the plastic bag movement to create awareness and drive this change, however, it's important to remember that a number of retailers have been active in reducing bag use for many years now. Brands like Bunnings, Huckleberry and Nature Baby are just some that have been plastic-free for a long time.”

He says there will definitely be customers that do resist, so it is important that stores have ready solutions for them, such as boxes or paper bags.

The most important thing is not to ostracise customers that don't have their own bags, says Wilkinson, or make a big deal about being plastic-free.

“Consumers are expecting this now, so be low key in the way you change practices, but ready with other ways to pack their products to maintain goodwill. The shift in plastic bag sentiment shows just how quickly consumers can change the way businesses must operate. We haven't seen this kind of ground-swell before but are likely to see more of this in the future with other environmental and social values driving demands."

Foodstuffs New Zealand

Steve Anderson, managing director of Foodstuffs New Zealand, says the move is part of the company's programme to do its bit to look after Aotearoa, adding that the announcement from the Government means that everyone in retail will soon be on the same page. 

“We consider it a huge privilege and responsibility to do our best to look after our patch for centuries to come. Our commitment to reducing plastic waste is clear – and we’re working with our customers to make a real and meaningful difference beyond plastic bags."

He says it is important to acknowledge that some customers may take a bit more help to get there, so the company will ensure that it has affordable reusable bag options available in its stores.

Ecoware

The founder and director of sustainable food packaging Ecoware, James Calver, says the company thinks it’s "great and exciting" that New Zealand has followed the lead of Kenya, Vanuatu, Taiwan, Montreal, Rwanda and Morocco and banned single-use plastic bags, but warns it is just the tip of the iceberg. 


 
“This is just the first, small step of a long-term journey we need to take to seriously address the plastic crisis in New Zealand. It’s more than just plastic bags – it’s the packaging our kids’ toys come wrapped in, it’s the vegetables wrapped in shrink-wrap, it’s the millions of takeaway coffee cups with plastic liners that can’t be recycled and won’t break down in landfill.”
 
Calver says it’s become clear in recent months that the recycling process in New Zealand is broken.

“It would be great to see the Government acknowledge that our recycling system is failing and work quickly to provide a solution to move forward. Kiwis want to do the right thing – it’s just that it’s not always that easy to do in New Zealand. We’d love to see the government front up and invest in infrastructure to provide households with organic collections. Up to 40 percent of the average household’s bin is food waste – instead of sending it to landfill we could divert it and make valuable products, like compost.” 

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