Banning plastic items such as fruit stickers, cotton buds, microbeads, straws, supermarket bags and the next small plastic item deemed Public Enemy No. 1 can give the impression of environmental progress, but the bigger gains must come from tackling New Zealand’s more pressing policy challenges – standardising kerbside collection nationally and investing in onshore processing.

There’s a huge difference between what waste councils accept, collect and process.
Waste expert Lyn Mayes has surveyed the 67 territorial authorities on their kerbside collections and unearthed some disappointing facts.

For a start, five councils didn’t give people any recycling information at all on their websites. And information from the remainder revealed the real mish-mash of rules and inclusions. Some 19 councils don’t accept any of the hard plastics #3-7 at all, 26 have no direction for ratepayers on if they accept Tetra Paks, and 25 are silent on aerosols. As for plastic meat trays, 16 council websites don’t mention them at all.

Perhaps the best indication of the mess is that just 14 Council websites had enough information about what products are recycled to be able to say yes or no to each packaging material question.

For a country with a population smaller than Melbourne, it’s disappointing we can’t organise ourselves to be more efficient and effective with national collection standards and greater recycling capacity.

While it’s easy to ban little stickers on fruit, it will surely be a Herculean task to standardise national collection. These are the areas where the Government treads carefully because it means having tough conversations with councils about what they should collect, how it should be processed, and requiring more effort from voters to play their part in sorting, washing and putting out their rubbish.

Consumers will probably shrug their shoulders about stalks of a cotton bud changing from plastic to cardboard (which Johnson & Johnson did two years ago), but will definitely have a view when rates rise because councils are made to collect, sort and process a wider array of waste.

It’s clear consumers want action, however, and action will happen. Research by data company IRi shows Kiwis are highly concerned about plastic waste, with 47% of those surveyed saying they avoid buying fruit and vegetables in packaging, 40% saying excessive packaging influences what they buy, and 52% of 18 to 34-year-olds saying they feel guilty buying products that aren’t environmentally friendly.

But there’s a steep learning curve needed in terms of best practice when it comes to using more eco-friendly solutions, when 37% of 18 to 34-year-olds simply throw away compostable packaging and 27% don’t know how to dispose of it anyway.

Government bans have enabled New Zealand to take steps towards a circular economy, but these are complex issues and it can be two steps forward, one step back. The banning of so-called “single-use” plastic supermarket bags is a good example. Yes, some plastic will have been reduced, but many consumers are now buying plastic bags instead of getting them free. According to IRi, there has been a 49.7% bump in sales of garbage and tidy bags in the past 12 months. This was predicted, because single-use bags for many had more uses around the home, particularly as rubbish-bin liners. In the meantime, consumers have spent an extra $17.6 million on reusable shopping bags – a 171% increase in sales over the same period.

As we move towards a circular economy it’s important to have realistic expectations about what can be achieved. While food and beverage manufacturers have focused on designing out unnecessary packaging or moving to different packaging materials, some single-use plastic packaging has an important role ensuring safety, quality and practicality. Take frozen peas: they’re snap frozen to preserve their freshness and nutrition, but they’d be impossible to get home and store if they weren’t in a package.

So small changes are easy, dealing with the big issues is much harder. We’re not limited by getting industry and consumers to do the right thing. We’re limited by the fact that there’s not enough to do with it once it’s collected. Until we address this, the circular economy is just a curve.

(originally published in the Sunday Star-Times)