Farewell to plastic: key take-outs from our Conference

By Fiona Stephenson

The End of Plastic As We Know It’ brought together more than 300 people to learn how to tackle one of the biggest issues of our time. We came away with our hearts and minds stimulated, and inspired to act. Here’s what we learnt.

Plastic is the poster child for our throw-away culture. It has snowballed into one of human-kind’s greatest challenges, and it touches us all. It affects almost every aspect of business sustainability – from waste and energy to supply chains, procurement, transport, carbon, wellbeing and more. It’s an issue we can’t ignore.

At the Sustainable Business Network’s 2019 national conference, we watched footage of microplastics in the ocean. We heard from government about upcoming policy. We learnt about scientific advances. We were inspired by businesses that have been plastic-free from the get-go. We heard about corporates tackling plastics in their supply chains. We took an early-morning walk to reflect on the ancient waters under Queen Street. We saw life in the waters of the Gulf and learnt about its mauri. We workshopped solutions. And we came away inspired and galvanised to work together to tackle this mammoth issue.

The video ‘Turning Around our Plastics Problem’ was created for the conference by SBN and the Royal Society.

Here are some of the key themes that emerged during the day.

The problem is urgent.

In a short window of our time on Earth, humans have created a colossal problem that is polluting our home at hereto unknown rates. Once hailed as a ‘wonder’ product, we have changed our relationship with plastic so that, for packaging at least, it’s now normal to use it for a matter of minutes and then throw it away. We don’t have systems that can properly re-use or recycle it, so the mountain of plastic waste is growing – on land and in the ocean. It breaks down into tiny particles that are now invading ecosystems and our own bodies. We don’t yet know the full ramifications of this, but there are grave concerns. What’s more, plastic is made from fossil fuel, so when we manufacture it we’re exacerbating the climate crisis.

Something’s got to change, and fast.

Take a look at these sobering statistics:

  • We have created more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic. That’s equivalent to over a billion elephants or more than 330,000 Titanics.
  • Of all plastic ever made, only 9% has been recycled.
  • 10% of all plastic ends up in the ocean.
  • We each ingest more than 40,000 pieces of microplastics every year.
  • 40% of all plastic made is packaging. Most of this is only used once and is then thrown away.
  • 295 million disposable cups (mostly lined with plastic) go to landfill every year in New Zealand.
  • On average each New Zealander uses 30kg of plastic packaging per year, including 242 plastic drink bottles.
  • Without significant intervention, by 2050 plastic production will represent 15% of the global carbon budget – that’s more than flying.

We need a completely redesigned system for plastic.

Change happens when we change our way of thinking.” – Peter Thorne, Reclaim

The plastics packaging system in New Zealand isn’t working.

At present there is no requirement for recycling to be considered by manufacturers and there’s only a viable market to recycle plastics types 1 and 2 (PET and HDPE). There are also different recycling systems in different parts of the country. This makes it confusing and difficult for people who want to do the right thing.

The end of life of a product must be built into the cost of manufacture, to ensure that recycling, recovery and re-use take place. At the moment this is dependent on market prices and most plastic doesn’t have a high enough value to be recycled. We need to design from the outset for recovery, to stimulate a circular economy. Labels must be simple and guide best practice. We also urgently need better ways to track these resources.

In designing a new system we should pay heed to the wisdom of tangata whenua. The concept of sustainability isn’t new to indigenous thinking and there is much we can learn from Maori values, recognising our role as kaitiaki.

Upcoming policy changes will help shift the system.

“Aotearoa is at a pivotal point where it MUST change its relationship with plastic.” – Hon Eugenie Sage, Minister of Conservation and Associate Minister for the Environment

Regulatory changes are afoot which will accelerate change. This includes the Government’s proposal to make product stewardship mandatory, initially for six product streams – crucially, including packaging. Product stewardship is when producers take primary responsibility for the full life cycle of the products they make. But we all need to play a part.

The current landfill levy at just $10 a tonne is woefully inadequate and gives little incentive to avoid tipping our waste ‘away’. The Government will circulate a discussion document before the end of the year on proposed changes.

A framework for action exists.

Life cycle analysis should guide our choices. It can inform product stewardship.” – Professor Juliet Gerrard, Government’s Chief Science Advisor

Once upon a time there were three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. Now, make that six. These six Rs are the guiding principles for a new plastics economy, and we need them all – this isn’t a case of ‘pick and mix’. So add the following Rs to your lexicon:

  • Refuse
  • Reuse
  • Reduce
  • Redesign
  • Recycle
  • Renew

Life cycle thinking is a useful framework to help businesses identify key areas to focus on. It looks at all stages of a product from resource extraction to manufacture, transport use and end of life.

