By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
New Zealand environment minister David Parker today announced plans to ban some single-use plastic products, beginning next year and phased in over three stages by July 2025.
Despite its reputation as a green paradise – in part fostered by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy – New Zealand is currently one of the top 10 per-capita producers of landfill waste in the world, according to the Guardian, New Zealand to ban most single-use plastics by 2025:
“Every day, New Zealanders throw away an estimated 159g of plastic waste per person, making us some of the highest waste generators in the world,” the environment minister, David Parker, said.
New Zealand has already taken some steps to address its plastics problem and banned most single-use plastic bags in 2019.And at a time when most US policy – whether at the government or corporate level is based on the sweet nothings purred by various recycling fairies, I suppose NZ’s actions should be applauded.
But instead I see recurring patterns, of policy inadequate to the scale of the problem.
The NZ program will be phased-in over a rather laconic, four-year time frame – and the present scheme will leave untouched some major areas of plastics waste. According to RNZ, Government announces bans on some plastic items:
The three-stage plan to phase our hard-to-recycle plastic packaging will take place over the next four years.
Environment Minister David Parker said from late 2022 PVC meat trays, polystyrene takeaway packaging and degradable plastic products that harm the environment will not be allowed.
By mid-2025 all other PVC and polystyrene food and drink packaging will be outlawed.
The ban also includes single-use plastic items such as drink stirrers, cotton buds, single-use produce bags, cutlery, plates and bowls, straws and fruit labels.
The government expects more work to be done on how to introduce phase-outs of certain types of expanded polystyrene, single-use cups (including coffee cups) and wet wipes.*
As I wrote in a recent post, single-use coffee cups pose a major challenge – one to which Starbucks has proposed a wan response (see Starbucks Launches Reusable Cup Program). I also see no mention of plastic films, which are not recyclable either (see Store Drop-Off: Another Recycling Fail).
An even bigger elephant in the room is NZ’s apparent failure to target commercial waste. According to the Guardian:
The new bans were an important step, but still missed many of the largest producers of plastic waste in New Zealand, said Assoc Prof Terri-Ann Berry, the director of Environmental Solutions Research Centre at Unitec. She said that while drawing public attention to household waste was vital, “it’s very easy to forget that some of our more commercial sectors are also big plastic users”. Construction and demolition, for example, accounted for up to 50% of landfill waste in New Zealand.
The NZ government has backed its plastics phase-out policy with some necessary funding, According to the New Zealand Herald, New plastic bans target hard-to-recycle cutlery, meat trays, takeaway containers:
The Government has also launched the $50 million Plastics Innovation Fund to help support projects that reimagine how we make, use and dispose of plastics.”The fund will help tap into our collective ingenuity to find ways to use less plastic, and make what we do use recyclable for the benefit of the environment – while also boosting jobs and supporting the economic recovery.”
Funding would be available for innovative projects from designing out waste in products and packaging, or adopting and scaling up existing technologies, through to switching materials and developing recycling solutions not currently available.
“We expect the fund, which opens in November 2021, will attract a wide range of applicants from research institutes and businesses as well as sector groups, communities, and Māori organisations,” Parker said.
Despite having a couple of close friends who hail from New Zealand, I know very little about contemporary NZ politics. The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the competence and leadership of of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government – as well as New Zealand’s public health system. A throwaway comment in the New Zealand Herald piece linked to above suggests that the NZ political system at least attempts to solve other pressing national problems:
Taking action to minimise waste and problem plastics is part of the Cooperation Agreement between the Labour and Green parties.
This of course seems amazing to this U.S. observer whose faith in effective political action to address pressing national concerns has been battered by the sad trajectory of American politics during my lifetime. The death of Senator Mike Gravel reminded me that it wasn’t always this way. One tantalizing alternative history: what if Mike Gravel has been elected President in 2008? He mounted a challenge for the Democratic nomination – and given the Great Financial Crisis that kicked off on George W. Bush’s watch, it was a year for a Democrat. Perhaps we would have been spared the ensuing neoliberal debacle, which paved the way for Trump’s election in 2016.
