Back in May, the Our Seas Our Future campaign called for the government to phase out plastic bags The call was immediately rebuffed by Minister for the Environment Nick Smith:
However, environment minister and Nelson MP Nick Smith said plastic bags made up a "tiny portion" - 0.1 per cent - of total waste that goes to landfill and the government was "not giving any consideration to a ban nor do we think it's justified".
"I take quite a scientific view of issues of this sort and the advice is that plastic bags are a tiny portion of the waste stream and a tiny proportion of the overall waste problem," he said.
So what was the advice which led to such a strong, "scientific" conclusion from Smith? I asked, and yesterday I received the response. The total amount of advice Smith has received on phasing out or reducing use of plastic bags in the past five years? One document - a fragment of a briefing paper from late 2013. Which starts out by saying - without any evidential basis - that "the New Zealand Government does not consider that such a measure is practical or necessary". As for the scale of the problem, it has this to say:
The Ministry for the Environment does not hold any comprehensive data on the quantity of plastic bags in New Zealand and what proportion of the waste stream they make up.
In short, according to his own advice, Nick Smith appears to be pulling his figures out of his arse. That's his "scientific view".
What the report does show is that overseas levy schemes have been highly effective at reducing plastic bag use while raising a revenue stream for funding small environmental projects. Yes, its a small part of our environmental problems (and much less important than climate change and water quality) - but that doesn't mean its not worth doing.