Unwrapping NZ’s plastic packaging conundrum

By Andy Kenworthy

Plastic packaging circular innovation - Masterclass Series
In recent months SBN has facilitated an unprecedented collaboration to transform this country's plastic packaging systems.  Here’s some of what we found out.

These days everybody knows plastic packaging is bad news when it leaks into our environment. But beyond that agreement gets trickier. Supply chains rely on how well plastic packaging protects products. Brand managers defend the real estate that carries their catch-phrases. Meanwhile, recyclers understand what can actually be recycled cost effectively. And waste companies deal with what still just goes into a hole in the ground.

Few people know all the details. They change all the time, with new knowledge, new materials and new ways of processing them. And it’s rare for all the various groups to meet together to talk things through.

Concern over plastic in the environment has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2017 China banned the importation of many forms of waste from places like New Zealand. As a nation we had got used to throwing our plastic packaging ‘away’. Then ‘away’ went away. Dumping it on the next willing developing country no longer seems moral. But ‘recycling’ has become a catch-all word. It can mean almost anything. The latest methods of hi-tech remanufacturing. Poor people clawing through smouldering waste piles on a beach.

We are left an obligation. We need to create a plastic packaging system that actually works. It has to be much more self-sufficient.

The Sustainable Business Network has been working on this since 2015. The latest phase of our work began with a ground-breaking report: New Zealand’s Plastic Packaging System – An Initial Circular Economy Diagnosis. This was the first attempt to map the flows of these materials around New Zealand.

The report made multiple suggestions for improvements. This focussed on the development of a circular economy in plastic packaging. This means keeping these materials in continual cycles of use and reuse, rather than struggling with disposal.

All the relevant businesses, sectors and authorities must work together to make the systemic changes needed.

That’s why we created this masterclass series of three, day-long workshops. It was backed by New Zealand King Salmon, Foodstuffs NZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries. Participants included major New Zealand brands, packaging suppliers, recyclers, industry bodies and regulators. We were also joined by experts and innovators in packaging materials.

We based the workshops on themes identified by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), the world leader on the circular economy. The ‘New Plastic Economy’ envisaged by the Foundation incorporates three principles. Eliminating all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovating to ensure the plastics we need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulating all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

We took on the circulation issues in our first masterclass back in July. We shared the latest comprehensive information on what is being recycled in New Zealand. We uncovered what is happening with New Zealand’s plastic packaging. We began developing a pathway for meeting the targets set by EMF’s Global Commitment. This has been signed by many major New Zealand companies. It commits them to work towards 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025.

Masterclass Two in October was all about innovation. Participants worked through the challenging issues around compostable packaging. Together we developed a practical guidance on when and where it should be used. We were updated on the latest innovations in materials, data, products and services around plastic packaging. We began mapping how those innovations could help Kiwi companies meet the Global Commitment.

Finally in November we wrapped the series up with a focus on elimination. This got deep into the details of how business models based on re-use rather than single use could be a way forward.

Kate Haselhoff is SBN’s lead on plastic packaging.

“Thanks to the efforts of all those who participated, particularly our partners. This process has generated a wealth of information and guidance material. This is due to be shared with participants and partners shortly. We are now looking for further partners. This is so we can put together and publish a comprehensive guide, based on all the learning we have done so far. We think this could become a really useful resource. We intend to keep developing this work into next year.”

SBN has also recently completed a national tour promoting product stewardship and product take-back schemes. This work has been supported by the Ministry for the Environment. The Network is continuing to support the development of these schemes. An SBN-led national product stewardship awareness campaign is due to launch early next year. We want it to become the norm for business buyers to ask “what will I do with this at the end of its life?” when buying products.

James Griffin leads SBN’s work on the circular economy.

“These are challenging but exciting times,” he says. “Together we are changing the shape of processes entrenched in unsustainable ‘linear’ practices for too long. The work that we do now will help to shape New Zealand’s future prosperity by accelerating a more circular economy practices within business.”

If you would like to know more about this work, please contact kate@sustainable.org.nz