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As China shuts its gates to our plastics and paper, how can NZ stem the tide?

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Unless we get serious about recycling, there’ll be a tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025 and more plastic than fish, by weight, by 2050. 

Twenty years ago, people in the small seaside community of Raglan got a wake-up call when their rural landfill closed. It was an old, unlined rubbish dump and had been leaking into local waterways and the harbour. The closure meant the township had to find other ways of dealing with its waste.

Rick Thorpe got involved because he loves the harbour and saw an opportunity to restore it. Inspired by the late Eva Rickard, an outspoken Māori land-rights campaigner who had been urging the community to take better care of its environment, he helped establish the community resource recovery centre Xtreme Zero Waste. He is still there today, now one of 40 employees. The centre returns $1.2 million to the local economy. “That’s what we used to bury in the ground.”

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Initially, the town transferred all waste to another landfill, but that proved costly and opened people’s eyes to the sheer volume of rubbish. Xtreme Zero Waste began exploring other options and, within five years, managed to divert three-quarters (about 13 tonnes) of rubbish that would have otherwise been dumped. The remaining quarter is an ongoing challenge, Thorpe says, “partly because we don’t have control over some waste streams that are imported or manufactured and we don’t have adequate central government policy or legislation on product stewardship”.

Plastics represent one of these tricky waste streams. Most plastic items don’t make it back to a collection point, and there are limited markets for those that do. Nevertheless, the Raglan community is working towards becoming free of single-use plastics. The town’s supermarkets and businesses were among the first in the country to phase out single-use plastic bags and are now following up with throwaway straws and coffee cups. Plastics from kerbside recycling collections and businesses are sorted by hand. Clear drink bottles, milk bottles and some soft plastics are sent to companies in New Zealand or overseas for recycling. Those of lesser value, or with no current markets, are stored while the team of community entrepreneurs investigates how to turn them into something new.

Elephants fossick in a dump in Sri Lanka. Photo/Getty Images

Market shock

At the start of this year, a much louder wake-up call rang out globally when China stopped importing other countries’ rubbish for recycling. For many years, China had been the world’s tip, buying more than 50% of the global supply of recyclables. Its new policy, known as National Sword, placed tight restrictions on 24 different types of waste, including many recyclable plastics.

The effect was immediate and dramatic. Tonnes of plastics and other materials piled up in rubbish sorting facilities around New Zealand, waiting for new markets. But perhaps more importantly, China’s decision triggered a major shift in thinking about waste.

Although the environmental impact of plastic waste is incalculable, there is also an economic price attached to our throwaway consumer culture. A 2016 report, “The New Plastics Economy”, by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, estimates that billions of dollars are lost globally from plastic packaging alone. “After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or between US$80 and $120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse-gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”

The report calls for a radical departure from the linear make-use-dispose approach towards a circular economy, in which “plastics never become waste”.

A Chinese labourer sorts bags of plastic bottles for recycling outside Beijing. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand’s response

The concept of a circular economy is what Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage hopes to implement for New Zealand’s waste and recycling sector. As she waits for a multi-agency task force to report back at the end of this month with short-term recommendations on how to respond to China’s decision, she wants to tackle New Zealand’s overall waste problem.

On average, each of us produces more than 700kg of rubbish a year, which puts New Zealand among the highest producers of urban waste in the developed world. Yet, there is little data on how much of that rubbish is reused, recycled or dumped.

Among the Government’s priorities is a plan to improve data collection by requiring landfill operators to report on the composition and quantity of waste. Another part of the action plan is to strengthen domestic capacity to process recyclables and to look into implementing voluntary and mandatory product stewardship schemes to encourage manufacturers, retailers and consumers to consider the environmental effects of products throughout their life cycle.

Overseas, responses have included fiscal incentives (for instance, exempting second-hand polymers from value-added taxes on the grounds that the primary material has already been taxed); mandated minimums in recycled content in products such as plastic containers; and extended producer responsibility schemes – making manufacturers and brands contribute to the net cost of their products’ disposal.

Plastic bottles are recycled into carpets and fabrics in Shandong province. Photo/Getty Images

Consumed by plastic

The environmental impact of plastics is staggering. Plastic fragments and microbeads are now found in the deepest and most remote parts of the world’s oceans, concentrating in garbage patches within massive gyres. Marine mammals and seabirds are dying, strangled by plastic packaging and abandoned fishing nets and with stomachs full of plastic shards. Microplastics are turning up in our food.

