There was a British visitor in town yesterday, apparently hosted by the New Zealand Initiative (I might write about his public lecture tomorrow or Monday). I got the impression he was probably a Blairite – very keen on free trade, free investment flows, and open borders for people too, but also keen on lots of government intervention to deal with what he saw as domestic problems.
The visitor seemed to be a fan of New Zealand (or perhaps particularly of the 4th Labour government – in his 20s, he’d worked for Mike Moore at the WTO). We were, he claimed, in some respect the “birthplace of globalisation” – which would have been news to anyone involved in policymaking at the time. He told his audience this curious story, bearing some – but not that much – resemblance to reality about how dreadful New Zealand had been in the early 1980s (and we can all agree that assembling TV sets here was insane) and how New Zealand had “flourished” since then. I don’t suppose he had ever actually had a look at any data, and seen for example that foreign trade (share of GDP) is barely higher than it was back then, that the income and productivity gaps to the rest of the world are larger now than they were then, or contemplated the affordability of a first home.
But one thing you could do in the bad old days – whether Kirk/Rowling or Muldoon – was go to a shop and expect that your groceries – for example – would be packed in a bag provided by the shop. Not just groceries: bookshops, clothes shops, knick-knack shops or whatever. Those who didn’t want a bag – perhaps for a single item – didn’t need to take one. Perhaps back then the bags were more often paper bags, but we now know that paper bags are not only typically more expensive but more energy-intensive than a simple plastic shopping bag. And often harder to re-use (things often don’t store so well in paper bags, and they aren’t very tolerant of liquids).
But, assuming the Prime Minister and her Green Party associates have their way, that simple freedom is soon for the chop. I’ve just come back from the supermarket, having done perhaps two-thirds of the weekly shopping for a family of five. There were 15 bags of groceries, and 16 bags with various different lots of fresh produce. Presumably these all count as the dreaded “single-use” plastic bags, although many will be re-used. And, of course, when I got all the groceries home and arrayed them on the bench in the kitchen, I noticed that all the “single-use” plastic bags (actually often re-usable) would squash down to a rather smaller pile than the plastic in a single three litre bottle of milk (there were several of them). I have no use at all for empty plastic milk bottles, or containers of shampoo, or dishwasher powder. And yet our government proposes to outlaw the simple lightweight useful little plastic bags.
But perhaps the most important thing about the plastic bags I brought home is that when I’ve finished with them (used or re-used) they will all go in the rubbish. None will go drifting down the street, blowing across the beach or whatever. Like most responsible people, I put my rubbish in the bin, whether at home or out. Perhaps the Prime Minister doesn’t? Perhaps James Shaw and Marama Davidson don’t. Perhaps they can’t trust themselves to bring up their kids not to litter? But what right do you think you have Prime Minister – in an ostensibly free society – to tell shops what sorts of bags they can and can’t provide (give or charge for) customers?
I can quite see the case for litter laws. And this is, from the listening to the rhetoric, a littering issue – at least when it isn’t just about virtue-signalling, feeling-good and virtuous, and enjoying taking away some freedom to show we hold power.
So why not tighten the litter laws? Fines tend to lag well behind growth in incomes and prices. Surely it is an obvious response, that deals with the free-rider issues and associated externalities (unsightliness and visual pollution). I’m loathe to suggest more worthiness for schools to teach, but perhaps if Labour and Greens voting parents really can’t be trusted to raise their kids not to litter, schools could add that to the daily indoctrination?
There is a consultation document available on the Ministry for the Environment website. I haven’t read it yet, so I’m not sure quite what the limits to this authoritarianism are: is the Prime Minister also proposing to ban (for example) single-use rubbish bags, or selling salads or rolls or supermarket cooked chickens in plastic wrap/bags? But I did electronically search the document on the off-chance that it contained any serious economic analysis, let alone a decent cost-benefit analysis. There was no sign of either. Which probably shouldn’t be surprising – par for the course with, for example, the climate change consultation, let alone the (unconsulted) oil and gas exploration decision. I guess it doesn’t matter. If it feels good they’ll do it.
