Taking responsibility for our soft plastics
Recycling Week starts on 21 October, with the aim of making New Zealanders more aware of what we buy, what we throw out, and how we all contribute to the transition to a waste-free country.
It’s a good time to reflect on how we as consumers can navigate the complexities of recycling in New Zealand, particularly when it comes to soft plastics.
Firstly - it’s important to note that not all plastics are created equal. Plastics numbered 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) are easiest to recycle, while 3 – 7, including soft plastics (3 and 4) are low value, hard to recycle and therefore harder for recycling companies to convert to a profit. So while recycling is a critical factor in dealing with our soft plastics, we have to focus on reduction as well.
First, a quick history. New Zealand has local recycling options for glass, separated paper and cardboard, aluminium and hard plastics. However, we have relied on China to dispose of large quantities of our waste, particularly mixed paper and plastics. This kept our waste out of sight and out of mind, a situation which came to an abrupt end in 2018 when the Chinese government stopped accepting waste materials.
The fact that such material was being exported in the first place came as a surprise to many Kiwis; but since 1992, China has bought 45 per cent of the world’s plastic waste for recycling. In 2016 New Zealand sent $21 million worth of waste to China, made up of $8.2 million of plastic, $3.1 million of slag, and $9.7 million of paper. As of early 2018, New Zealand had no onshore processing of post-consumer soft plastics at all. The Soft Plastics Recycling Scheme (run by the Packaging Forum) sent recycled materials to Australia; but following the ban in China it was so inundated with material the scheme had to be temporarily suspended.
It seems unlikely that China will lift its ban anytime soon. On one hand this presents New Zealand with a major domestic soft plastic recycling shortfall, on the other, it’s an opportunity to reconsider and rethink what we do with our waste, and how much we create in the first place.
We have made progress: there are now two domestic recycling operations for soft plastics – Future Post in Waiuku, which recycles plastics into fence posts, and Second Life Plastics in Levin, which takes waste plastics and turns it into cable covers, ducting, buckets and plastic sheeting. The Soft Plastics Recycling Scheme is back up and running in Auckland and Hamilton, with collection points in various outlets.
However, given the limited geographies of the recycling scheme, the solution has to include creating the best possible domestic recycling options but, ultimately, to reduce our consumption in the first place.
Auckland Council have five useful tips to help you get started:
- Look at the options when buying a product. Look for ‘naked’ alternatives or products with packaging that can be re-purposed or recycled.
- Put your produce directly in your shopping trolley and then straight into a reusable shopping bag at the checkout. You don’t need to use plastic bags for each item.
- Bring your own reusable containers when grocery shopping. Check with your local butcher, delicatessen, or supermarket and ask if they will put meat and other deli foods in your reusable containers. Buy food, pet food and cleaning products in bulk from bulk bin outlets and put them in reusable containers.
- Use reusable beeswax food wraps instead of plastic food wrap and snack bags. These are made from cotton, keep food fresh, are simple to clean, and can be washed and re-used for up to 12 months. At the end of their life, beeswax wraps can be composted if you have a home compost bin.
- Use your voice. If there are ‘must-have’ items on your shopping list that have soft plastic packaging, take the time to drop a line and ask the manufacturer if they will consider alternative packaging options for their product.
Want to share your tips on how to reduce the use of plastic. Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.