Plastics and recycling – time to get organised

By Rachel Brown

Alarming photos of sea creatures strangled by plastic created justified outrage about how we are dealing with packaging and pollution. While Kiwi shoppers have embraced the ban on single-use plastic bags, major businesses here are now working hard on long term solutions.

A recent survey by Toluna found sustainability is a key factor in choices made by a fifth of all shoppers. That rises to a quarter among young people. But New Zealand businesses have a lot of work still to do to make the right choices and make it easier for us to do the right thing.

Right now the way we make, use and dispose of products is an uncoordinated mess. There’s an urgent need to rethink and redesign the products we make together with their packaging, so that it’s easy to buy goods that can be reused or recovered for remanufacture. And businesses must be responsible for their products throughout their life cycle.

At the moment, there’s a massive focus on plastic. Plastic will have a role to play in our society for years to come, but we have to manage it much, much better. China stopped taking imports of low value plastic waste in 2017. That’s prompted an urgent need for better solutions than finding another country to ship it to, or burying it in the ground.

What we need is a circular economy for plastic packaging. This is where these materials are never abandoned to become waste or pollution, but reused again and again.

One challenge is that we don’t even have good information on the movement of plastics around our economy. Most of the information is commercially held. In New Zealand we don’t know how much plastic is imported, how much is recycled and how much eventually ends up in landfill.

We do know our waste mountain is growing, at one of the fastest rates in the world. New Zealanders send 2.5 million tonnes of waste to landfill each year – more than a tonne for every household. That’s a very expensive problem that rate payers and tax payers are paying for.

The good news is the Government is now taking this seriously. In 2018 a Sustainable Business Network report found that Auckland’s economy could be $8.8 billion better off in 2030 with the use of circular economy principles. This would also trigger a significant drop in carbon emissions. In 2019 the Government joined a global plastic packaging commitment. The goal is to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

Meanwhile, regulation is coming. Among other things it will require companies to have ‘product stewardship’ initiatives like take back schemes for plastic packaging. This is a no-brainer, and something we will look back on in years to come and wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.

But we must be bolder. We need new rules on imported plastics. We need a nationwide container return scheme. This will make it worth everyone’s while to keep their bottles and packaging going round and round. We must ban PVC and polystyrene packaging, which are both used extensively for food and drinks. They cause too many problems to be used in the future.

The days when a company’s interest in its products and packaging ends at the shop door are coming to an end. Businesses will need to work hard and move fast to keep up with the changes. But this must be done in a co-ordinated way to prevent costly mistakes.

Crucially, we have to match new solutions with the realities of our country. We need systems that work for New Zealand. Changes at company level need to move in harmony with changes in those systems. We can’t just switch plastics for cardboard if we can’t process the cardboard. We can’t just import new ‘eco-friendly’ materials that our recycling systems can’t recognise or use.

On this, as in so many of our most pressing challenges, the only way to succeed is to work together.

It’s confusing for businesses to know what the right move is, and things change fast. SBN has led the work with 50 organisations to find solutions to the problems with plastic packaging. The result is new best practice guidelines, released today.

To find out how to act, download the report.

This article was first published in the NZ Herald: ‘Plastic piles up in our world of confusion’.