I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in Aspen, Colorado this February. A number of features in this wonderful part of the world caught my attention – the glorious mountains, the number of private jets parked at the airport, the marijuana shops (observation only) and the rugby field in the middle of town. But what really struck a chord was the fact every sales assistant in every shop, when I bought something, asked if I wanted a bag.

From the supermarket to stylish boutiques – everybody asked. There was no automatic assumption I should have one. The supermarket (there is only one) charged for paper and plastic bags. It was kind of a badge of honour not to get one. And why would you? Our self-catering accommodation provided re-useable bags. And what was wrong with putting your chic new purchase into your own tote?

I’m embarrassed to confess but I was one of those knockers back in 2009 when my local supermarket tried to charge five cents for single-use plastic bags. Not for me I huffed, and anyway I was recycling, the grocery bag was used to line the kitchen rubbish bin. The supermarket chain dropped the charge within a matter of months because of “customer feedback”. The Warehouse and Pak’nSave started charging and, to their credit, still do for single-use plastic bags.

In the US, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago and Seattle have banned disposable bags, other centres charge fees. Interestingly, California became the first state this year to pass a ban on plastic bags in stores. But the law is on hold because the plastics industry under the guise of the “American Progressive Bag Alliance” submitted a petition with more than 800,000 names, which means it must go to a referendum.

But many businesses in California have supported the ban because they are concerned about the impact of plastic litter on the environment and tourism. Does this ring any bells for a country like New Zealand, which bases so much of its economy on tourism? When local government officials, not known for their radical thinking on these matters, say we should be charging for single-use plastic bags, you know it’s an issue that’s hit the mainstream. Which makes Environment Minister Nick Smith look behind the times when he says he’s not giving a levy or ban any consideration.

A new government-backed scheme to recycle soft plastic bags is a move in the right direction, but it’s out of step with where the rest of the world is heading (or even Australia from which the programme is based). Which is a shame. 100% pure plastic is a long way from where we should be.

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday. She says there are strong parallels between consumer advocacy and journalism.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme, an alternate on the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commission and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.