FILE - A shopper leaves a supermarket with goods in plastic bags in Christchurch, New Zealand,  Aug. 10, 2018.
FILE - A shopper leaves a supermarket with goods in plastic bags in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 10, 2018.

SYDNEY - A tough new ban on single use plastic bags has come into force in New Zealand.   Retailers caught still handing them out to customers could be fined up to $67,000 (US dollars).  But critics say the legislation introduced July 1 does not go far enough.

It is a small country but about 750 million plastic bags are used in New Zealand each year.  Surveys show most people support the ban on lightweight single-use bags that the government says are an environmental menace.  Retailers who flout the law could face heavy fines and shoppers are encouraged to report offenders, while random checks by officials are also planned.  But authorities say their initial approach will be to educate companies about their responsibilities before fines are imposed.   

Eugenie Sage, the associate minister for the environment, says the ban is part of a broader assault on New Zealand’s “throwaway culture.”

“It is progressively making that shift.  I mean, my grandmother never used plastic bags going to the supermarket.  That was what that generation did and I think we are making the shift back to less plastic," she said.

The ban was announced by Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, last year, and regulations that came into force Monday apply to any type of plastic less than 70 microns in thickness.  Supermarkets had already begun phasing them out.  Garbage bin liners, nappy bags and pet waste bags are exempt.

Critics, however, insist a loophole will allow retailers to continue to sell reusable heavier grade, but more environmentally-harmful plastic shopping bags.

More than 50 countries, including Bangladesh, China and France, have brought in laws to ban or restrict the use of lightweight plastic bags.

Canada says it will ban "harmful" single-use plastics as early as 2021.