The opportunity and challenge of China's plastics ban

Plastic bottles ready for shipping.
Plastic bottles ready for shipping. Photo credit: Reuters

China's ban on imports of plastics for processing and recycling is hitting New Zealand recycling companies hard - but it could also force the sector to innovate.

It could mean we start looking harder at a German-style bottle return scheme, or at producers taking more responsibility for the costs associated with the materials they use.

Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage told Newshub recycling companies are currently absorbing losses that will possibly be unsustainable for some.

"The impacts of China's initiative have been more severe than anticipated. That is putting pressure on the recycling sector," Ms Sage told Newshub.

Ms Sage said because of China's initiative, there's been a major drop in commodity prices for plastic material.

Eugenie Sage.
Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: File

"Some of our major recycling companies are continuing to absorb losses and that for smaller companies is potentially not sustainable and putting quite a lot of pressure on."

China had been buying 15 million kilograms of plastic and paper from New Zealand every year for recycling. Some of those recyclables are now being bought by plants in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Others are being stockpiled at New Zealand's recycling processing plants.

But, much more worrying - some plastics are ending up in the landfill. That was visible at the Auckland University of Technology, where students are now being asked to place some plastics in the bin - things like sushi containers that were previously sent away for recycling.

The Minister said a long-term solution will be processing recycling onshore.

"We can't expect China or any other country to take our waste. We've got to make sure the products we are making, using, selling in Aotearoa are of materials that can be reused and reused and reused," Ms Sage told Newshub.

"We've got to think smarter. We've got to look at what we are consuming to reduce waste - to design waste away."

The Government set up an urgent task force to deal with China's refusal to take more plastics for recycling in May.

Eugenie Sage and Scott Simpson.
Eugenie Sage and Scott Simpson. Photo credit: Getty

The Opposition's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson said there's opportunity in China's ban.

"This is both a blessing and a curse. China's decision to basically stop being the world's receptacle for recycling will force change in countries like New Zealand that may not have occurred had China kept taking it.

"We've got a short term issue in terms of stockpiling, but that will force change," Mr Simpson told Newshub.

Mr Simpson said the Government needs to be "far more assertive" in dealing with plastics than it has been.

That exact same claim of a lack of teeth on the plastics problem was hurled at the previous government by Ms Sage.

"Over a decade we've had very little use of the Waste Minimisation Act," Ms Sage said. "We are now committed to using it to its full potential."

Full use of the act could mean more and increased levies for general landfill waste, more government accreditation for product stewardship schemes and compulsory product stewardship for 'high risk' products.

The Waste Minimisation Act was a Private Members Bill introduced by the Green Party's Nandor Tanczos in 2006. It passed into law in 2008.