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Plastic waste in the Philippines – Daniel Müller/Greenpeace
Plastic waste in the Philippines – Daniel Müller/Greenpeace

ScienceDecember 8, 2019

Cheat Sheet: A chance for NZ to lead the world in cutting back on plastic

Plastic waste in the Philippines – Daniel Müller/Greenpeace
Plastic waste in the Philippines – Daniel Müller/Greenpeace

The government will start phasing out polystyrene packaging and beverage containers in response to a major new report calling for a nationwide rethink on plastics in New Zealand, PM Jacinda Ardern announced today. Here’s what you need to know about the announcement, and the Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa report.

For much of the year, a panel of experts have been examining the role of plastics in New Zealand, and coming up with ways to reduce both plastic use and plastic waste in every sphere of life. Their report Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa was released today, and in response the PM has announced the government will phase out more single-use plastics, including hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene.

Do we really need a report to tell us to use less plastic?

In this case yes, because Rethinking Plastics isn’t just more finger-wagging about using fewer plastic bags. It’s a wide-ranging report that encourages government, industry and the public to question every aspect of plastic usage in New Zealand.

While the report recommends plenty of specific changes that could help us use less plastic immediately, it also calls for the implementation of a National Plastics Action Plan that would guide government thinking for years to come, with the ultimate target of creating a fully circular economy for plastic – one in which plastic use is dramatically reduced, plastic that does reach the market is kept around for as long as possible, and is either recycled or otherwise reutilised at the end of its life cycle.

And what is the government doing about it?

In response to the report, PM Jacinda Ardern announced this morning some “next steps” on plastics. “Our first target will be to move away from single-use packaging and beverage containers made of hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene. Examples include polystyrene meat trays, cups and takeaway food containers. We will work towards ensuring that these are made of high-value alternatives like PET, HDPE and polypropylene, which can be recycled and reprocessed.” She also pledged to accelerate efforts to improve kerbside recycling. Stuff reported this morning that the government also plans to ban plastic cotton buds, single-use plastic cutlery and non-compostible fruit stickers.

Remind me why all this is necessary?

Out-of-control plastic use is one of the great environmental emergencies of our generation. Plastic production and disposal is a major contributor to climate change, and waste plastics – especially particulates, aka microplastics and nanoplastics – are wreaking havoc on our environment and potentially our own health.

A 2017 report estimated that since the invention of plastic, 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic has been produced globally, around 80% of which will have ended up in landfill. Packaging and other single-use plastics are responsible for 36% of the total plastic produced worldwide, with building and construction, textiles and consumer products also making significant contributions to our plastic crisis.

Bales of mixed plastic in Wellington awaiting export (Photo: Nina Fowler/ Radio NZ)

OK, lay it on me. How do we get out of this mess?

The report has six key recommendations:

1. Implement a National Plastics Action Plan

This is the big one – a vision and timeline for New Zealand’s transition to a circular economy for plastics, based on the recommendations below.

2. Improve plastics data collection

It’s hard to make improvements without an accurate baseline, and there is currently no standardised approach to measure or report plastic use and disposal in New Zealand. “As a result,” the report says, “there are large gaps in our understanding of the material flows of plastic through the country.”

3. Embed rethinking plastics in the government agenda

The report has a whole heap of recommendations aimed at getting government to come to the plastics party. These include implementing sustainable plastic policies in government departments and agencies, updating trade policy to reflect best international practice, and launching national plastic awareness and information campaigns.

4. Create and enable consistency in design, use and disposal

The report argues that one of the largest problems with our current approach to plastics is a lack of consistency. Just think about plastic recycling: what’s recyclable in Auckland may not be in Invercargill, or vice versa, and that’s something the report says we need to fix. Along with a raft of suggestions to improve industry standards on plastic usage and waste, the report recommends the introduction of a national container deposit scheme .

5. Innovate and amplify

New Zealand needs more investment in plastic research and innovation, the report’s authors say, and we need to pay more attention to what’s happening in this sphere overseas. The specific recommendations here include a innovation fund to “reimagine plastics” and expos “to highlight and bring together innovative ideas from around the world related to plastics”.

6. Mitigate environmental and health impacts of plastics

A series of recommendations related to the science of plastic use and waste, with a focus on local communities, taonga species and sites of significance to mana whenua; the dispersal and environmental effects of microplastics; environmental and food safety of recycled plastic and new materials; and methods for monitoring nanoplastics (that’s the even smaller, even more potentially dangerous version of microplastics).

That all sounds great, but a little dry. Do you have anything a bit more inspirational?

The Rethinking Plastics does, opening with an extended vision of a New Zealand in 2030 where our relationship to plastic has entirely transformed. And even the most cynical among us must admit it sounds quite nice. “Pretty much everyone has their own keep-cups these days,” it imagines, “and teenagers look at you funny if you don’t have your own meal containers handy too…. Following the landfill audit in 2020, the last of the old‐style dumps closed three years ago, and all facilities are sealed, with leachate treated, microplastics trapped, and waste‐to‐energy schemes embedded in the infrastructure… Aotearoa New Zealand has a goal to be the first country to declare that it is no longer in the plastic age with a target date of 2050 – having reversed the environmental damage a century after the introduction of plastic as a revolutionary new material.”

What do the experts say?

They seem excited. “The Rethinking Plastics report is a call to action,” says Dr Olga Pantos, a senior scientist at ESR who was also a member of the Rethinking Plastics panel. “It means thinking about the environmental and social costs of plastic and making that a central part of our daily lives.”

Keep going!