Our plastic recycling efforts will go nowhere without the right information

by The Listener / 19 July, 2018
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Plastic recycling NZ

If turns out that some plastics marketed as eco-friendly degrade only to a certain point and often outlive their human recyclers.

The kōkako’s silvery birdsong has just returned to Mt Pirongia. A tohorā, the rare southern right whale, has been sporting in Wellington Harbour. Signs warning motorists to beware of low-flying kererū are increasingly common.

How appalling if we found the endangered birds were gathering discarded plastic for their chicks, or if the whale washed up dead with plastic bags clogging its intestines as did a pilot whale in Thailand recently.

Our vulnerable native fauna can flourish, but not if we keep compromising their habitats. Sir David Attenborough’s film of an albatross feeding its chick bits of plastic not only broke hearts but focused minds around the world. Coincidentally, China, which for years has profitably recycled a lot of other countries’ waste, recently decided to stop, saying it had its hands full dealing with its own.

Helpfully, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has made a serious start in joining the dots for us on the best way to dispose of plastic. The bad news is his findings show there is almost no good way, and even figuring out the least worst way is fraught with difficulty.

Some plastic does “disappear”, in that it quickly breaks down and is denatured by microbial action. Other types take years or even centuries to break down. Perniciously, even some of the plastic marketed as eco-friendly degrades only to a certain point, its fragments outliving even its human creators. Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage is now following up on Upton’s work, planning new standards and labelling requirements so consumers can see which plastic they’re buying and how to dispose of it. It’s hard to see how this can be done without adding bureaucracy, regulation and compliance costs to businesses – but this could be a useful part of the answer.

The best way to dispose of plastic is to dispense with it. If it’s burdensome for businesses to use, hopefully they will find green alternatives. Consumers generally acquire plastic unwillingly and unwittingly. This was typified by the frustration of a woman in the news recently complaining about the almost fetishistic extent of packaging of some kitset furniture she’d bought: polystyrene and plastic enveloped every single component. It’s a tough ongoing choice when so many items we cannot easily do without, from electronics and white goods to supermarket vegetables, come with lashings of plastic.

Even the much-championed phase-out of supermarket plastic bags is challenging, as these are often reused at least once – as bin liners, food protectors or for containing messy waste – and might often be replaced by more expensive, bought plastic bags.

As yet there’s no generally available product that is the match of cling-film in terms of hygiene, containment and convenience.

Reusable substitutes for polystyrene packaging are potentially numerous – recycled natural fibres, for instance – but we have a deeply engrained habit of throwing packaging and wadding away, so whatever substitutes we resort to will need to come with a degree of social self-reconditioning. An inventory of the plastic entering the average household each week would probably show little would be missed.Who grieves the substitution of microbeads in cosmetics with natural husk fibre? Who would care if cotton-bud sticks were wood or cardboard?

But substitutions have to be carefully thought through. Paper products are green – their dyes, bleaches and coatings may not be. How green is it to fell trees for disposable products?

Then there’s fabric. Synthetic fabric can be very durable, and could seem to chime with concerns about the environmental and welfare impact of natural-fibre farming. But it turns out tiny filaments from some synthetics are as environmentally damaging as microbeads.

What’s needed is more thorough recycling information about all our goods – including whether, after we dutifully put the item in the correct green bin, it actually does get recycled. Periodically it has emerged that recycling some material can be such a burden for local authorities that some collected items end up deep in the landfill anyway, where sunlight cannot help decompose them. Recycling is complex and expensive, and for reasons of technology and economies of scale we cannot do as much of it as we might like in this country.

Our joy at the survival of thriving kererū, kōkako and tohorā communities is all the reason we need to try a lot harder.

This editorial was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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