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The future of convenience

The future of convenience


Have you ever needed figures to make the case to change anything? This article is that. Here we look at why recycling reforms are not the answer, why more recyclable plastics are not either and how moving away from petrochemical plastics not only presents value creation opportunities for your business but is necessary.


The future of convenience is not plastic. It cannot be. Only 9% of plastics are successfully recycled, according to this 2022
OECD report. And as countries commit to climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement, mandatory climate reporting is introduced and demand for net-zero suppliers, inevitably industries and business must transition from extractive to regenerative materials and resource management solutions. Yet the petrochemical industry expectation is ever-increasing demand for plastics, in-line with the growth rate experienced since 2010, 4% growth. Such a growth rate would mean doubling demand within 18 to 24 years. 

Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short says OECD

If plastic were a country, it would be fifth highest emitter in the world and that is at current production rates, where around 9% of extracted oil is used to make plastics. From 2020 to 2040, BP expects plastics to represent 95% of the net growth in the demand for oil. In the International Energy Agency (IEA)  projections, plastics are the biggest single source of demand growth, representing 45% of the total. 

Some 16,000 chemicals are using in plastics. And more than 4,200 plastic chemicals linked to health and environmental risks. Yet, there have been virtually no guidelines or regulations on the design of plastic products. So today we have cheap materials that emit carbon dioxide, air pollutants and are a source of chemical pollution (microplastics) and terrestrial leakage, or plastic that ends up as rubbish on land. 

We actually don’t know how much plastic is in use

This is in part due to to the fact there are zero reporting requirements to measure plastic use and disposal by material type in Aotearoa New Zealand. So it is impossible to find a figure that quantifies the amount of fossil fuel plastics used in takeaway packaging. The government does not know with certainty the volumes of plastic products in use. 

Plastic pollution is a global issue but according to the World Bank’s 2018 global review of solid waste management, we are one of the most wasteful nations in the developed world, disposing of an estimated 159 grams of plastic waste per person each day, and ranked number tenth globally for municipal waste generation per capita. Our waste per capita is well above the OECD average and was projected to remain this way unless drastic measures were implemented.

Source: https://www.pmcsa.ac.nz/ 

Takeaways are big business and they still use a lot of plastic

In 2019, as reported by Stuff, McDonald's was serving 50 million plastic straws annually to its customers. This is one chain. And that is a lot of plastic straws landfilled. Better Burger shared in this 2020 newshub article that they had, in two years saved the production of four million units of fossil fuel plastic packaging by using commercially compostable packaging. And when desposited in-store the packaging was composted. Better Burger suggested that if they could do it [switch to compostables] with their whole range, then why [everyone else] not start with straws. It was not until 2023 that plastic straws were banned and everyone else had to.

Aotearoa, New Zealands’ packaging declaration

The New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration (launched 2018), is an independent initiative aligned with the Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme. The Declaration is a commitment (currently not legally binding under the Global Commitment) to have all packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 or earlier. We’re halfway through 2024.

It was this declaration that prompted the 2019 single-use plastic bag bans and subsequent recycling reforms (February this year), the October 2022 and July 2023 single-use plastic bans. Further phase outs have been postponed to 2026, in contradiction to the Global Commitment. A 2022 Mfe consultation document on transforming recycling estimated a 28% recycling rate which is low despite councils increasingly spending taxpayer dollars (roughly $226m each year) on waste management to achieve climate obligations.

Source: http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications

Plastic recycling was flawed from the beginning

As long as virgin plastic is cheap, Aotearoa, New Zealand has no viable end market for recyclable materials. The costs required to recover and process these plastics has already increased in the context of an industry facing a downturn in export prices due to oversupply. Oily stains and food residue further complicate processing and given it is too costly to separate and clean these materials contamination results in recyclable materials landfilled. 

The strategy essentially was to generate more waste so it could be recycled, assuming that markets for recyclables would expand,and that this market  would make municipal recycling systems manageable financially. And while this remains true for aluminum and glass, it is not for plastics. The loss of recycling markets in China specifically created a significant issue. Now we have too much material extracted at too high an environmental cost that has created ecological issues but human health disorders. Plastic is not just in our oceans, the fish, it is in our blood, in our rain.

The future and reaching current packaging and climate targets

Single-use packaging is more than takeout, or quick service restaurants. It is supermarkets, airlines, stadiums, and the cafeterias in our universities, workplaces and hospitals. There are businesses who have already removed fossil fuels from their packaging, who are spearheading this change ahead of plastic legislation. In reality, from increased charges to landfill, recycling and other waste management costs, cheap plastics materials become less and less compatible with an economy that prioritises circularity where materials are kept in closed loop systems. Recycling is not that.

Do you believe business can be done better? We do

We can however reconcile our need for plastics protection and convenience properties with the imperative to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. With mandatory climate disclosures or voluntary climate reporting, for some businesses it will be a non negotiable. No one needs packaging that lasts 400+ years for their takeout.

If you have yet to remove fossil fuels from your business send us an email at hello@ecoware.co.nz.

Does your business have mandatory climate reporting obligations? Find out how we can help.

In our next article we will look at mandatory climate disclosures and how compostable packaging can decarbonise your value chain.