Recycling won't be enough to save NZ from the plastic plague - report

Recycling won't be enough to save New Zealand from the scourge of unwanted plastic waste, a new report has found - even if it's "radically improved".

Instead, we have to eliminate unnecessary packaging entirely - not just plastic bags - as well as dramatically ramping up reuse and recycle schemes.

"There has been an explosion in the use of plastic packaging in the last 60 years because it is relatively cheap, lightweight and durable," said James Griffin, head of the Sustainable Business Network's Circular Economy Accelerator (CEA) unit.

"Unfortunately, systems to properly manage it have not kept pace. This has led to a global waste and pollution crisis, including here in New Zealand."

Around 25,000kg of plastic is wasted every day in New Zealand, according to a study published in journal Science in 2015. We're among the world's highest generators of waste.

And the oceans around Aotearoa are the most dangerous in the world for seabirds, according to research presented to Parliament's Environment Committee in July.  Worldwide, it's estimated there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the seas - 92 percent of them microplastics, which are easily consumed by unwitting sea life.

"In a circular economy, the life cycles of materials are maximised, usage optimised and at the end of life, all materials are reutilised so that nothing is wasted," the CEA said in a statement. "This presents a viable and prosperous alternative to the dominant linear, 'take, make, waste' system."

A plastic bottle lying on the beach.
A plastic bottle lying on the beach in Auckland. Photo credit: Shaun Lee/supplied

The CEA looked at New Zealand's use of plastic, and come up with 47 recommendations. They include:

  • identifying problematic single-use plastics, and phasing them out
  • expanding the market for recyclable materials
  • developing product stewardship schemes for rigid plastics
  • reducing the number of different types of plastic used, to increase recycling rates
  • supporting suppliers who use packaging with a high amount of recycled content
  • ensuring compostable plastics meet international standards
  • labelling so consumers can choose products made of recycled content
  • better and more consistent collection services.

"Although recycling is a step in the right direction, there's a lot more to be done. We can't recycle our way out of the current situation," said Mr Griffin.

"What we're finding is the system is pretty broken at the moment. That's why there's a whole number of initiatives that need to be coordinated."

The number one priority is getting "problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging" out of the supply chain.

"Reuse models need to be adopted and scaled as an alternative to single-use plastics," said Mr Griffin.

A number of Kiwi businesses have already signed up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, developed by UK NGO the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme. It has a goal of having all plastics reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and companies representing around 20 percent of all global plastics production have signed up.

But there's a problem - China recently "closed its doors to the world's waste". It used to import two-thirds of all the plastic waste in the world, but stopped in 2017 in an attempt to clean up its own backyard.

"The international market for recycled materials has collapsed because China is no longer accepting the quantity of material for recycling that they used to," waste industry group WasteMINZ said in a March 2018 report, Rebooting recycling: What can Aotearoa do?.

"The reduction in demand has seen prices for these and related grades of material fall dramatically… This has meant stockpiles are building up and some material may not be able to find an end market."

New Zealand lacks the capability to process the amount of plastic we produce, the report said, saying Government help would likely be required to create a "closed loop" where the plastic ends up being reused, rather than discarded.

"There are some things that need to happen immediately, including enabling access to funding, and facilitating national communications and data," the report says.

"There are also some things that will take longer, but that will help build a more robust system and deliver a more circular economy."

The full report can be found online here