How valid is the upcoming plastic ban, and will it make any difference? Part 3.
As we were approaching a nationwide ban on key single-use plastic items on October 1, we look at current government proposals pursuing a linear model and ask why as a country, we are continuing to put trash (including your carefully sorted recycling) in the ground rather than prioritising circular alternatives. Our recycling system is broken. We are yet to implement a Container Return Scheme or Extended Producer Responsibility or program.
Phasing out hard-to-recycle plastic takeaway containers
While elsewhere demand for sustainable strategy increases, we question why as a nation, we won’t invest in composting—in a system compatible with the circular economy, that aims to transition towards more balanced environmental and economic systems.
The New Zealand government announced in June 2021 the following single-use plastics will be phased-out between 2022 and 2025.
By mid-2022—Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) meat trays, polystyrene (PS) takeaway food and beverage packaging, expanded polystyrene (EPS) food and beverage packaging, degradable plastic products, plastic drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.
By mid-2023—Plastic produce bags, plastic plates, bowls and cutlery, plastic straws and plastic produce labels.
By mid-2025—All other PVC food and beverage packaging. All other PS food and beverage packaging. More information is available on the Ministry for the Environment website.
The recycling system is broken
This statement from the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor in Rethinking Plastics, ideas for a more sustainable future, summarises why we need to seek alternatives to recycling. “Traditionally, we have relied on mechanical recycling techniques to keep plastic in circulation. These methods have proven to be ineffective for the majority of plastics, with estimates that globally only 9 per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.”
Why are we (our government) not investing in something that works, something that nature designed for us to use—composting? How can our government argue that we should be scaling up our recycling or promoting the use of ‘easy to recycle’ plastics, promoting a linear approach? At a macro level, recycling does not work—91 per cent of plastics globally are not being reused before they end up in landfill, and 90 per cent of locally collected recycling waste is sent offshore. There is no domestic market for these downcycled materials. According to the Ministry for the Environment, much of the 10,000 tonnes [see ‘plastic recycled onshore] of plastic recycled locally is an overestimate since contaminated plastics are not recycled.
You don't want people to think that what they do as an individual doesn’t matter but focusing on takeaway packaging and meat trays is not going to solve the plastic crisis. There are still 380,000 tonnes of plastic waste—annually landfilled in addition to organic food waste where it all sits, decomposing and emitting methane, which is terrible for the environment. We’re shipping off 90 per cent of our recycling, and there’s a financial cost.
There are obvious climate benefits to bolstering the recycling system, but we also must acknowledge that recycling has limitations. With 9 per cent of plastics recycled globally, this system is failing. According to this government report, we’re recycling 10,000 tonnes onshore versus the 380,000 that are landfilled.
What we do know is that composting works. Locally while facilities and programs are limited, they demonstrate the positive impact composting can have across all industries while generating an alternative value-add industry aiming at a circular economy. And so we are going to have to come to terms with a new reality that recycling has failed, and all those compostable coffee cups and meat trays, they need to go somewhere. We need a nation of decentralised compost facilities and fewer landfills.
The need to reuse and recycle raw materials has never been as urgent as it is today
Rethinking Plastics findings propose that the carbon footprint of plastics used in 2050 could be reduced by 93 per cent (relative to the current trajectory up to 2050) by moving to 100 per cent sugarcane-based plastics with 100 per cent renewable energy combined with 100 per cent recycling rates and reduced demand growth.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics allow for straightforward disposal of bio-based plastic items at their end-of-life with the resulting materials used as compost or degrading in the environment.
If we are to adopt mass certified compostable products to replace single-use plastics, composting infrastructure—new processing methods are required to meet market needs fully. Kiwis might want to do better, but with the continued influx of hard-to-manage materials in the waste stream (not targeted by the phase-out) combined with insufficient and ageing recycling and composting infrastructure will pose ongoing challenges for reducing our waste footprint (and meeting carbon reduction targets) in any meaningful way.
Yes, we all need to be more aware of what we are consuming and wasting. However, without significant investment in composting infrastructure, food waste, compostables, bio-plastics—and plastics will continue to fill up our landfills.
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