NZ’s performance on managing COVID-19 allows its government to take up other policy challenges rather than kick the can down the road. Compare the NZ situation to the pattern elsewhere, where the pandemic has stymied plans to get a measure of control over plastics waste management, not to mention generated other sources of waste, which in turn exacerbate the problem. Over to the Guardian:
In some countries, Covid-19 has stalled progress on plastics – a number of US states rolled back their bans on plastic bags and halted new legislation to limit plastic products as the pandemic reached its height. Environmental groups have also reported enormous quantities of “Covid waste” – including plastic gloves, hand sanitiser bottles and surgical masks – are clogging oceans.
Some of those U.S. waste management programs are being resuscitated. Waste Dive recently summarized the progress thus far as many state legislatures finished their sessions. As is nearly always the case, the bottom line has been a disappointing lack of progress.
It has been a busy year for state recycling and waste policy so far, with legislatures making big decisions about everything from requiring minimum recycled content in plastic bottles to banning single-use products such as bags and foam foodservice packaging. Lawmakers are also taking special interest in topics such as chemical recycling, preemption policy, organics diversion and bottle bills.
Experts predicted an active legislative season, in part because of growing public concern and political pressure around certain waste issues, and a backlog of bills that didn’t pass last year due to the pandemic. While several high-profile proposals failed to gain traction before legislative deadlines, including bills establishing producer responsibility for packaging in California and New York, others in Maine and Oregon made it through.
The Bottom Line
Kudos to NZ for attempting to get greater control over its plastics problem. Part of the reason so much plastics are now ending up in NZ landfills is due to the collapse of the world market for recyclable plastics after China stopped accepting such imports in 2018. According to this May New Zealand Herald article, Recycling: New Zealand still sending plastic waste to developing countries:
New Zealand’s recycling practices are under scrutiny amid revelations that hundreds of tonnes of plastic are still being sent to countries like Malaysia and Thailand.
Concerns have been raised for years around the environmental damage caused to developing nations, which accept plastic from the rest of the world to be processed.
Last year the Government announced permits would be required for exporting low-grade plastic.
So far, not one has been granted.
Recyclers here said that was because only good plastics were headed offshore, but environmental campaigners said it made no difference.
Two and half years ago, Lay Peng Pua travelled from Malaysia to Aotearoa with a plea for New Zealanders.
Jerri-Lynn here. Despite this legislation, lots of NZ waste is still dumped abroad. According to the May New Zealand Herald piece:
Since the start of 2019 more than 10,000 tonnes of New Zealand’s plastic has gone to Malaysia and hundreds of tonnes to Thailand.
That was despite the Government last year bringing in new legislation requiring permits for all exports of hard-to-recycle plastic.
So far there have only been two applications and they have yet to be granted.
So how is all this plastic leaving New Zealand shores?
Auckland Council general waste manager Parul Sood said: “We never send anything overseas unless [there is] a market for it, and the whole recycling market has relied on markets that can buy the product and make it into something else, so when there is no market we stop sending it.”
Jerri-Lynn here. So, the high quality waste still seems to be exported, while the low-quality stuff ends up in New Zealand landfills. Per the May New Zealand Hearld article:
Auckland Council still wanted them to go into recycling bins but currently they were going to landfill until a recycling alternative could be found.
That meant most of the plastic we are sending overseas should be high quality, which is easier to recycle.
Jerri-Lynn here. Campaigners in places where New Zealand’s “high-quality” waste ends up don’t want it – and are frustrated that the New Zealand public doesn’t seem to appreciate what’s going on. According to the May New Zealand Herald article:
However, in Malaysia, Pua said it did not matter.
It’s very frustrating because we have been working so hard, and I think people still don’t understand that the rubbish or so-called recycling actually goes to the wrong place.”
Banning some single-use plastics is a necessary first step toward addressing this complex problem. Expanding these bans to include more categories of plastics for household use will be necessary, and quickly, as well as tackling the vexing issue of commercial waste. I too clapped to save Tinkerbell. By opting for outright bans rather than the false promise of recycling, New Zealand recognises that relying on the recycling fairy is no solution.