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Single-use plastic shopping bags

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Single-use plastic shopping bags to be phased out

Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage has confirmed that single-use plastic shopping bags will be phased out in New Zealand with regulations to come into force from 1 July 2019.

New Zealanders are overwhelmingly behind the phase out. Recently, 92 per cent of the more than 9,300 people and organisations who had their say in our public consultation supported a mandatory nationwide phase out.

The regulations will apply to all new plastic shopping bags with handles that are made of plastic up to 70 microns in thickness.

This includes the light-weight plastic bags commonly found at supermarket, takeaway food and other retail checkouts, as well as heavier boutique-style shopping bags and the ‘emergency’ bags currently offered by some supermarkets as an alternative to a free single-use bag.

It will also include bags fitting this description made of degradable plastic (ie. biodegradable, compostable and oxy-degradable) regardless of whether the plastic material is sourced from fossil-fuel, synthetic compounds or from biological sources such as plants.

See the Waste Minimisation (Plastic Shopping Bags) Regulations 2018 [New Zealand Legislation website]

What type of plastic bags does the phase out include?

When we say ‘single-use plastic shopping bag’ we mean the kind of plastic bags with handles commonly found at supermarket, takeaway food, and other retail checkouts.

Bin liners, bags for collecting pet waste and barrier bags used when purchasing meat and fruit and vegetables are not included in the proposed phase out (unless they have handles for the dual use of carrying sold goods).

The phase out will apply to all new plastic shopping bags with handles that are made of plastic up to 70 microns in thickness. This includes the light-weight plastic bags commonly found at supermarket, takeaway food and other retail checkouts, as well as heavier boutique-style shopping bags and the ‘emergency’ bags currently offered by some supermarkets as an alternative to a free single-use bag. It will also include bags fitting this description made of degradable plastic (ie, biodegradable, compostable and oxy-degradable) regardless of whether the plastic material is sourced from fossil-fuel, synthetic compounds or from biological sources such as plants.

See images of bags included in the phase out 

What can I use to carry my goods home now?

Most major retailers already supply low-cost reusable bags for purchase. Retailers may also consider providing cardboard boxes to help their customers as they adjust to the transition – however this is up to each retailer.

Alternatives to single-use plastic shopping bags include long-life reusable bags in heavier-duty plastic, composite bags of hessian with other materials, and long-lasting bags made of lightweight nylon, cotton, recycled fabric or jute. Paper shopping bags remain an option for retailers although the Ministry is encouraging a move away from single-use options (no matter the material).

Shoppers can also bring their own wheeled trolley bags, backpacks and home-made bags.

Won’t people stockpile bags before the regulations take effect for bin liners etc?

This is about transitioning to reusable bags over time. It will be a quicker shift for some people to make than others which is why we have factored in six months for people to adjust. 

Many New Zealanders are already getting behind this change and we’ve already seen people adjust to mandatory phase outs of plastic bags in a number of countries, states and cities overseas. 

Recent research commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment found that 50 per cent of New Zealanders say they ‘always’ bring reusable bags when shopping.

Which bags are included in the regulations?

The regulations [NZ Legislation website] apply to plastic shopping bags which meet all of the following criteria.

  • Made of any type of plastic less than 70 microns in thickness, including plastics made from bio-based materials such as starch and plastics that are designed to be degradable, biodegradable or oxo-degradable 
  • Have carry handles
  • Are new or unused
  • Are provided for the purpose of distributing sold goods.

The following bags are not included in the mandatory phase-out.

  • Bags without handles including light-weight ‘barrier bags’ (eg, bags without handles used for containing meat and/or produce)
  • Bin liners
  • Bags for pet waste
  • Bags that form an integral part of a product’s packaging (eg, sealed pouches with handles)
  • Bags made from bio-based materials that have not been converted to plastic (eg, cotton, jute, hemp, paper, flax)
  • Long-life multi-use shopping bags made from synthetic fabric between 45 and 70 microns in thickness (see below for more detail).

Why are biodegradable, oxo-degradable and compostable bags included?

The regulations cover 'biodegradable', 'oxo-degradable' and 'compostable' bags. These are all types of degradable plastics.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics can be as harmful to nature as their non-biodegradable and non-compostable counterparts if they do not enter an environment that they are designed to break down in. Oxo-degradable bags break down into microplastics. At present all compostable shopping bags are made of plastic (either fossil-fuel based or bio-based such as from cassava or corn starch). Bio-based bags are manufactured through synthesis of the original plant source into a new resilient material to serve as a carry bag. These bags do not degrade as quickly or easily as the original source.

New Zealand does not yet have the nationwide infrastructure to ensure that biodegradable, oxo-degradable and compostable plastics are collected and delivered to the appropriate processing environment to completely break down into substances that are safe for nature. In addition, not everyone has a home compost bin and those that do are rarely set up with the capacity to process all the compostable bags that they may bring home from shopping. 

Further, these bags are still single-use, and we want consumers to move to multi-use options that can offer a more efficient use of resources over time.

It should be noted that the majority of submitters supported the proposed inclusion of ‘degradable’ bags in the phase out.

Do the regulations apply to my business?

The regulations apply to all retailers in New Zealand regardless of type and size. Under the regulations a retailer is a person engaged in business in New Zealand that includes the sale of goods for monetary consideration. This includes any kind of shop (eg, dairies, cafes, takeaway foods, petrol stations, clothing shops, hardware shops, garden centres).

This also includes:

  • online businesses that sell goods in New Zealand
  • not-for-profit organisations selling goods in New Zealand.

    The regulations are intended to apply to a wide variety of retail situations from farmers markets to large department stores and malls.

Under the regulations, retailers must not provide (ie. sell or give away for free) plastic shopping bags if these are provided to:

  • enable goods which have been sold or given away free by the retailer to be taken away from the point of exchange, or
  • enable goods which have been sold or given away free by the retailer to be delivered.

What is a long-life synthetic fabric multi-use shopping bag?

The regulations do not apply to long-life synthetic fabric multi-use shopping bags.
These are bags that are made of plastic between 45 and 70 microns in thickness and that are either:

  • constructed from nylon, polypropylene or polyester fabric (whether woven or non-woven) and designed to be multi-use, or
  • certified by an entity with the prescribed accreditation as capable of carrying 5 kg over a distance of 100 m for a minimum of 55 uses.

This may include the type of bag that can be folded into a pouch or compacted to fit easily in a handbag, backpack or pocket

What if I have plastic bag stock remaining once the phase out takes effect?

Retailers will have six months to use up existing stock before the regulations take effect.

Unused new bags are good clean feedstock for recycling and local recyclers and plastics manufacturers may be able to assist. We strongly recommend against sending surplus bags to landfill.