We shouldn’t underestimate the impacts of wish-cycling and genuine misconceptions, both of which I think we’re all capable of doing with the best of intentions – I certainly know I am!

I’ve always erred towards a generous view that my local council will do its best with the rubbish and recycling I put out on the street for kerbside collection.  When in doubt, I’ve put packaging in my recycling bin and felt virtuous that I’ve done the right thing. A recent Fair Go programme exposed that often this has been wish-cycling on my part, and that’s not all the council’s fault.

Most of our focus in New Zealand has been on plastic packaging – with specific single-use plastic products being phased out and all plastic packaging to be stewarded as a priority product. However, we mustn’t take our eye of the ball and ignore the impact of other materials.

Around the world, most Extended Producer Responsibility (or producer-pays) schemes cover all packaging materials not just plastic. There is a reason for this.

A case in point is fibre, which I’ve learnt is the technical term for paper and cardboard, both of which I thought were the “good packaging”, and always chose them over plastic when I could.  Little did I know I was sadly mistaken, as a recently released Eunomia report (Waste & Resource Recovery – Infrastructure and Services Stocktake) prepared for the Ministry for the Environment shows.

We’re putting more than 250,000 tonnes of fibre into our landfills every year, while more than 300,000 tonnes are exported, potentially with limited value as scrap because it’s not of a sufficiently high standard to be recycled. And what does scrap mean, anyway? Potentially landfill in another country? And we transport it on fossil-fuelled ships to do this?

Problem 1: If fibre is mixed with glass, metals, and plastic in your recycling bin and tipped into the back of the kerbside collection truck then it’s hardly surprising the paper and cardboard get contaminated with broken glass and bits of plastic and other materials. When it gets to the recycling plant the challenge is to “unscramble the egg” and separate the fibre again. Logic tells us we should keep it separate in the first place.

Problem 2: If materials such as plastic or foil are added to the fibre for well-intentioned purposes, maybe to extend shelf life etc, it is no longer 100% fibre, and this reduces its value to the global market.

NZFGC’s Sustainability Committee has identified three key activities for its fibre working group to improve the quality of fibre used by members to increase recyclability. They are:

  1. educate members that quality drives recyclability
  2. advocate for removing paper from co-mingled bins to improve quality of recovered paper
  3. support a fibre packaging recyclability standard for New Zealand

It’s not yet clear whether the Government’s recent announcement on standardising kerbside collections in urban areas by 2027 will address the contamination issue.

Paper and cardboard will need to be collected by all councils from next February but there’s no requirement to prevent co-mingled collections where glass and fibre are put in the same recycling bin – in fact, councils that were separating glass from fibre may start introducing co-mingling because they need to collect a standard set of materials.

New Zealand is not alone in being concerned about what happens to fibre. Our colleagues in Europe tell us paper is becoming a problem as processors demand higher-quality paper bales at a time when there is higher contamination from co-mingled collection systems and increasing use of “lined” paper.

The recent announced changes from Government are a big step in the right direction for a more sustainable economy. We need to have a good look at the detail as it becomes available, gather better data so we have firm evidence for decisions, and then make sure the various schemes integrate and are sequenced sensibly. All this is essential so business has clear and reliable signals on which to base significant decisions so they can do the right thing by environment in the most efficient way.

This will continue to be a priority for NZFGC.

(originally published in FMCG Business, June)