Environment Minister Nick Smith says a crackdown on harmful plastics which make their way into New Zealand's waterways will not extend to plastic bags.
Smith today announced that cosmetic products containing tiny plastic particles known as microbeads would be banned in July next year because of concerns about their impact on the marine environment.
The move was welcomed by scientists, though they said New Zealand had been slow to act and further reduction of other plastics was needed. Environmentalists want the Government to go further by banning or taxing plastic bags.
Smith said the Government was targeting microbeads because they could not be recycled and because there was clear evidence of harm to waterways, fish and shellfish.
"There is no practical way that a New Zealander can take the microbeads in these products and somehow sieve them out and prevent them from getting into the marine environment," he said at a press conference in Wellington this afternoon.
"There is not the evidence in New Zealand that a substantive portion of the plastic bags that we use in shopping and other uses end up in the marine environment."
Smith said he would not rule out changes in relation to plastic bags in future, but the Government's focus was currently on a nationwide recycling scheme.
The United States and Canada have already begun the process of banning microbeads, and Australia has threatened a ban if companies do not voluntarily remove them from their products.
New Zealand's cosmetics industry said bans imposed by overseas countries meant most large manufacturers were already phasing out microbeads. Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association executive director Garth Wyllie said products containing microbeads would be "long gone" from shelves by the time New Zealand's ban came into force.
However, Smith said he was surprised by the number of products containing microbeads which were still available.
"I note that some companies have already announced that their intention is to phase them out. I was surprised today, despite those commitments, seeing a very wide range of dozens and dozens of products, everything from shampoos to face cleaners to shaving creams to sunscreen and toothpaste containing these microbeads."
Cosmetics giant The Body Shop said plastics such as polyethylene were no longer used in any of the company's products. Managing director of the New Zealand branch, Barrie Thomas, said the company replaced the beads with natural alternatives between 2014 and 2015.
Scientists with an interest in microplastics praised the Government's move while urging further action.
University of Canterbury senior lecturer Sally Gaw, from the Department of Chemistry, said microplastics were of concern because they were widespread in oceans and had been found in an increasing number of marine animals.
The Government's ban was a "great step forward", she said.
"Further steps will be required to reduce the enormous volume of plastics entering our oceans each year."
University of Auckland associate professor Mary Sewell, from the School of Biological Sciences, said New Zealand was "behind the rest of the world" because many countries had already banned the products.
'NO SENSE' IN USING PLASTIC
Environment Minister Nick Smith announced the ban this afternoon at a press conference in Wellington.
"The problem with microbeads is that they are too small to retrieve or recycle, they do not biodegrade, and that they are mistaken by marine life as food, causing long-term damage to aquatic animals and like fish and mussels," Smith said.
"The use of plastic microbeads in personal care products like facial cleaners and toothpaste makes no sense when there are biodegradable alternatives like apricot kernels and ground nut products that achieve the same results."
The plastic beads were first used in medical treatment, and the ban is unlikely to extend to medical products.
Companies who continued to sell products containing microbeads faced a maximum fine of $100,000.