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31 March 2009

Bag tax a step in the right direction


Plastic bags make up much less than 1 per cent of the waste going into landfills and many are re-used by householders. Their contribution to climate change is trivial.

So what's the big deal about the decision of The Warehouse to charge shoppers who want to use them? It may reduce visual pollution in public places, but it's hardly going to save the planet.

The answer is that a plastic bag tax is a baby step toward building public acceptance of green taxes as a tool for reducing our personal environmental footprints. No wonder The Warehouse move was welcomed by the government. Sooner or later it will be rolling out an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which in order to work needs to have a significant impact on household spending decisions.

While green taxes (and market-based cap and trade systems) have been a core tenet of Green politics for decades, there is limited public understanding or acceptance of them. Labour's inability to sell the ETS and unwillingness to make it fiscally neutral won't have helped.

Getting the public to think about environmental issues in a rational way is vital if there is to be any hope of getting the political mandate needed to deal with them ... a task complicated by the sloganeering that often substitutes for debate on environmental issues.

How many of us have the mantra on our emails "Please consider the environment before printing this message"? Never mind that most office paper comes from renewable plantations and if buried in a well-constructed landfill will be a carbon sink indefinitely.

Harvesting and replanting plantations, using the wood in buildings and burying wood and paper waste in landfills, is good for the environment. Yet it conflicts with the oft-heard message that trees need to be ‘saved' - a message that might make sense in those parts of the world where indigenous forests are being clear-felled, but make no sense whatsoever in New Zealand or anywhere else where forests are being managed sustainably.

Earlier this year, Wellington City Council proposed stopping its kerbside pick-ups of recyclables because it no longer had profitable outlets for the bottles, paper and plastics it collected. The decision has since been overturned, thanks to a ratepayer petition calling for continued recycling at ratepayer expense.

The council obviously wished to keep rate increases to a minimum, but making money from recyclables should have been near the bottom of the list of priorities for a city that prides itself on its environmental integrity. Especially since the end market for the recyclables was China, where disposal was anything but environmentally friendly.

There's a strong environmental case for processing and disposing of waste closer to home, where this is practical. Newspapers and cardboard may make their best contribution to the environment at the bottom of a landfill in one of Wellington's innumerable gullies. Crushed glass could be used to supplement aggregate in road building and replacement.

With some exceptions, used plastic packaging defies economically and environmentally sustainable recycling solutions. Instead of using yet more fossil fuel to ship it overseas to an uncertain fate, compacting and burying it as a source of hydrocarbons for future oil-starved generations may be the most rational response.

Longer-term, it would be best to minimise the use of plastics in packaging in the first place. There are many cellulose based alternatives. But because so much of what we buy comes from overseas, to be truly meaningful this would take international agreement.

In the meantime, anything that gets the public thinking about how to make their everyday world a little greener won't go amiss. The decision of The Warehouse to charge for plastic bags and Borders to do away with them entirely are important first steps.

What next? Cellophane bags for fruit and pick-and-mix and brown paper bags at the checkout? It can't be too hard.

In a nation that hates its government behaving like a nanny, environmentally-aware businesses have a particularly important role to play.

- Trevor Walton

What do you think?

Old Fossil
To be truly green, let's print at the bottom of our emails: "To protect the environment, print out multiple copies of this email on plantation-grown paper and buried them in a landfill after use."

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