Small innovators are leading the way.

“The key to change is business because it is quicker to act and respond to consumers than Government.… Small innovators can lead the way by showing corporates how it can be done.” – Brianne West – Founder, Ethique

The economy is changing, which means there’s opportunity out there. And with our entrepreneurial mind-set and ‘clean, green’ values, New Zealand is fertile ground for growing sustainable start-ups. It’s no small effort to get a viable business off the ground, so let’s support the innovators who are showing us a way out of this plastic mess.

Some businesses have built their business model around the elimination of plastic. Again Again is a system of reusable cups that make it easy for people to grab a coffee on the run without ending up with a single-use cup. In just six months, it diverts 50,000 cups a month from landfill.

Ethique produces beauty bars in solid form, avoiding the need for plastic bottles or plastic packaging. It has prevented more than four million plastic bottles from being made and disposed of.

Critical Design turns plastic waste into valuable, beautiful and functional products, such as furniture and homewares.

Revology uses natural fibres such as flax to create objects like chairs.

Meanwhile, other businesses that have been operating for some time are retrospectively eliminating plastic. Designer David Trubridge has cut out plastic from his product designs and packaging.

It’s a behaviour and perception issue.

“We need to move away from the concept of ‘waste’. If we think of waste as materials or resources, we are less likely to throw it away.”
Barbara Nebel, Thinkstep Australasia

The issue isn’t necessarily plastic itself – it’s what we do with it and where and when we use it. For example, with the ubiquitous coffee cup, the problem isn’t the cup itself but with the behaviour that lies behind it. People’s desire for convenience trumps their care for the environment. So we need to focus on changing that behaviour.

Our obsession with ‘stuff’ lies at the heart of the sustainability challenge. We need to rethink our spending to stop buying more and more things. Instead of buying new, let’s make our dollars circulate in a different way – by sharing, hiring and buying second-hand. If we do buy new, we need to choose quality products that are made to last. As consumers we have power to determine what’s in the market.

This is a challenge for us all.

We have to do it together. The power is in all of us.” – Rachel Brown, Sustainable Business Network

The plastics problem affects so many areas of our lives and business sectors that no one can solve it on their own. We need manufacturers, designers, artists, the media, teachers, government, communicators – and we need them to work together. We have to learn to collaborate.

We also need to involve all generations. Young people bring new ways of thinking to the table – and we can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s ways of thinking. Yet there’s also a place for the wisdom that comes from years of experience. We have much to learn from each other.

Whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, we need a vision of hope.

“Our challenge is to share what we know with others who don’t understand or care enough to act. Together we can change the system.” – Rachel Brown, Sustainable Business Network

Watch videos of the conference

Videos of the conference speakers are now available to download. They are free for conference attendees and cost $20 per session for others (or watch all four session – the full conference – for $60).

Options include:

Full Conference

Introduction/ Plenary Session

Eliminate! Session

Innovate! Session

Circulate! and Closing Sessions

Find out more

Check out our photo albums of the Conference and the Ocean Plastics Field Trip.

Watch coverage of the conference on Newshub (TV).

Listen to an interview with Phil Jones on RNZ about the Conference and Ocean Plastics Field Trip.

Read our report on New Zealand’s Plastic Packaging System, the first analysis of its kind.

Read the Royal Society’s report on Plastics in the Environment.

Watch thinkstep’s videos of their conference highlights and Cradle to Cradle workshop.

What next?

If you’d like to take part in practical plastics workshops, come to SBN’s Plastics Masterclass series. This takes a collaborative cross-sector approach to untangle NZ’s plastic packaging system. Contact kate@sustainable.org.nz.

Join our new product stewardship campaign.

Follow the sage directive of David Trubridge and join New Zealand’s next climate strike on Friday 27 September.

 Thank you …

to the inspiring, knowledgeable expert speakers:

Minister Eugenie Sage, Phil Somerville, Raquelle De Vine, Barbara Nebel, Nada Piatek, Brianne West, David Trubridge, Juliet Gerrard, Monique Kelly, Florian Graichen, Rui Peng, Peter Thorne, Kelly McClean, Louise Nash, Kath Dewar, Devina Shetty, Camden Howitt, Phil Jones, Andy Kenworthy and Rachel Brown.

and to the generous sponsors:

In particular Conference Partner Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED), and Conference Supporters thinkstep and Ministry for Primary Industries. You can view the Conference photo gallery here.