Plastic is derived from fossil fuels, so buying it supports a climate change inducing industry. It takes hundreds of years to break down in our environment, and is pretty toxic while it does so. And a lot of it ends up out there, floating around. A lot of the rest ends up in landfill, which is a waste in every sense.
But most of us are not prepared to forgo the pleasures and convenience that plastic has afforded us. So what can we do?
On an individual level we can avoid:
- buying stuff with excessive plastic packaging
- the most harmful single use ‘disposable’ plastic items, like coffee cups and food containers
- cheap items that head rapidly for the bin
And where we can we should:
- reuse plastics and recycle properly as a last resort
- use reusable containers
But we all know there are limits imposed on us by the systems around us. Sometimes it’s either apples in a plastic bag, or no apples. Other times you’d need to be a packaging expert to know whether your meat tray is compostable, recyclable or has to go straight in the naughty bin.
That’s why as consumers and business people, we need to work on those systems too.
At the Sustainable Business Network we don’t just bag a certain material. We take a circular economy approach to designing out waste completely. Technical materials like plastics should be retained in safe cycles of use and reuse, while natural organic materials are cycled in and out of safe disposal or compost.
In 2018 we released New Zealand’s Plastic Packaging System 2018: An initial circular economy diagnosis. This highlighted a clear need for a more co-ordinated approach.
Since 2018 we’ve also been working to keep all forms of rubbish, including plastics, out of the Hauraki Gulf. This includes promoting the installation of litter traps in storm drains running to the sea.
In 2019 we established the Plastic Packaging Masterclass series. This aims to radically reduce the impact of packaging in this country, from production to the end of its life. It brought together experts in business, packaging innovation and regulation.
We’re continuing those efforts. We're also working with businesses on sustainable procurement. This includes reducing plastic packaging waste throughout some of the country’s largest supply chains.
So we’re grappling with the use and reuse of plastic, particularly the hard to recycle soft plastics. We’re helping businesses understand all the new packaging materials. Many come with claims of being recyclable or compostable, that require technical knowledge to verify.
There’s a need to check the packaging producers claims and certifications. There’s a need to properly understand the availability of return schemes, reuse opportunities, recycling, composting and disposal. So we’ve broadened the scope of this area of our work to include all types of packaging.
And businesses must tread carefully. Many companies have found themselves committing to ‘sustainable’ packaging systems that work in theory, but not in practise. Customers and the Commerce Commission are now, rightly, on the alert. They're quick to punish those who misstep.
But there are a lot of positive steps being taken.
The Government has declared six priority products for regulated product stewardship under the Waste Minimisation Act. This means that schemes must now be set up around the country to reclaim plastic packaging, tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and farm plastics.
We need to work together as individuals, businesses and through our government to tackle this issue. It stretches far beyond plastic packaging. But as we do so we can produce world-beating business opportunities as well as a cleaner, healthier Aotearoa New Zealand.