I find myself in the curious position of sympathising with a company reneging on an environmental promise.
Foodstuffs announced yesterday that the charge on plastic bag was to be optional, and that they would not charge people for plastic bags if they object.
Get Real, a New Zealand organisation campaigning for the elimination of disposable non-biodegradable plastic bags have labelled the move a farce and who could blame them? The scheme led to a reduction in bag use of 50%, or 40 million bags and long may that reduction continue. What that 40 million statistic, provided by Foodstuffs’ MD Tony McNeil, illustrates is the huge number of bags used in New Zealand.
Why is this a problem? Firstly, they are made from a non renewable resource that is in fairly high demand, is becoming rather expensive to extract, and when supply becomes scarce compared to demand civilisation will have some serious issues to face. Secondly, they are outrageously prolific (a forty million reduction since the campaign started one month ago, for one organisation in NZ, and that’s only half of their output?!) and non biodegradable. if you haven’t heard of the North Pacific Gyre, hopefully you will think of it every time you use a plastic bag now. Plastic bags have an external cost; one that is not borne by the cost to the consumer (especially when they are free!).
So why do I sympathise with Foodstuffs? Because they were taking steps to do the right thing, they were not supported by the government, and as a result were threatened with losing business. A company should not lose business for trying to reduce an externality that is by no means exclusive to them. National refused to impose a mandatory charge on bags when the idea was raised. Nick Smith: ‘National’s position is that there are sensible, voluntary initiatives that we can take to reduce plastic bag usage.’
That’s one sensible, voluntary initiative that is being abandoned because of its voluntary nature. National’s approach? ‘…encouraging more environmentally friendly behaviour with financial incentive rather than through regulation or prohibition.’ The only financial incentive at play here is the one encouraging Foodstuffs to abandon a good policy.
This is a clear indication that a voluntary approach does not always work regulation or prohibition would put all retailers on an even playing field, instead of punishing those trying to do the right thing.
– Maynard J