Putting the squeeze on plastic

New approaches to manufacturing and plastics re-use are lessening the load on recycling. Just as well, because China – the world’s largest importer of plastic waste – has stopped accepting 24 types of waste.

Think twice before chucking old plastic toys, foam cups, and plastic takeaway containers into recycling bins. These items, stamped with a number ranging from 3 through 7, are on a list of 24 different types of waste China now refuses to accept. They’re polluting its environment, say the world’s largest importer of waste material.  

New Zealand recyclers are racing to find new markets for plastic waste. But the growing consensus among them is that it’s just not worth it. And now several recyclers are refusing to accept these plastics.

In the meantime, stockpiles of the stuff are mounting. I know of one company that has 1,000 tonnes of waste plastic stored in warehouses around the country, as it waits for new markets to open and commodity prices to improve.

But even if the market eventually bounces back, exporting plastic waste to other countries, a number of which have patchy environmental processes for waste management, is a second rate solution.

Tackling the plastic waste problem

Mounting pressure to reduce New Zealand’s growing pile of plastic has encouraged politicians to propose new industry initiatives, with associate environment minister Eugenie Sage earlier this year suggesting that increasing the costs for dumping waste at landfills could be one way of tackling the problem.

"The levies were reviewed last year and one of the recommendations was to extend their application and to increase them, both to provide an incentive to divert material from landfill and also to help fund waste minimisations," she said. Though exactly when levies are set to increase isn’t yet known.

Ministry for the Environment is also targeting more direct involvement, including product stewardship schemes for tyres and lithium batteries, with other schemes on the horizon.

Businesses getting on board

As new measures take shape, businesses are taking the initiative. Supermarkets are moving to eradicate single-use plastic in their stores. Manufacturers are getting on board too, with Hawke’s Bay drinks company Parkers the first in New Zealand to discontinue plastic water bottles in favour of recyclable cans to hold still water products.

EnviroWaste has contributed to a couple of local projects that demonstrate the potential of a circular plastics economy. One of these projects has assisted start-up company Future Post, who has teamed up with Fonterra to repurpose milk bottles and other soft plastics, to make environmentally-friendly fence posts.

Made from 100 per cent recycled plastics and promising a life expectancy of more than 50 years, the company’s posts go further than simply repurposing waste that would have otherwise ended up in landfill. The post is actually better than the traditional wooden fencepost – it doesn’t split or warp, it is impervious to water, doesn’t require insulators, is organic farm friendly and completely recyclable. Early success has encouraged the company to develop other environmentally sustainable products for farmers.

Growing the circular economy for plastics

Plastic won’t disappear any time soon, because finding alternative materials is prohibitively costly and disruptive. Entire manufacturing processes are built around plastic. Who’s going to shoulder the cost burden of developing new materials and retool manufacturing and packaging processes the world over?

Governments are playing a bigger role in creating conditions that support a circular economy for plastics, encouraging diversion and funding waste minimisation programmes. However, plastics companies must take the lead by increasing their production of plastic material fit for recyclable applications, as well as moving away from single-use products.

New Zealand is well placed to grow the circular economy for plastics. We have established collection and separation processes – and plenty of smart people willing to invest in developing valuable products made from plastic waste.

By Rick Simeon, Taranaki Branch Manager, EnviroWaste

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