Plastic bags – the elephant in the room

New Zealanders use around 1.6 billion single-use plastic bags every year which often end up in landfill. But increasingly they are being found in vegetation and waterways.

To try and combat this, consumers, businesses and governments globally are focussing on implementing policies to reduce the distribution of single-use plastic bags.

"Many countries around the world have been [using a bag tax] quite successfully for a number of years and have proven it works.” - Simmonds

Many people were left outraged when more than 8kg of plastic bags were found in the stomach of a pilot whale which died in Thailand last month.

To mark World Environment Day, New Zealand’s Associate Minister for the Environment, Eugenie Sage, spoke of her desire to ban single-use plastic bags, confirming officials were looking at options for phasing them out locally.

This is good news for Auckland firm Ecobags NZ - one of a growing number of businesses offering environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic bags.

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Pic: Jas and Simren Kohli Source: Provided

Founded 11 years ago as a hobby by Jas and Simren Kohli in their spare room, Ecobags is now a full time business, supplying reusable and compostable products to supermarkets like Countdown, New World and Pak’nSave, organic stores nationwide, and the business divisions of Auckland Council (Auckland Zoo, Auckland Libaries, and the Organic Waste Collection bags for the Papakura.)

“Our first big client was Wellington City Library,” says Kohli, an ANZ business customer. “We saw they were using plastic bags and suggested they look at an alternative and use a reusable bag.”

Wellington library is still a client of Ecobags to this day.

From there, the company started to grow and now operates from a warehouse and distribution centre in east Auckland, employing 10 people.

The founders say much of the firm’s growth has come from being able to offer solutions to client’s challenges with current products and providing eco-friendly alternatives at the same time.

“Auckland Zoo wanted a bag that could hold elephant manure. They were using a bag from the US that kept splitting and breaking so they approached us to come up with a better option which we did,” says Kohli.

“We devised a fully compostable, biodegradable bag that was strong and more cost effective. It was a great success.”

Marketing Manager Clancy Simmonds says it helps to be adaptable. “We listen to our customer needs and come up with a solution, quite often a product grows from there”.

Ecobags NZ now offers reusable bags made from canvas, cotton or jute (the second most common vegetable fibre after cotton) typically used for conferences, groceries and in food markets.

They also make drawstring backpacks, string produce bags, and have diversified into compostable bin liners, and poo bags for pets.

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Pic: Clancy Simmonds Source: Provided

ANZ General Manager Auckland and Northland, Commercial and Agri, Penny Ford says “it is exciting to see people embracing a more sustainable lifestyle. It is also exciting to see clients like Ecobags who are delivering sustainable and clever alternatives to products like plastic bags”.

The company sources its bags from Asia and India and has worked with its suppliers to ensure they hold Sedex Certification.

Sedex is a not-for-profit organisation which works with businesses committed to continuous improvement of the ethical performance of their supply chains.

A number of NZ retailers have recently announced plans to ditch single use plastic bags, opening up potential new markets for the company.

That means new opportunities but also new challenges.

“We are definitely seeing the demand for stock - particularly as supermarkets and big corporates are changing. The challenge is to understand and forecast the stock we will need so we can support the growth,” says Simmonds.

Hard to budge 

Despite the growing awareness of sustainable options, simple economics means plastic is not going anywhere anytime soon.

“Moving from a plastic bag to a compostable bag is almost three times the cost so it can be a hurdle for big corporates and organisations using millions of bags to absorb the extra cost,” says Simmonds.

She says compostable and biodegradable bags are not a complete solution to the problem of plastic bags but they are a step in the right direction.

A key factor is encouraging people to change their behaviour.

“One option is to have a plastic bag tax, charging people 10 or 15 cents if they do not bring their own bags.

“Many countries around the world have been doing it quite successfully for a number of years and have proven it works. Research shows a bag tax reduces the number of bags people take,” says Simmonds.

But she says it’s also about educating people including informing people why it’s better to put compostable products in a composting environment, rather than sending it to landfill.

“Compostable products need to be exposed to moisture, oxygen and bacteria whereas landfills are typically kept dry, to minimise methane release,” says Simmonds.

“Compostable products won’t break down as designed in landfill; they need to in a home or commercial compost heap.”

Simmonds believes more composting facilities would help this issue.

“The more New Zealanders are educated and supported to move away from using traditional single use plastics and embark on choosing reusable and compostable products that are composted correctly, the better it will be for everyone’s future.”

Tony Field is a bluenotes contributor.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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