It is strange to think that Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw could soon have one hankering for some simple freedoms of the Kirk/Muldoon years.
As a mark of how sold-out the public service apparently now is to the wishes and feelings of the government of the day, there is also on the MfE website a cutesy little questionnaire – of the sort I’ve seen a few times now on various agency websites. Here was MfE’s
Totally loaded one way, and no room at all for my answer: I’d change shops at present to avoid those which don’t provide packaging. The local supermarket tried out a plastic-bag free Friday last year. It didn’t last that long, but while it did I actively avoided the place on Fridays.
And all because the PM and her followers can’t pick up their rubbish, and won’t punish more heavily the transgressors who litter. Or because they simply have no respect for the simple freedoms of buyers and sellers, whose choices hurt no one else.
21 thoughts on “I’ve just been shopping”
Yes, I agree. My supermarket has stopped providing plastic bags so I go around the corner to the greengrocer, who still does.
Since you grew up in Christchurch Michael
Peninsula and Plains
ISBN 0 7233 0010
Whose High Country?
a history of the South Island high country of New Zealand
Should be 4000 cattle
How many plastic bags do the cattle use?
I’ve become used to leaving the cloth bags in the back of the car – so won’t be all that bothered – and there are always cardboard cartons to reuse and/or the ability to buy more cloth bags at the check out. So the inconvenience doesn’t bother me at all.
But non-investigation into the policy problem being addressed does really, really bother me. I would have preferred the Government considered legislative changes to all supermarket/consumer product packaging in order to make real improvements to waste minimisation – a current crisis of utter governance failure in NZ.
I curse the sheer amount of unnecessary packaging crap I have to throw out and feel entirely hypocritical when I recycle the balance of it, knowing full well it simply adds to a useless stockpile of plastic somewhere.
A ban on shopping bags alone is laughable given our real problems with solid waste likely relate to the packaging of the stuff contained within them.
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we use our supermarket bags as rubbish bags. have OIA in to find out what % of them pollute environment and what are their alternatives for households
95% of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from just 10 rivers, all in the 3rd World, so our ban won’t make a wit of difference. Same as our Zero Carbon Act.
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I understand that plastic bag users will be banished to provincial gulags to plant trees
I will mourn the loss of them, as I used them for food storage and rubbish bags, but the fact remains that single use plastic shopping bag use needs to be controlled. I expect I will end up buying bags from the supermarket in one form or another, suited to whatever use I want to put them to. They are so inexpensive that even on a low income they are affordable.
I don’t begrudge the change, as I can’t see a more effective way of reducing the harm from them. They are definitely among the most harmful forms of plastic, as marine life sees them as food.
How do you propose to enforce any change to litter laws when far more serious crimes are already a very low priority?
Perhaps the visitor from the UK could have told you that since charging 5p a bag began, a study has shown a drop of around 30% in the number of them found on beaches. I expect banning them altogether will be much more effective.
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I’m an economist, so tend to run with a view that pricing is a better (less inefficient) than outright bans. from what I can see, a tax (or even a requirement on retailers to charge separately for plastic bags) is not even seriously evaluated in the consultation document.
I’m not convinced there is a policy problem in NZ. Perhaps there is one in some developing countries where litter is a huge issue, but not in NZ. I haven’t seen the government make the case to the contrary and (as I noted in the post) there is no cost-benefit analysis provided.
On the low income issue, note that there is also no proper distributional impact assessment in the consultation document, but even MfE acknowledge that consumers on low incomes may be an issue, and consider that new subsidies may be required.
I guess I have two bottom lines:
– one is about freedom of choice (willing buyer, willing seller),
– the other (perhaps more important on a public policy blog) is the utterly shoddy policy process. If there is a robust case to make, make it, and demonstrate the net benefits. Without such analysis, it suggests the advocates either know the numbers wouldn’t stack up, or just don’t care.
On littler laws, we enforce what we care about (at the margins). I personally don’t think there is too much of a littering problem in much of NZ (of course, I’d prefer less), but the government thinks otherwise. 40 years ago, owners let dog defecate freely on footpaths, and then some combination of laws and societal norms substantially changed behaviours.
