Not Commonsense: Our Stance on NZ’s Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative

17 January 2018

At Commonsense, we're passionate about reducing waste... so why aren't we getting involved in New Zealand's Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative? Put simply: we don't think it's tackling the issue in a meaningful way. Read on to find out more. 


photo of plastic bags with knots tied in them.

Charging for plastic bags is the best way we know to reduce their use

Did you know that more plastic was produced in the last ten years than during the whole 20th century

At Commonsense, we charge our customers 20c for single-use shopping bags (except for our Kapiti store: they don’t provide shopping bags!) Why do we do this? Well, charging for single-use plastic bags has been shown to be the most effective way of drastically reducing their use. After a small charge on plastic bags was introduced in England, use dropped from 7 billion to 500 million. That’s 85% less bags! This also generated £29 million cash (over NZ$50 million) which was donated to good causes.

At Commonsense, we donate the money raised to organic gardening schemes in decile one schools. In the future, we’re working towards having only home-compostable shopping bags in all our stores. 


NZ’s answer: The Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative:

While all the signposts point to charging for plastic bags in Aotearoa New Zealand, the government still thinks it's better for us to advance through ‘active encouragement’ rather than a levy. The plastic industry lobbied for no charge for plastic bags, and our Government conceded.

Instead of a charge for plastic bags, our government has donated $700,000 to run the Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative. Who’s been asked to run the initiative? The plastic industry.

To some, this may seem problematic. But, regardless of the process, does the scheme actually work?


So, does the Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative work?

The Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative (SPRI) encourages people to recycle their soft plastic bags and packaging in bins at participating supermarkets.  

The SPRI recycled 25 million plastic items last year. Which sounds great… until you realise that Kiwis use 1.5 billion bags every year, meaning that the SPRI achieved a recycling rate of 1.6%.

While we can’t make a direct comparison between plastic shopping bags in England and all soft packaging in Aotearoa, the difference between a reduction of 85% and 1.6% tells us their scheme hasn’t yet cracked the problem. 


Check the fine print

Despite our qualms about the scheme, the SPRI is still the only recycling option available for soft plastic in Aotearoa New Zealand, and we looked into joining it in 2017.

We were disappointed to see, however, that while the SPRI website states that it “takes all soft plastic bags”, it also states that it doesn’t accept degradable, bio degradable or compostable bags. 

We were also required to join the Packaging Forum – which is the lobby group for the plastics industry. It seemed a little contradictory to pay a minimum fee of $2,500 to support the work of a group whose views we oppose. 

Overall, we feel the scheme leaves a little to be desired.


Extended producer responsibility: where producers deal with waste

At Commonsense, we support a mandatory charge for plastic bags. We also support the concept of extended producer responsibility, which is where manufacturers and brand owners are held accountable for the waste their product and packaging creates.

There is no current legal requirement in Aotearoa New Zealand for producers to have a recycling programme in place for their products. At Commonsense, we believe this would be a much more effective option for decreasing waste.


The Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative? It’s just not Commonsense. 

To sum up: charging for plastic bags is the most effective way to minimise plastic waste. The plastic industry in Aotearoa lobbied against charging for plastic bags, so the NZ government instead supported them to set up the Soft Plastic Recycling Initiative. The SPRI is currently recycling 1.6% of shopping bags, which isn’t an impressive result. In fact, some people might call it greenwashing. We think that charging for plastic bags and implementing extended producer responsibility is where Aotearoa should be heading if we want to tackle this issue in a meaningful way.