It's been around for a while, but the term 'virtue signalling' has come into its own of late, in terms of the drive to reduce the amount of plastic we use, and which some of us allow to pollute the natural environment.

For the uninitiated, virtue signalling is defined as the conspicuous expression of moral values — 'Look at me, aren't I good?' Traditionally it has been used to describe religious piety, which makes it appropriate.

The urge to reduce pollution by plastic bags isn't far short of religious zeal in some quarters. Which is unfortunate, because it doesn't address the real issue, and more importantly, encourages us to think we're doing a good thing when we aren't. Meanwhile the real problem continues to grow.

'...because the plastic shopping bag is the one item that lazy politicians can target, confident in the knowledge that they will be seen as responsible and caring, and doing something.'

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

So-called single-use plastic bags undoubtedly have no place in the natural environment, but in New Zealand at least they are not the real villain. Of all the detritus that turns up on Far North beaches, much of which we are told arrives, at least on the west coast, via the sea, the plastic bag is a minor player.

Advertisement

Its role is being overstated, no doubt deliberately, because the plastic shopping bag is the one item that lazy politicians can target, confident in the knowledge that they will be seen as responsible and caring, and doing something.

The bigger problem by far are the ubiquitous plastic bottle and aluminium can. Glass bottles also feature prominently in the Far North. All are easily recycled with a minimum of effort.

And already we are getting signals that banning plastic shopping bags won't be as simple as some are hoping. The government is now asking for submissions, and can expect numerous calls for exemptions.

There is no doubt that in many circumstances plastic bags have a valuable role in society and in business, especially for smaller retailers. For them, eschewing plastic bags will be a significantly greater impost than it will be for supermarkets, for which it will be much easier to find an alternative.

It is the supermarkets that are being targeted, of course, and, never slow to seize an opportunity to be seen as good corporate citizens, they are leaping on to the bandwagon with alacrity. In fact, they know that the bags they give or sell their customers to cart their groceries home in are the least of the plastic problem they are contributing to.

It is all but impossible to grocery shop these days without buying significant amounts of plastic packaging, even when it isn't necessary in terms of product hygiene. It has even become standard practice to wrap some fruit and vegetables in plastic, when clearly they don't need to be, presumably to make them more attractive to customers for whom convenience is king.

We used to buy fruit and veges loose, and many still do, although most supermarket customers probably put them in a plastic bag to get to them to the checkout.

The fact is that we have been conditioned to believe that if it isn't wrapped or contained in plastic, anything we plan to eat might become contaminated somewhere between the producer and our kitchen, so there is no alternative. It didn't used to be like this, and in some cases still isn't.

Go to a butcher's shop, and chances are that your scotch fillet and sausages will be wrapped in paper, the outer player possibly being good old newsprint. No one is suggesting, yet, that if the meat isn't on a plastic tray and cocoooned in plastic wrap it's probably going to have us queuing at A&E. It's simply convenient for the retailer, and unquestioned by the customer.

So supermarkets will carry on disgorging countless tonnes of plastic into the environment every day, and no doubt intend to continue doing so. They don't want to be seen allowing us to take that plastic home in a plastic bag, however, and tell themselves, and us, that by depriving us of that option they are doing our planet a favour. They are doing nothing of the sort.

Even the term 'single-use plastic bag' is disingenuous. Some are single-use, no doubt, but the great majority, surely, are not.

At the very least many are used to line kitchen and bathroom bins, from where they find their way into plastic rubbish bags destined for landfill. Out of sight out of mind, perhaps, and landfilling tonnes of plastic that will still be there in the next millennium might not be ideal, but that's a far cry from littering beaches and choking turtles.

The fact is that plastic has been a very good servant of mankind. The fact that it is doing enormous environmental damage can be attributed to human laziness. If it is true that it is people, not guns, that kill people, it is true too that it is people, not plastic, that is damaging our planet.

In the Far North, of course, rubbish on beaches is more likely to take the form of defunct household appliances, car parts and 'single-use' nappies. (There's a prime candidate for a ban).

However much of the rubbish that turns up on 90 Mile Beach comes from the sea, a great deal is deliberately dumped there, presumably because the people responsible can't afford to dispose of it properly, or can't be bothered.

Getting rid of plastic bags is not going to restore 90 Mile or any other beach to the state they should be kept in. That will require a major shift in attitude.

If the supermarkets really want to make a difference, if they really want to display some social responsibility, they should be adding their weight to calls for a refundable deposit on plastic (and glass) bottles. If they were worth money the recycling rate would increase significantly, and millions would be taken out of the natural environment.

Those who are promoting a buy-back scheme have a compelling case, but no one is listening. The people who produce the bottles certainly aren't, and nor are our politicians, even those among them who profess to care about the environment.

Why not? Because they don't see it earning them the public recognition and approval that they expect to reap by supporting a ban on plastic bags. That won't change until the public and those organisations whose raison d'etre is to save the planet begin agitating. That will make a deposit scheme politically desirable.

The only currency politicians are interested in is votes. There are votes aplenty right now in banning plastic bags, and none at all in ridding the environment of bottles. Until that changes, forget it.

And while it behoves us all to do what we can to care for our environment here in New Zealand, let's not kid ourselves that we can do something that will change the world. Just as we are in no position to do much about reducing the emissions that are supposedly changing the climate, simply because, on a global scale we don't produce enough to make a difference, we could ban plastic in this country entirely and achieve almost nothing.

We are told that 90 per cent of the rubbish in the oceans finds its way there via 10 rivers in five countries. The fact that we contribute so little to the overall picture no doubt has more to do with our small population than our clean green way of life, but, while we really should look after our corner of the planet better than we do, as far as the rest of the world is concerned we can only watch and weep.