I tend to think of bags along the same lines as DDT, the lead in petrol, and CFCs in aerosols, so the choice seems simple to me. At an estimated 750 million used a year, if only a very small percentage ‘escape’ it’s still a huge amount.
The policy is still in the formative stages, so I hope a more robust case can be made, but I do note we are hardly world leaders in banning the bag. Bangladesh and South Africa have already done it. Given their economic woes, I expect they must have seen it as a pragmatic decision.
If you haven’t been to the Tairoa Heads Albatross sanctuary and seen the videos of the contents of the stomachs dead albatross – plastic, and realise these birds go nowhere near the Northern Pacific Garbage Patch and Pacific Gyre
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Off Topic … can you clarify
Nick Tuffley interviewed last night on the effects of the sudden depreciation of the NZD firmly suggests the fall will be inflationary. As you have been a long advocate of a lower exchange rate, and if that is inflationary, how can it be proposed that the NZD is too high AND the OCR can and should be lower at the same time
Two strands to a response.
The first is that, all else equal, Nick is right about the prices of imported goods (most obviously oil/petrol). But the Reserve Bank’s past empirical research tends to show that falls in the exchange rate don’t really tend to be inflationary (especially past a few quarters), and that is because the things that cause the exchange rate to fall are often themselves deflationary (and so the exchange rate is moving to buffer those shocks – whether falls in commodity prices, global recessions or whatever). https://www.rbnz.govt.nz/-/media/ReserveBank/Files/Publications/Analytical%20notes/2014/an2014-01.pdf
If anything, non-tradables inflation has tended to fall in the wake of falls in the real exchange rate.
So the overall situation at present depends quite a lot on what is causing the exchange rate to fall. If it is primarily a (perhaps lagged) reassessment of the NZ cyclical economic situation – the story that seems most likely to me – the immediate effects on eg petrol prices will soon wash thru and if anything we may see lower non-tradables (and overall) inflation a year from now.
In terms of my own story, I’ve argued that we should remove a major source of demand (the rapid population growth). In such a world the real and nominal exchange rate would fall, probably quite a long way. We would get some higher import prices – in a sense a good thing, part of making tradables production more attractive – but the overall dampening in demand would mean that non-tradables inflation (the biggest chunk, and the main RB focus) would, if anything, be weaker than otherwise (unless the Bank reacted very quickly and pre-emptively. It is partly a levels vs rate of change issue: you get a one-off lift in import prices, but no expected boost to non-tradables inflation (and in the transition probably a weakening).
I have been reading the material in cited documents in the consolation document. – the real problem is xmas. Plastic toys are about 240 times worse for the marine environment than supermarket bags
MFE should ban Santa
On albatrosses. they breed in NZ but feed elsewhere — as far as South America
What about legislation to prohibit the use of bags that are NOT biodegradeable? The chemistry of manufacturing plastics from plants is relatively straightforward, and biodegradeable plastic bags are readily available. Indeed, they are provided by some of the more enlightened retailers. Also, some of the more enlightened botttled water companies sell their water in biodegradeable PLA bottles made from plants.
Still better to use price signals to differentiate, but I gather that in this case they propose to ban biodegradable bags as well.
One more example of how far we are down the road to totalitarianism!
Media is reporting that NZ is the 104th country globally to make this decision. Surely this makes us a member of the late majority rather than an early adopter? What value would there be in the NZ government funding further analysis when the case is already clear?
Wouldn’t it be nice if just once NZ was at the forefront on environmental and sustainability responses?
On this occasion media is inaccurately reporting. the consultative document makes clear that there are 104 “jurisdictions” (globally) – jurisdictions include local town councils, some large some small. Councils – here and no doubt abroad – do all sorts of daft things (the debacle of urban land markets and house prices among them!)
I’d really like to see NZ at the forefront of robust policy analysis.
A very useful look at recycling – what is actually able to be re-used locally and what is not;
And the PCE has recently looked at the issue of biodegradable plastics – not very straightforward as to whether these are actually a good answer or not;