Recycling is broken, but there is a better way

Reports of a plastic-infused rubbish heap the size of France, floating in the Pacific Ocean, is one of many shocking images driving renewed interest in recycling. But mounting piles of bailed plastic waste is evidence of a broken system likely to undermine consumer trust in recycling, never mind exacerbate environmental harm. What can manufacturers do to up their sustainability game and win back consumer confidence?

Plastics get a lot of bad air play. The skeletal remains of seabirds and the colourful heaps of plastic they’ve ingested provide highly emotive images – and serve as a fearful reminder that the same material contaminates the human food chain. And when famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough weighs in, describing the world’s oceans as a vast toxic soup, it’s clear we’re in trouble. The size of the problem is only getting bigger – plastics in the world’s oceans are set to treble in the next 10 years.

More consumers want to do the right thing, taking cues from recycling symbols to ensure recyclable food containers and packaging end up in a recycling bin. But what consumers don’t realise, is that many New Zealand recyclers simply outsource the waste problem further downstream.

Many so-called recyclers might be better described as bailers and commodity sellers, who simply send discarded plastic to buyers offering the highest per-tonne price for recyclable material. China, until recently the world’s largest importer of scrap, has woken up and decided it is no longer a dumping ground for the world's waste. China’s State Council is seeking to “ban importing solid waste” permanently by the end of 2020, in a move designed to hold local and provincial governments accountable to Beijing’s efforts “to improve overall environmental quality and ensure a significant decrease in pollutant emissions by 2020.”

The announcement spurred a collapse in recyclable commodity prices for waste and a tightening of controls across other principal markets for recycling in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Thousands of containers bursting with recyclable material are piling up on wharves, with many abandoned now that their cargo is valueless.
It’s clear that New Zealand has to deal with more of the plastic waste we produce. So what can we do?

Addressing the problem of plastic waste requires a broad-based approach that spans both front-end minimisation of plastic-based manufacturing inputs, and end-of-life-recovery, within a closed system. We call it a sustainable circular economy, which a number of our customers have embraced, to help shrink their environmental footprints.

The idea puts manufacturing inputs, particularly plastic packaging, in the spotlight. A critical evaluation of plastics in your business sheds light on their role in waste and recycling, uncovering opportunities to modify plastics inputs – perhaps even spurring a change of suppliers – to ensure waste from end-of-life plastic offers the raw material for new manufactured products.

Confidentiality agreements prevent me from identifying specific customers who have adopted processes that underpin circular waste management, but let me broadly outline two examples that EnviroWaste has helped architect and manage.

Plastic bottles represent a significant chunk of recyclable material, but not all plastic bottles are equal. Sourcing bottles with the right plastics classification ensures their suitability as raw materials for our plastic extrusion plant, at which point discarded bottles are reconstituted as new packaging. This means the investment customers make in procuring the right kind of plastic bottle, and its disposal, helps subsidise the creation of plastic packaging for new retail items. We’ve completed similar projects for bulk bags and cardboard.

The approach creates a genuine circular economy, whereby local manufacturers create valuable points of difference by offering more sustainable products that are cheaper to package. Equally, suppliers of plastic packaging that satisfies the demands of sustainable product manufacturers are also part of this virtuous loop which, in turn, distinguishes their own packaging solutions.

Sustainable or circular waste recovery and reuse shapes a number of customer initiatives geared to reaching zero waste to landfill by 2020 – an ambition that fits in principle, if not time-line, with Auckland Council’s zero-waste by 2040 vision.

There’s a lot to think about – and many places to look. Circular recovery isn’t available to everyone, but that doesn’t mean a critical evaluation of plastics in your business won’t uncover new opportunities for plastics waste minimisation and reuse. Start your journey to a more sustainable future by examining the following five areas:

Behavioural: segregation at source
New service: onsite/offsite composting for organics and other recycling /reuse options
Communication: staff training and awareness
Service provider: advice on waste industry trends and opportunities
New technology: technology to deliver zero waste to landfill

By Dave Elder, General Manager Market Development, EnviroWaste

Pictured below, recycling being sorted at the EnviroWaste operated Materials Recovery Facility in New Plymouth.

SM MRF New Plymouth 7