In New Zealand, 400,000 single-use plastic bags are produced every hour, about one billion per year. Considering most plastic bags are not recyclable here, that’s a lot of plastic that is heading straight to the landfill, or worse - littered in our beautiful national parks and oceans.
If the plastic bag you left the supermarket with somehow ends up in the ocean, this will contribute to the growing amount of plastic waste that is drowning marine life in New Zealand and around the world. Kiwi environmental group ‘Sustainable Coastlines’ says it retrieved more than 91,000 plastic bags during 34 beach clean-up events. Any litter that is left on the street could be flushed through drains when it rains and straight out to sea. One of the first countries to ban plastics bags was Bangladesh, there was so much plastic litter that during floods in 2002 plastic pretty much submerged the entire country. Plastic bags are petroleum based and don't biodegrade so they will circulate in ocean currents called gyres for hundreds of years where sea creatures can consume them thinking they are food. A sea turtle can easily mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish. Around half of sea turtles ingest plastic and die as a result. Source
Photo: João Vianna
More specifically to New Zealand waters, seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, fish and sea birds are affected. Like many other marine mammals, whales make mistakes when it comes to food sources. A whale's mouth is so large it can pick up plastics that are floating underwater unknowingly, which can harm their stomach lining. Toxins from plastic that are ingested by fish, end up on our plates and in our bodies too. Seals and sea lions can become tangled in plastic bags which lead to injury and suffocation. The US National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year around the world.
Photo: One Green Planet
So what can you do to help?
When you can, say no to a plastic bag. Plan your shopping and bring your own reusable bags or ask for a cardboard box instead. Don’t put your fruit in separate bags in the supermarket and be smart when it comes to choosing what products you buy as the plastic packaging may not be recyclable. Educate others and always look for more research. And while we’re on the topic of plastics, say no to straws and plastic cups too.
In a small country that’s surrounded by the ocean, the single-use plastic bag has so many negative effects on our environment, that don't come near to outweighing positives. How would you feel if you found out a plastic bag had harmed an animal? It's about time New Zealand got on to banning these silent killers. There are also many online petitions to attract the attention of the government to put a levy on or ban plastic bags in New Zealand. So if you see one make sure you sign and share!
New Zealand is slowly changing its ways though. Lightweight plastic bags and any plastic that can be scrunched into a ball can now be placed in receptacles at The Warehouse, Pak'nSave and New World in Auckland. The soft-plastic waste is sent to Australia where it is reconstituted as park benches and playground equipment. In many countries around the world, there has been a phase out of plastic bags. China decided to ban plastic bags completely in 2008 and Denmark has the lowest plastic bag use in Europe apparently around 4 bags per person a year. New Zealand hasn’t quite got there yet but that doesn’t mean you should contribute to the increasing plastic waste. Your positive actions might inspire someone else and so on.