NZ's plastics challenge: Four solutions to piling up waste

New Zealand has a problem with plastic. There's too much of it. It's filling up our landfills, our oceans, there are piles of the stuff at recycling plants waiting for a buyer. 

China's stopped buying our plastics, putting a spotlight on the plastics used and discarded in New Zealand.

Obviously, the most effective way to reduce waste is to create less of it in the first place - buy foods wrapped in fewer plastics and say no to the straw. Realistically, though, we are going to keep using things that create waste, a large portion of which could be recycled far more efficiently than it is at the moment.

Here are some options. The funnest option comes first.

A money-back scheme for recyclables

Remember when you were 10 and would finish a soft drink and read "return this bottle for a 10c refund in SA" on the label and yearn for the pocket money?

A container deposit scheme is a form of "polluter pays" legislation - beverage suppliers provide the refund the consumer receives when they return the container, as well as covering associated costs. 

If someone litters the container, someone else could benefit by picking it up and receiving the refund - and that reduction in litter is one of the scheme's main benefits.

Just 40 percent of New Zealand's beverage containers end up recycled, according to a report from Envision in 2015. Part of the problem is many drinks are consumed outside the home, and the container goes in the nearest bin, instead of being recycled. 

In South Australia, where a container deposit scheme's been running since 1977, there's an 80 percent return rate on containers. Charities and community groups raised $60 million through clean-up projects last year.

The Government is considering introducing a similar scheme here.

Environment Minister Eugenie Sage told Newshub she's asked officials for advice.

"They certainly reduce litter, and they encourage the recovery of containers. We still have this problem of once we recover the containers we need more on-shore processing.

"It's definitely an area we're interested in. Not ready to go with any schemes at the moment, but looking hard at how they are being used overseas, what makes them most effective and then what products would you apply it to?"

Eugenie Sage (left) is Associate Minister for the Environment, in charge of waste. Scott Simpson (right) is National's Environment spokesperson.
Eugenie Sage (left) is Associate Minister for the Environment, in charge of waste. Scott Simpson (right) is National's Environment spokesperson. Photo credit: Supplied

National's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson told Newshub National doesn't yet have a position on a container deposit scheme, though the party's considered it.

"We in New Zealand already have a reasonably efficient and effective kerbside recycling system, and if you take the valuable commodities out of the kerbside recycling, which are the aluminium cans, the bottles, that means the whole economic viability of kerbside recycling diminishes, so you might have a great container deposit scheme operating but a less effective kerbside recycling scheme," he said.

Make the general dump more expensive to encourage recycling

In New South Wales, it costs $130/tonne to take waste to landfill in urban areas. 

In Auckland, it's $10.

Ian Stupple, general manager, Waste Solutions at Auckland, says that's far too cheap.

"A large chunk of what goes into landfill can be recycled or recovered," he told Newshub.

"That's things like building materials - rubble, timber, plastics, food wastes and green waste. The reason it goes into landfill is it's cheaper to throw away than it is to reuse or recycle it."

Auckland Council wants to increase the levy, with the increased funds used to support recycling infrastructure.

Ms Sage told Newshub currently only 10 percent of dumps in New Zealand impose the levy, and she's looking at expanding it. 

Consumer pressure

Everyone always talks about the power of the consumer to bring about change.

Along with the plastic bag, the hitherto humble straw has become an emblem of waste produced by single-use plastics. Along the Wellington waterfront, restaurants and bars have voluntarily banned the plastic straw, with other central Wellington businesses following suit.

National's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson says as public awareness of the harm caused by single use plastics increases, producers will be pressured into coming up with less harmful packaging solutions.

"That's not just locally - that's all around the world," he said.

Ms Sage agrees. "Consumers have enormous power in their choices. The phasing out of plastic bags at Foodstuffs and Countdown is an example of that power, she said.

A plastic bag floats in the ocean.
A plastic bag floats in the ocean. Photo credit: File

"Moving away from our current economic model" - product stewardship

There's a lot of talk of product stewardship in waste circles. That's where producers have to take more responsibility for the waste they create.

Usually when we buy stuff, the taxpayer or ratepayer picks up the long-term cost of the waste through local landfill and recycling schemes. Product stewardship schemes mean producers have to think about their products' long-term cost to the environment.

That can mean you, buyer, pay more when you purchase the product.

"It's about moving away from our current economic model, which is using resources from nature and then throwing them away, to more of a take, think about how we are going to use them and ensure they are designed to be unmade and the components reused at the end of its life," Ms Sage told Newshub.

She said she's asked the Minister for the Environment to look at making product stewardship compulsory for tyres, lithium batteries and agrichemical waste.

It could also mean discouraging producers from choosing plastics that are more difficult to recycle - the 5s, 6s and 7s that were being purchased by China and are now being stockpiled while the global market readjusts. 

"I think we probably need a narrower pallet of things that are reused. The 5s, 6s and 7s are much more difficult to reuse, whereas PET plastics can be recycled [in New Zealand]," Ms Sage said.

Mr Simpson, thinks the Government needs to be "far more busy" when it comes to product stewardship, though he believes any action it does take needs to be done carefully.

"This Government has a pretty ideological approach to most things, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if they didn't come down on the side of a pretty heavy handed regime," Mr Simpson said.