Drink-container return scheme part of recycling plan (Photo: RNZ/123rf)
Drink-container return scheme part of recycling plan (Photo: RNZ/123rf)

The BulletinMay 6, 2022

Is recycling rubbish?

Drink-container return scheme part of recycling plan (Photo: RNZ/123rf)
Drink-container return scheme part of recycling plan (Photo: RNZ/123rf)

A government recycling plan is out for consultation. Will it be transformational, asks Anna Rawhiti-Connell in The Bulletin.


More transformative for recyclers than planet

In March, the ministry for the environment published a draft Transforming Recycling plan. The submission deadline was originally this Sunday but is now May 22. The plan could be transformative for recyclers – because we’re actually a bit rubbish at it. In fairness, this is probably because many of us find recycling confusing. This story on compostable packaging is a perfect example. New Zealand households incorrectly dispose of 178,000 tonnes at the kerbside each year (we put recyclables in the rubbish and vice versa). But will the new plan be transformational for the planet? It’s a fraught subject and critics of the plan say it doesn’t go far enough.  

What’s in the plan?

The draft plan outlines three areas of change. First, improved kerbside recycling and the introduction of kerbside food scraps bins. This will hopefully standardise recycling practices around the country and remove confusion. There’s a bit of a “back to the future” drink-container return incentive scheme but this has a carve-out for dairy products. And there’s a plan to get businesses separating food scraps from general waste. Food waste that goes to landfills releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as it decomposes.

Recycling isn’t quite the planetary saviour we think it is

Recycling creates a sense of agency – we feel like we’re doing our bit. When asked in a recent Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) survey “Which of the following actions do you take in order to reduce your climate change impact?”, 84% of people said recycling. That’s one of the problems though. We conflate recycling with tackling climate change. Its impact on climate change is much lower than, for example, all of us driving petrol cars less. It’s also not really doing the job most of us think it is, especially when it comes to plastic. It places a burden on end-users and we ship a lot of it offshore. I actually looked into it for North and South recently. It started as “What’s going on with recycling?” and turned into “Oh no, plastic recycling is a scam”.

Is recycling a stepping stone to doing more?

There is possibly another way to look at it though, that could add some optimism to the equation. Stuff’s climate change editor Eloise Gibson writes that there’s a theory emerging from the EECA data that recycling is a gateway to taking further action. If you take one action that might be easy, you may take another that could be more impactful in reducing emissions. Perhaps, at the very least, standardising recycling and food scraps collection practices will make things less confusing for tidy Kiwis and may make us more inclined to take further steps that require a bigger change of habit.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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