The country’s biggest bulk wine supplier has begun turning gigantic flexibags into plastic fenceposts. But the fencepost manufacturer protests that a lack of government funding is barring the way from doing so much more, reports Phil Pennington for RNZ.
Multinational giant Hillebrand spent months trying to find a recycler to complete the lifecycle: to take a huge heavy-duty plastic bag used to transport 20-plus tonnes of wine on ships, and turn it into a post used to hold up grapevines.
It has turned to a small Waiuku company, Future Post. Waiuku is a rural town 65km south of Auckland.
“They’ve been pestering us for a little while to get this done,” Future Post managing director and ex-farmer Jerome Wenzlick said. Tests showed it would work. The double shifts at his factory do not not even have to wash out the bladders. “That’s the other part of what’s great about here, is we don’t have to put everything through a wash plant,” he said.
“We didn’t really have any problem apart from the size of them. We just have to manually cut them into smaller pieces because they’re quite large.”
More commonly around the country, the 24,000-litre bags are being dumped in landfills after just a single use.
Hillebrand, which exports 3000 bags of wine a year, said they were recycled in the markets it sent them to. Initially, the company spoke to RNZ, but then referred all queries to its marketing department in Europe.
It imports about 700 flexibags.
Turned down twice for funding
Wenzlick aims to handle all of those as he expands. He set up from scratch a couple of years ago, but questions why the government was not doing more to help meet the urgent recycling demand and provide Covid-recovery jobs.
“We’ve done this off our own back from the get-go, done it all out of their own pockets. All I know is that it would be bloody great if we did have a bit of a hand because we could expand a bit quicker than what we already are.”
He has applied twice to the Waste Minimisation Fund. “We’ve been denied, I don’t know why. It’s a little bit confusing ‘cos we are doing everything they want us to do. May as well do it here instead of sending our waste overseas.
Tyre recycling proposal rejected for funding
Chris Copplestone is another who got no backing from the fund in his case for a tyre recycling system that, in trials, recovered 99% of the materials.
It was hard to know if applicants faced a level playing field, Copplestone said. “They don’t engage with you, unless they have chosen you.”
Instead, $16 million went towards a $25m project in which Fletcher Building subsidiary Golden Bay Cement plans next year to begin burning up to 60% of the country’s waste tyres at its kiln.
“It will be the first time end-of-life tyres have been used for fuel in New Zealand,” Golden Bay Cement said.
But for Copplestone, an inventor and director of the Growing Group, this showed the fund played it too safe.
“It does appear to me that it is simply a fund that is more targeted at big companies rather than targeted at innovative solutions,” he said. “My guess is the government is so scared of giving an award to a company which then falls over and them being politically blamed.”
This year the waste minimisation fund awarded $12m to 23 applicants assessed by an independent panel.
The environment minister has a call, too, on where the funding goes.
The Environment Ministry has not yet released the winners’ names but said the 2020 round focused on essential services such as food recovery, distribution and recycling, and projects to create jobs, amid the pandemic recovery.
Future Post did not get a grant and was frustrated in its aim to set up in the South Island so it could “make posts where the plastic is,” Wenzlick said.
“I don’t know enough about how that [fund] is run. All we’ve been focused on is recycling plastic without getting into the whole politics of it,” he said.
The recycling of flexibags – or lack of it – is part of an argument going on in the global freight industry, about the environmental wisdom of the increasing reliance on giant plastic bags made from fossil fuels.
The early flexitanks in the 1970s were made of rubber, reusable, lasted about 10 years, and were very expensive.
Polyethylene brought the price down, and use surged, with estimates that two million tanks are now shipped annually, and 90% of those are single-use only, especially if they have been full of chemicals, sticky food or oils.
Wellington consultant Dr Barbara Nebel has compared shipping wine with flexibags, versus traditional bottles. “The overall carbon footprint of the flexitanks was a lot lower simply because of the weight of the bottles,” Nebel said. “And the end of life of plastic didn’t really have that much of an impact.
“Because if you put a plastic bag into a landfill, it doesn’t have much of carbon footprint because it just sits there,” she said.
Recycling still beat dumping a flexibag in a tip, she said.
As for innovation with flexibags, one idea floated to RNZ was to re-use them for water storage in dry times.
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