NZQA won't scrap plastic on exam papers despite Auckland teen's campaign

Every year, thousands of New Zealand students rip through disposable plastic to sit their exams - and that's not expected to change this year.

One student's petition last year gained almost 5600 signatures and drew the attention of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, but the qualifications authority is holding fast.

"I think that's ridiculous," 18-year-old Inka Pleiss told Newshub. "We need to take action now, to make sure the environment isn't ruined for the future."

Ms Pleiss' campaign was picked up by multiple media outlets across the country and sparked discussion. Even Ms Ardern seemed to be on board, as well as local National MP Simeon Brown.

"[Ms Ardern] said it was awesome to see young people taking initiative like that and she was fully on board with the idea of being environmentally friendly, and being encouraging around the environmental activism."

A year on, there hasn't been much change. When contacted by Newshub, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) stressed the plastic is completely degradable.

"As an organisation, we look at our footprint and work to ensure our everyday practices are as sustainable as possible," said NZQA deputy chief executive of assessment
Kristine Kilkelly.

"This is the more environmentally friendly option for us at present."

Part of Ms Pleiss' campaign highlighted how the plastic wrap needs specific conditions to degrade, including heat and light, which it wouldn't get in a landfill.

"Even if they're not willing to change to alternative methods, just having a structure where schools can send back the plastic or an instruction for how they can get rid of their plastic, so it can actually biodegrade, would be really cool."

Auckland student Inka Pleiss
Auckland student Inka Pleiss wants to see change. Photo credit: Supplied

Ms Kilkelly acknowledged there was a communication issue with the schools which saw a number of the wraps dumped in the trash and not disposed of properly.

"After receiving a query about our use of the degradable material last year, we have identified that we need to communicate with the examination centres about how best to dispose of the material," she said.

"Examination centre managers were given information on the best options for the disposal of the degradable flow-wrap and were requested not to dispose of the flow-wrap in the general rubbish.

"These options included disposing of the plastic flow-wrap through the soft plastic recycling bins or placing them in their school's compost."

However schools don't seem to have received the message.

After last year's exams, Ms Pleiss went around several of her local schools to collect their rubbish wraps. Many were planning to throw the plastics into the landfill and weren't aware of the special requirements for them to biodegrade.

Now Ms Pleiss has big plans for the rubbish - more than 3000 wraps, weighing about 13kg.

"Early next week, we're going to march down there and give it to the NZQA head office," she said. "I'm hoping that will just open their eyes to the fact they are having an huge impact.

"It's all good and well to see the numbers, but to actually have physical proof of an issue is so much more confronting."

Working with Mr Brown, Ms Pleiss also hopes to present the petition to Parliament.

A student sitting at a desk, writing notes.
Thousands of New Zealand students sit NCEA every year. Photo credit: Getty / File

"He helped me write a foreword so we could use it as an actual petition to go to Parliament, and he put his signature to it," she said.

"It's really awesome to see that he's so on board with it."

While there aren't any immediate plans to scrap the wrap, NZQA confirmed its time is limited.

"When looking into alternative options, we have to consider the security of the examination papers inside each candidate's exam pack as well as ensuring the papers are protected from the elements," Ms Kilkelly told Newshub.

"As we move towards more digital examinations in the coming years, our use of the flow-wrap material and paper will minimise."

NZQA isn't the only organisation to come under fire for its use of disposable plastic recently.

In July, a Government ban will see supermarkets forced to stop giving away single-use plastic bags.

A number of supermarkets have already willingly withdrawn their bags as a result, with reusable bags available at most checkouts.

"Whilst the focus is on the use of plastic shopping bags, we are mindful of our use of the disposable plastic and hence are continuing as a priority to look into alternative options," Ms Kilkelly said.