Beyond a plastic free July

By Andy Kenworthy

The Sustainable Business Network is helping businesses meet their commitments to reduce plastic waste and pollution. Find out how you can get involved.

As part of Plastic Free July SBN is holding a webinar on 30 July to update on Covid-19’s impact on New Zealand’s plastic packaging systems. It leads into the next in our series of Plastic Packaging Masterclasses in September. Taking part will help businesses tackle the issues around plastics in this country.

It’s all part of SBN’s ongoing work to accelerate New Zealand’s transition to a circular economy. This is an economy where we design out waste, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.

In 2018 we produced the first diagnosis of New Zealand’s plastic packaging systems. In 2019 we began our series of Plastic Packaging Masterclasses. These workshops unite the thinking of plastic packaging producers, users and policy makers.

Leading businesses, government ministries and local authorities are making progress towards a circular economy. Much of this work has been done with the Ministry for Primary Industries, New Zealand King Salmon and Foodstuffs NZ. Together we’ve created free, comprehensive plastic packaging guidance for New Zealand companies. Foodstuffs and New Zealand King Salmon have also thrown its support behind the next phase.

Kelly McClean is Foodstuffs NZ’s Sustainable Packaging Project Manager. She said: “It’s important that Kiwi brands and retailers have the opportunity to collaborate and learn from one another. We have an awesome team here at Foodstuffs working on improving our packaging sustainability. To do this we need to understand the NZ situation and be open to change. Critical to this is getting on with the implementation – big and small.”

Foodstuffs recently partnered with the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) to build New Zealand’s first electric powered refrigerated truck. And they have rolled out recycled, Forest Stewardship Certified lightweight robust and recyclable paper bags in their New World and Profile Foods stores.

There have been particularly rapid developments since China’s ban on waste imports in 2017. New Zealand banned single use plastic bags in 2019. The Ministry for the Environment is currently finalising proposals for increasing and expanding the Waste Levy. This should provide further incentives for better resource management.

SBN is also working to expand product stewardship. This means products like plastics and packaging are responsibly managed throughout their existence. It can mean more take-back schemes, deposit schemes, recycling points and more. The government is currently working up proposals to make elements of this mandatory. It could mean tighter regulations for the reuse, recycling and disposal of tyres, e-waste, certain gases, agrichemicals farm plastics, and packaging.

SBN is also working with New Zealand’s aquaculture industry on plastic waste reduction from mussel, oysters and salmon farms. And SBN is taking action across the Hauraki Gulf to help reduce the tide of plastic pollution in the sea.

But the issues remain complex. Low oil prices, transport constrictions and tightening regulations have restricted the market for low-value plastics for recycling. This is increasing the pressure for New Zealand to deal with its plastic waste at home.

Lockdown was a stress test for our current systems. It highlighted the need for further change. Some councils almost completely stopped recycling in lockdown. All authorities are continually reassessing what’s worth collecting at kerbside. This is due to facility capacity and continued fluctuations in international plastic prices. Upscaling recycling and reuse could provide much greater stability, and cut waste.

New international waste regulations under the Basel Convention are due early next year. This could further restrict waste plastic exports. Most shipments of ‘mixed plastic’ would need prior consent from the destination countries. Many in South East Asia are already rejecting loads they consider contaminated.

Kate Haselhoff leads SBN’s plastics work. She says: “The pandemic’s had multiple impacts on our plastic systems. It has further illustrated the urgent need to transition to a circular economy. Getting this right will generate vital opportunities for economic growth. It will restore the environment, create jobs, and benefit society. Never has that been more important.”