“Labour puts old-school refund scheme for bottles, cans and containers on ice” was the headline from a Stuff article reporting the Government’s decision to defer the introduction of a Container Deposit Scheme as part of policy cuts to focus on cost of living and cyclone recovery issues announced in mid-March.

The reaction to this politically and from industry has been mixed. There is disappointment and criticism from some quarters, and relief and hope for a better outcome from others.  Interestingly, though it has been termed a deferral, Prime Minister Hipkins’ comment that “This policy does remain on the agenda, and we will look to assess it again in future when the time is right to do so” alludes to the door being open to further consideration of the policy decisions on the detail of the scheme that were never announced, despite it being widely understood to have been considered prior to Christmas.

Since I started as CE at the Food and Grocery Council, I’ve been keenly absorbing all I can about our sector’s role and progress in addressing some of the pressing sustainability issues. FGC’s Sustainability Committee, led by Cameron Scott, MD of Kimberly-Clark, and well supported by Lyn Mayes, is very active and well attended, with representatives from across the sector, including retailers.

To be frank, New Zealand does not have a good track record of capturing and reporting what is known as mass balance data for packaging – what is consumed and what is recovered and recycled. FGC’s own research suggest New Zealanders use around 864,000 tonnes of packaging every year, with an estimated 58% of that recovered. That’s means everyone living in Aotearoa New Zealand uses around 5.89 kg of packaging. By comparison, Ireland, a similar-sized country, has a 68% recycling rate and its people use 4.36 kg per annum of packaging. So we recycle 10% less than Ireland and use 35% more packaging per person. While we get really upset when Ireland beats us on home soil at rugby, we should also be upset they are doing better in these metrics too.

FGC has been collecting data for three years on the amount of plastic used by our members. Each year we have built on the survey work, which is independently conducted by Dynata. Our 2022 dataset included insights from 119 companies. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and we are working to increase that, but based on our knowledge, it represents around 75% of the food and grocery market. This year we encourage all FMCG brands to provide their data. Annually, 108,000 tonnes of plastic for consumer goods are estimated to come from our sector, with around two thirds of this plastic typically accepted for kerbside recycling. Soft plastics may be recycled through the soft plastic recycling scheme which, with retailers’ support, provides recycling bins at participating Countdown, New World, PAK’nSAVE, and The Warehouse stores.

Packaging decisions need to be based on a full understanding of all the environmental and economic impacts of these choices.  We should be weary of thinking paper and cardboard (fibre) are better than plastic (more on that in a future column).

The systems in New Zealand aren’t designed well enough to create an end-to-end, or what we really want, a circular economy for waste. Packaging design, not just for plastic, is critical, and so is a whole-of-system approach for all waste management and recycling. If we do what we often do and plan it piecemeal, we’ll end up with the same issues we face now with our transport infrastructure, with the catch-up more costly, worse environmentally, and incredibly frustrating when we need to take the time to design well and then act fast.

The deferral of the Container Deposit Scheme may now offer opportunities to strengthen this system approach – let’s take the time to do this right.

(originally published in FMCG Business magazine)