Today we live in a throwaway society. Every day we use stuff that can’t be re-used or recycled, so we throw it away. It’s much different to my grandmother’s generation. She saved everything, even flour bags. What couldn’t be fed to the chooks or burnt on the fire amounted to a few cans that were buried at the back of the farm.

The recent issue of single-use plastic shopping bags was almost minor compared to the rest of the stuff consumers send to landfill. There, our refuse rots or breaks down or seeps or expels chemicals. Some of it just sits there forever.

We don’t even know how much we’re generating because only 45 of our 426 landfills are required to report on how much they receive and what it is. The Ministry for the Environment says those 45 take around 3.3 million tonnes a year, and we can only imagine what the real number is when the remaining 381 are taken into account.

And it’s getting worse. Recycle NZ estimates that with current population trends and without serious moves to cut waste, the amount we put into landfills will nearly double within 10 years.

FMCG manufacturers are well aware consumer packaging is a significant contributor. It’s everywhere because it’s practical and convenient. Just about everything we consume, from food to the mobile devices we continually update, comes in plastic, glass, paper, or aluminium packaging. Every year we send around 350,000 tonnes to landfill, recycling just 58%. We also dump about 250,000 tonnes of plastic.

Recycle NZ says around three quarters of our waste is recoverable, and for me that’s the real opportunity for change.

So what are some solutions?

FMCG companies have done great work around recycling and recyclable packaging in recent years. Most put a lot of time and money into improving manufacturing operations and the effect their products have on the environment.

Despite all this, only a minority of waste is diverted from landfill. That’s why it was interesting to see the Government announcing a different tack on the issue.

It issued proposals for developing product stewardship schemes that would put the responsibility for waste onto manufacturers, importers, retailers and users, “rather than on communities, councils, neighbourhoods and nature”. It proposes to do this for tyres, e-waste, refrigerants, agrichemicals, farm plastics, packaging, plastics, and batteries.

The important group they’ve left off is consumers, who will need to play a big part of changing behaviour.

Of particular relevance to the FMCG industry, the document includes all beverage containers of less than 4 litres, and single-use plastic packaging (retail or wholesale) made of plastics 1-7, which are not designed to be refilled.

The Food and Grocery Council supports the effort and principle, but how feasible is it? The reality is New Zealand doesn’t have the technology to recycle most of this material and we are far from achieving anything like it without a huge boost in collection and recycling capacity.

We can recycle plastic grade 1 but I’m told there is virtually no processing here for grades 2-7, which are the more difficult ones. And we can’t currently recycle batteries here. Companies will have to go to great lengths to collect them and send them to China or Europe for processing. Where’s the cost benefit in that?

I just wonder if the proposals fully recognise the extent of the problem, current New Zealand technology and capacity, and what’s involved in making a meaningful improvement.

FGC will be making a submission on the issue but it’s going to take a lot of work and cooperation and some serious investment to get anywhere.

(as published in FMCG Business magazine)

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