The Government will extend its plastic bag ban to include thicker bags from high street shops as it moves to rid the environment of plastic waste wreaking havoc with the environment.

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage has confirmed that all single-use plastic bags will be banned by the middle of next year.

The ban, which will apply to all retailers, will include all bags under 70 microns thick. That means all single-use plastic shopping bags, such as those issued by many of the country's chain stores will disappear.

Because of their thickness, the ban will also include some multi-use nylon and polythene. Compostable and degradable plastic bags will not be excluded, and barrier bags for meat, fish, fruit and vegetables will still be allowed.

Advertisement

The ban was flagged by Sage and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in August and today's announcement follows a five-week public consultation.

Sage said the majority of 9349 submissions (92 per cent) supported a mandatory phase-out of single-use plastic bags.

"It is because of the significant problem we have of plastic bags getting into the marine environment and examples all around the world of whales, seals, seabirds, turtles being suffocated and killed by marine pollution," she said.

The decision to phase out a much wider range of bags than just thinner supermarket bags was based on strong public support (78 per cent of submissions) for all single-use plastic bags to be included regardless of their thickness.

"It is the shopping bags with handles, so all the boutique bags as well as the supermarket bags," she said.

"We need to move away from single-use plastics and including the phase-out of up to 70 microns thickness was the most comprehensive way to do that.

She believed that the move, which could be in place by July 2019, would be supported by the community and businesses.

"Many retailers and individuals have already stopped using single-use plastic bags and recent research shows 50 per cent of New Zealanders now say they always bring reusable bags when shopping.

"Phasing out [single-use] plastic bags is very much in line with what the public supported." Photo / Mark Mitchell

"It will be challenging for some people but increasingly the public has recognised that their consumption can make a difference and they can be part of the solution rather than the problem."

WasteMINZ chief executive Paul Evans - whose organisation represents the waste and recycling sector in New Zealand - said the Government had listened to the public.

"Phasing out [single-use] plastic bags is very much in line with what they supported."

Evans was particularly pleased thicker plastic bags had been included in the changes.

When only thin plastic bags, such as supermarket bags, had been ditched in the southern US city of Austin retailers had responded by moving to thicker plastic bags for customers, Evans said.

"That just means more plastic in the environment."

He was also pleased there were no exceptions, which would provide clarity for the consumer.

There was still more to be done to reduce plastic waste, but today's decision was a "bloody good first step", Evans said.

Retail NZ spokesman Greg Harford was pleased compostable and degradable bags had also been included in the ban, as New Zealand didn't have the infrastructure to deal with them.

He praised the Government for showing leadership on the issue, but said discussions would be needed about how to safely dispose of plastic bags leftover in six months' time.

Retail NZ had wanted a year-long lead in to the ban because some retailers bulk bought plastic bags and would still have some in stock when the ban came into effect, although he could not say how many.

"Some retailers are going to be left with bags that are unused."

A Countdown spokeswoman said the supermarket welcomed the impending change.

"All 180 of our stores have been single-use plastic carrier bag free since 15 October and the response from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive. We are certain the national phase-out will also be well-received."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff described the pending ban as "great news", adding plastic bags were "an issue Aucklanders are concerned about".

"Aucklanders love our harbours and beaches and the bag ban is a practical, simple step which protects our environment from a major source of litter and stops hundreds of millions of plastic bags going into landfill each year."

Sage acknowledged the impact on retailers and local manufacturers and importers of plastic bags, which was part of the reason the ban would be phased in over six months despite support for it to be a shorter timeframe.

Talks will be needed about how to safely dispose of plastic bags left over in six months' time
Talks will be needed about how to safely dispose of plastic bags left over in six months' time

She said it would be an enforced ban, using dedicated Ministry for the Environment staff.

"The focus on enforcement will be on helping people make the change, suggesting alternatives, rather than a heavy-handed approach."

But she did not rule out penalties.

"The regulations have yet to be drafted and we want to encourage people to do the right thing. There are penalties for things like litter, but the emphasis will be on encouraging people to find alternatives."

The regulations are expected to be considered by Cabinet next month.

The billion-plus bag problem

• New Zealanders use around 1.6 billion single-use plastic bags every year, which end up in landfills, litter, or oceans, where they can choke animals or break down and enter our own food chain when fish swallow them.

• Globally, humans are each year dumping more than eight million metric tonnes of plastic into the marine environment - that is equivalent to the weight of 24 jumbo jets, or Eden Park stadium stacked with plastic more than 1km high.

• With plastic production having ramped up 20-fold over the past 50 years, scientists say its volume in our oceans could outweigh that of even fish by the middle of this century.