The ongoing project to dramatically cut New Zealand’s plastic waste takes another step forward on July 1, with a raft of new bans coming into effect.
First there was the plastic supermarket bag ban in 2019. Then in October 2022 the first phase of the Waste Minimisation (Plastic and Related Products) Regulations 2022 began, and plastic drink stirrers, plastic stems on cotton buds, and polystyrene takeaway containers were phased out. Now more plastics are being removed from our daily lives. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s being banned?
Plastic fruit stickers, plastic straws (for most people), single-use plastic produce bags and single use plastic cutlery and tableware (ie plates and bowls). There’s more detail about each of these, including exceptions to the rule, on the Ministry for the Environment’s website. Notably, single use plastic straws can continue to be used for people with disabilities who find the bendy tubes essential for them to be able to drink. The straws will be available at pharmacies as well as restaurants, and patrons are allowed to ask specially for straws, but they cannot be displayed publicly.
Bans on all these items mean that providing, selling or manufacturing them is illegal from July 1.
What are the alternatives?
Cloth or string bags instead of plastic bags for produce (just remember to take very light veges out before weighing them); reusable or biodegradable cutlery and plates; metal or silicone straws; compostable stickers instead of plastic ones. There are already heaps of reusable and returnable container schemes in place, like Again Again and Reusabowl, as well as takeaways and cafes often providing their own alternatives.
Liam Prince, chair of the Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance, says the July changes are a good sign, but only a small step. He notes that alternatives to single use plastics are imperfect. “Sometimes people switch to an alternative that isn’t better, like reusable bags made of polyester that you get at supermarkets,” he says. Polyester is another form of plastic. “You have to use those a certain number of times to make them a better option than the plastic bags. And there’s other sources of plastic; you stop having soft plastic floating around, but you have more microplastics that those bags shed.”
While it’s important to consider the resources used to manufacture packaging – either single use plastic or its alternatives – Prince says there “is too much focus on materials, like paper or plastic or metal”. Instead of asking which material is most sustainable, he says “we should question the system we use to package something and create waste. Could we manufacture more locally so it doesn’t need as much packaging to protect it? Can we create more systems where businesses are able to take containers back and reuse them?”
What do I do if I still see these plastic items out and about?
Businesses are required to comply with these regulations, and the Ministry for the Environment will support businesses who continue to use single-use plastics in their operations. Eventually, if a business doesn’t comply it will be fined up to $100,000 under the Waste Minimisation Act 2008. (This is government speak for “we will help you as much as we can and if you can’t be helped you will have to pay”.) There’s an online form where you can narc on non-compliers.
Who’s paying for this?
Businesses have to pay for the cost of complying with plastic regulations as part of their operations, just as they spend money to make their spaces and bathrooms accessible or make sure that people who buy alcohol are over 18.
What differences am I going to notice in my day-to-day life?
Well, you’re going to have to start remembering to keep a reusable produce bag or two inside your big supermarket tote. But let’s be honest: can you pinpoint the date when single-use shopping bags were banned? (It was 1 July 2019.) Do you remember the day plastic cotton buds disappeared from your life? (1 October last year.) Or did these changes just become part of the texture of your life as you got used to the reams of brown paper bags stuffed in the space between your fridge and the wall? Chances are that you’re not going to notice much of a difference after the first few times you forget your reusable cutlery.
What about all the other kinds of plastic waste?
These regulations are consumer focused, Prince points out. There’s a reason for that. “The highest number of littered items in our environment are from food and drink packaging,” he says. “The consumer stuff is really big for environmental pollution.”
Still, the government’s approach is definitely a slow one. “If we go item by item for every kind of plastic material, it’s going to take decades,” Prince says. Even after the ban of some of these items, lots of plastic packaging will keep being sold with items inside it.
Other sources of plastic like construction waste and medical waste take up more of the waste streams by weight, Prince notes, especially in landfills. “We need to do more around those forms of waste,” he says. But dealing with construction waste is someone’s job, at least. Lightweight and pervasive plastic consumer waste can be harder to tackle.
So what’s next on the list?
Other single use packaging, presumably. The Ministry for the Environment website remains slim on the details of the next phases in the plastic ban. At the time of writing it just says “all other PVC and polystyrene food and drink packaging is to be phased out”, from mid 2025. Note that the legislation doesn’t account for pervasive sources of plastic waste such as textile waste, which often contains plastics and has limited options for being recycled in New Zealand at the moment.
What impact does plastic have on the environment?
Let’s start with their manufacture. “Ninety-nine per cent of plastics are made from fossil fuels,” says Prince, and oil companies are betting big on that continuing to be the case. While plant-based plastics are being developed, manufacturing raw materials into plastic remains incredibly energy intensive. Plastics New Zealand, an industry group, says the plastics industry uses 1.8 petajoules, or $66m of electricity each year. “The production of plastics is skyrocketing … if we continue at this rate, we’ll need the equivalent of hundreds of coal-fired electricity plants to manufacture plastics [worldwide] by 2050,” Prince says.
As well as the climate impact of manufacturing and shipping plastic around the world, colouring and moulding it is an intense industrial process that requires toxic chemicals, including the notorious BPA. These chemicals make it more difficult and expensive to recycle plastic and impact human and environmental health, even if Coca-Cola are advertising their switch to clear Sprite bottles as a waste win.
While the plastic problem is enormous, Prince is hopeful. He points to the global plastics treaty agreed in 2021 and currently in process, which aims to develop a legally binding agreement to address the full lifecycle of plastic, from manufacture to disposal. New Zealand is part of the UN negotiations. “Like climate change, plastic pollution doesn’t have borders,” Prince says. “New Zealand can do lots to reduce our impact but it needs global action.”