Research published last year shows that plastics have now outgrown most man-made materials and become the workhorse of the modern economy. In what was the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics manufactured since the 1950s, the researchers estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastics have been produced to date. Production has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. The analysis shows that, globally, 79% of all plastics have been accumulating in landfills or the environment.

The “New Plastics Economy” report cites research that estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean each year. That’s the equivalent of dumping the contents of a rubbish truck straight into the sea every minute. In an even more disturbing comparison, scientists estimated that in a business-as-usual scenario, there’ll be a tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025, and more plastic than fish, by weight, by 2050.

New Zealand doesn’t manufacture raw plastics. We import virgin materials either as granular resin or in sheets to make a range of products. According to Plastics New Zealand, an industry association of about 160 companies and organisations, New Zealand imported about 250,000 tonnes of virgin plastics in 2017. Just over half of that was used to make packaging, with the rest turned into products for markets such as building and construction, electronics, sports, fashion, office equipment and transport.

A white-headed capuchin monkey chews on a plastic straw. Photo/Getty Images

Business manager Ken Sowman says Plastics New Zealand was an early adopter of a plastic identification coding system in the early 1990s, and manufacturers label products to aid sorting and recycling. But, he says, New Zealand-made plastic packaging isn’t the whole story. “There is a huge array and volume of imported retail products contained in or protected by packaging. Unfortunately, there is no requirement for the plastic code to be on imported items and the association believes the Government needs to investigate how this can be addressed.”

The global plastics industry is fragmented, and this has led to a proliferation of different types of plastics and many products that mix chemically distinct plastic polymers together. Take a container with a spray nozzle, says Paul Evans, chief executive of waste industry body WasteMINZ. The bottle and the spray top are often made from different plastic types mixed with other materials, which makes it difficult to recycle effectively.

Evans argues that New Zealand needs to build an onshore recycling industry, but should also consider “which materials are actually acceptable to bring into New Zealand in the first place”.

In response to the “New Plastics Economy” report, he says New Zealand may need to stop using certain types of plastics. “They will never be economic to recycle; they will never be able to be recycled in a circular system. We need to actually get real about a circular recycling system, and that means, for me, it’s hard to see a future for things such as PVC and polystyrene and the plastics collected in grade 7, which is the catch-all for everything else.”

However, Sowman says restricting the range of plastic raw materials would disadvantage not just manufacturers but a range of other sectors. “Different resins provide different properties such as oxygen and moisture barriers, stiffness, clarity, performance at different temperatures … It is not practical to restrict usage to solely PET or HDPE.”

Plastic waste covers a beach in Manila, the Philippines. Photo/Getty Images

Data gaps

A significant hurdle for tackling plastics is the lack of a single national database to track material flows from raw imports to recycling or waste. Sowman says Plastics New Zealand is one of several parties that have urged the Government to develop a national strategy for recycling and waste management.

Evans says New Zealand has been criticised by the OECD for the complete absence of robust and reliable waste data. “That’s obviously been a concern for our sector for a long time. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

One way to keep track of how much rubbish goes to landfill is the waste disposal levy, but it applies to only 45 landfills out of a total of 426 consented disposal facilities. The Ministry for the Environment doesn’t collect data specific to plastics. Sage says better data collection is a priority and she wants to see the levy expanded to more than 400 landfills. Apart from better information, it would also deliver “a tool to encourage more materials recovery and diversion” as well as more funds for waste minimisation projects.

The levy generates about $15 million, half of which goes to councils to help them reduce waste. The other half goes towards the Waste Minimisation Fund, which supports projects such as the collection of soft plastics, large-scale coastal clean-up events and initiatives to establish an onshore recycling industry.

E-waste recycler Mniwiz’s Taipei office features polymer bricks. Photo/Getty Images

Price collapse

Until this year, New Zealand was shipping recyclable plastic waste mostly to China. The most recent Customs Service figures show the amount dropped from 10,494 tonnes in 2016 to 492 tonnes this year. The corresponding value has fallen from $6.4 million to $528,303.

