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Plastic recycling is not a circular solution. Compostable packaging is, so why are we not talking about it?

Plastic recycling is not a circular solution. Compostable packaging is, so why are we not investing in composting infrastructure?


Last year when the Ministry for the Environment published Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa, it felt more like upcoming legislation would support the status quo, leaning on recycling and the need to increase efficiencies rather than prioritising circular solutions like compostable products.

However, there were several recommendations aimed at boosting the profile of compostable packaging, focused on education and supporting the industry towards circular economies. This included  on page 15 a recommendation to “Run national  public  awareness initiatives on plastic  pollution,  recycling and  biodegradable  or  compostable plastics” as part of the government agenda required “immediately—to stimulate change by 2021.”

A screenshot of a case study published in Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa that provides opportunities for reducing the carbon footprint of plastics.

On page 164, the Ministry confirms that 100% sugarcane — and, by extension, other certified compostable plant material packaging play a vital role in reducing the carbon footprint of single-use plastics and convenience culture. Yet depending on documentation, positioning is either supportive or dismissive of compostable products in achieving waste and carbon reduction targets.

Rethinking Plastics lacks clear information and effective legislation

In 2021, multinational and local businesses signed the NZ Plastic Packaging Declaration and/or the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, pledging to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in local operations by 2025. And on page 15 of Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa, there are recommendations or, rather, requirements if we are to meet these 2025 obligations.

— e) Strategically invest in or incentivise the development of systems and infrastructure to deal with our plastic waste onshore to support the best practice outlined in 4a and new schemes developed through  4c, including but not limited to: 

  1. i) Onshore recycling of PET, HDPE, PP and possibly LDPE 
  2. ii) Segregation of industrially compostable plastics.

— g) Manage non-recyclable, non-compostable and non-biodegradable waste plastic in modern landfills (coordinate with 6f)

— h) Develop and implement biodegradable and compostable plastics standards (align with  4a).

No further announcements have been made regarding the development of compostable standards. 

When Transforming Recycling was presented to the public for consultation, The Ministry was seeking feedback for the following:

— a container return scheme

— improvements to curbside recycling 

— the separation of business food waste

There was no mention of compostable products or discussion concerning the management of these products in landfills or providing unified council collections — opportunities that were discussed in previous Ministry papers.

Image showing the flow of plastic in and out of Aotearoa New Zealand published in Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa.

Aotearoa has not yet developed efficient reuse and recycling systems

It's estimated that nationally only 28% of our recyclable materials are recycled, and the rest goes to landfill. The Ministry for the Environment admits that part of the issue with low recycling rates is related to the fact that councils act regionally and that no national strategy exists for recycling or dealing with waste material in general. 

In contrast, on page 41, the Ministry suggests that councils “support institutions in their district to work together on collaborative projects to reduce plastic use or help to establish facilities that can improve the quality of materials for recycling or composting facilities that accept compostable plastics.” Relying on collaborative efforts is unlikely to lead to a unified national approach to waste management.

Image depicting correct bin labelling at the Matakana Markets.

READ: Preparing your business for the single-use plastics phase-out

Page 46 of Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa suggests actions local councils could take to support recycling in their region, which includes public education and standardised bin labelling. A photograph of the Matakana Farmers Markets is used to demonstrate the point, and it exhibits certified compostable packaging. 

On page 47, it is suggested that “When establishing new waste management systems (e.g. food waste collection), lessons should be learned from the current recycling fragmentation and that a nationally consistent and coordinated approach should be taken. If so, this would require councils to send kerbside organic collections to compost facilities that accept compostable packaging, as not all do. But more could. 

Italy’s bioplastics industry

Italy is an excellent example. Their waste reform legislation provided opportunities for reshaping the current state of waste management infrastructure and systems. In 2011, Italian industries producing compostable packaging established a trade association to eliminate fake compostables and boost the compostable industry from material innovation to transformation.

Italy switched to biodegradable and compostable bags, away from plastic, in 2011 — Aotearoa did not ban plastic bags until 2019. And in doing so, the facilities dealing with organic waste realised it was also efficient in reducing plastic contamination. So in Italy, there are organics bins, and you can put certified compostable packaging and food scraps in these. It is a system that is very well understood. 

With around 100,000 tonnes of compostable packaging consumed in Italy, producer contributions amount to approximately £20 million a year, ensuring that what is sold onto the Italian market as compostable is, in reality, compostable and that those materials are effectively collected and treated in plants where their value is maximised as carriers for food waste to generate energy and to return to the soil as organic carbon and nutrients. We could do that here. And oil-based plastics represent 99% of all plastics that tax-payer dollars fund disposal.

READ: What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable?

We produce a lot of plastic, ending up in our ecosystems, food chain and eventually our bodies. A circular approach is critical in alleviating pressure on the Earth. We will not get there by encouraging businesses to use PET plastics, of which 99% start with fossil fuels — petrochemicals.

The predominant narrative regarding composting infrastructure and programmes throughout Aotearoa is largely absent. Without nationwide collections and appropriate incentives to encourage existing facilities to accept commercially compostable packaging, infrastructure will remain insubstantial but not incapable of handling certified compostable packaging. Being “circular” is about remedying the inefficient use of natural resources, products and materials. It is a question of clearing away the concept of “waste” and recognising that everything has value.

Our business rationale for an accelerated transition to circular economy

We aim to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by optimising the lifecycle of our materials and products from the point of manufacturing and recycling to decomposing. Compostable packaging provides the benefit of diverting biodegradable waste from landfill to ‘greener’ streams such as anaerobic digestion and composting, contributing to a circular economy. 

With 13 facilities and ten collection partners across Aotearoa, via our Compost Collect Programme, we have effective, reliable and ecological ways of recovering food scraps and packaging for composting. 

Our objective is to reduce plastic pollution, effectively diverting waste from landfill and encouraging businesses to adopt sustainable practices. If you are looking to remove petrochemical packaging from your business, send us an email at