Smart Environmental, the country’s largest privately owned refuse company, processes the recyclables for several councils from Auckland to Queenstown. Managing director Grahame Christian says the company is currently stockpiling 3000 tonnes of plastics awaiting new markets, most likely overseas. In some locations, it is still financially more attractive to export recyclables than sell them locally, he says, due to better pricing and lower freight costs. Some are now being shipped to Malaysia and Indonesia, where Chinese-owned recycling companies have sprung up, but the bottleneck created by China’s ban has sent global prices into a tailspin and put significant pressure on the recycling industry.

“From February to July 2017, we experienced some of the highest commodity prices of the past five years,” Christian says. “The value of recycling was three to five times higher 18 months ago than it is now. The largest impact has been on mixed paper and mixed plastics.”

A tonne of mixed plastics used to fetch $110. The price has now dropped to $10, or nothing. “Some buyers are no longer taking the product.”

Miniwiz makes sunglasses from recycled materials. Photo/Getty Images

This has forced Smart Environmental to consider legal action against some councils over the losses. “It is disappointing that some local bodies have responded that they do not have the budget. However, it is definitely our last option.”

The company is relying on contractual provisions that cover unforeseen risk beyond the control of either party and it has come to new agreements with Christchurch and Auckland councils.

Several contractors have given their respective local bodies deadlines, after which they will either reduce services or refuse to collect certain products. The biggest impact has been on plastics labelled 3 to 7, which includes blister packs, cosmetics containers, cling wrap, ice-cream tubs, polystyrene packaging and many more everyday products.

Despite the tensions, Christian says the company has no intention of dumping stockpiled plastics at the landfill.

“We are all working on potential solutions, including developing options in New Zealand to deal with both paper and plastics, but this takes time to both agree on the technology and ensure that we come up with the correct solution.”

Flight Plastics chief executive Keith Smith, left, and director Derek Lander. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Pet recycling

The beginnings of a circular plastics economy in New Zealand are taking shape at Flight Plastics in Upper Hutt. The company has been making plastic packaging for decades and was the first in Australasia to start using PET (ID code 1) in the late 1980s, when less-recyclable PVC (ID code 3) plastics were still used for most packaging.

Initially, it imported virgin PET resin to manufacture meat trays and food containers, but last year started recycling PET collected from households and businesses. The shift in thinking came long before China’s National Sword. Flight Plastics director Derek Lander says it was inspired by changes at one of the its UK sites almost a decade ago.

“In 2010, our whole business in the UK  was doing imported virgin material. Within a year, we were doing 95% recycled, because the supermarkets, following a threat of regulation, shifted and the whole market changed. We looked at that and thought, this will come to New Zealand. And then, we thought, we’ll be the ones to make it come.”

Chief executive Keith Smith says one of the reasons onshore PET recycling hasn’t started earlier is that China was paying good money. “It wasn’t that commercially attractive to get into recycling because you had this place to send it all. All you had to do was collect it, compress it into bales and ship it off.”

Finished product being shaped into biscuit trays. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

New Zealand imports about 20,000 tonnes of virgin PET each year. On top of that, we buy in another 10,000 tonnes of ready-made PET food packaging, some of which is made from recycled material. Only about 5000 tonnes are collected through recycling schemes, and Flight Plastics has the capacity to process all of it into recycled PET. Better still, once-recycled, PET can go through multiple cycles and still produce food-grade quality.

“A lot of plastics can only be downcycled because the recycled product won’t be pure enough to operate at the same standard as the virgin material. With clear PET, you can hold it at the same grade of product and the material can stay in use.”

Smith says using products made from New Zealand-recycled PET is the only way to actually reduce the waste pile. “The experience worldwide is that once you start recycling in the country, people get to know that it’s actually being used properly and make a  bigger effort to recycle it. You get this cultural and generational shift where people have less of a throwaway mentality.”

Although there is room to ramp up the collection of PET, the weakest link in the value chain at this stage is the uptake of recycled packaging by brand owners, Smith says. “Consumers are up for it and councils are fully supportive. Brand owners are coming into place, but corporate change is slow. Some of them are a bit reluctant because they won’t necessarily make more money. But you’re not really recycling unless you can go to the supermarket and buy New Zealand-recycled [packaging] material.”

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.