Newly-minted Government commitments to reduce the use of single-use plastics and other packaging fell quickly by the wayside in Covid, writes Jonathan Milne, but now isolation officials are being asked to do better

They say change begins at home. Right now, home for our family of five is a 20-floor isolation hotel in downtown Auckland.

And if we’re changing the world, it’s not for the better.

We can’t open the windows, so the air-con runs 24/7.

The young air force officer in charge isn’t too keen on the bright floral cotton facemasks we brought with us on the plane from Rarotonga designers TAV Pacific and Joyce Peyroux Garments, so they’ve given us what looks like a lifetime’s supply of single-use synthetic masks instead. Big packets of non-flushable anti-bacterial wipes, too.

We send out 10 laundry items at a time in a plastic bag; they come back two days later in several more plastic bags.

We get 10 plastic water bottles delivered to our room every day, and about 25 meal containers (some plastic, some tinfoil). The meal servings are more than our small boys can eat, so every night we put out a 60 litre black rubbish bag crammed with food and plastic waste.

For Eugenie Sage, that’s not good enough. After seeing all the bottles and other single-use packaging being used then sent to the tip, the associate environment minister  is now asking officials to draft guidelines on reducing waste in isolation facilities.

Especially those ubiquitous water bottles. “Auckland tap water is good to drink so is a safe first choice that does not create plastic waste,” she reckons.

It’s embarrassing: just six weeks ago, Sage had boasted that the Government was taking a leadership role on managing and minimising plastic waste across its agencies. The piles of single-use plastic containers my children are playing with in this army-operated isolation hotel don’t look like a great example of that leadership.

Eugenie Sage and Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel visit recycling plant EcoCentral, where Sage announced $1.8 million grant funding for a plastics optical sorter and $15 million grant funding for a fibre optical and mechanical sorter.

To be fair, everyone is working with the best of intentions, in the most trying of circumstances. This is just a close-up of the bigger, national problem.

The 52,000 people who have been through New Zealand’s isolation and quarantine hotels place their rubbish in bags outside their rooms, says a Managed Isolation and Quarantine spokesperson. Staff transfer the bags to the facility’s general waste collection and disposal services.

“At all times, the safety of guests, staff and contractors is prioritised throughout the managed isolation process,” the spokesperson adds. “Due to the above precautions, there are currently no recycling arrangements in place to recycle waste from guests’ rooms.”

Everyone is trying; everyone is also a little bit scared. Since the arrival of Covid, recycling services have fallen apart somewhat.

The whole country is getting wasted

Just as the staff at our 20-floor Four Points hotel and 31 other facilities don’t want to handle their guests’ waste, so too recycling workers are reluctant to touch New Zealand’s waste, and overseas recycling organisations are refusing to accept it.

“For councils, the protection of our staff and customers was paramount,” warned Auckland’s Parul Sood, deputy chair of the Waste Management Institute. “With some overseas recycling commodity markets closing overnight, communities had to grapple with major recycling collection challenges, which led to higher levels of materials going to landfill than we would have liked.”

That was apparent from her own council’s data. Household waste volumes had been declining steadily – until the first lockdown in April. 1870 more tonnes of rubbish (12 per cent more) and 326 extra tonnes of recycling (3 per cent) were collected from Auckland households in April, compared to the same month in 2019.

The increase in both recycling and landfill continued even after Auckland came out of level 4 lockdown – an extra 5500 tonnes landfill over three months.

According to a government consultation paper last month, Reducing the impact of plastic on our environment, New Zealand exports around 35,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually for recycling – about 90 per cent of the plastics collected.

But China’s import restrictions have now shut down the world’s largest recycling market for low-value mixed plastics. Under the shadow of Covid-19, other countries have imposed similar strict quality requirements, constraining New Zealand’s ability to send our waste out of sight and out of mind.

In turn, says the consultation paper, New Zealand waste operators are rethinking whether they will collect these plastics in kerbside recycling.

Is more recycling the right answer?

Eugenie Sage opened a new purpose-built recycling factory on Tuesday. A 20-tonne yellow crane hovered over big concrete bins full of separated glass bottles, plastic bottles, and more.

The 5R plant, in Christchurch, processes 55,000 tonnes of glass a year, turning it into Pink Batts and new bottles and sand for golf bunkers. “That’s enough glass to fill 22 Olympic-sized swimming pools or nearly 230,000 wheelie bins,” says managing director Chris Grant.

They are also building up their capacity to recycle cardboard, wood and plastic. “It’s not glamorous work but we’re stopping huge volumes of waste from going to landfill and that’s something that makes us very proud.”

With China and other countries now refusing to accept our low-grade plastics for recycling, the government is under pressure to support local operators, in order to keep its promises on managing and recycling non-biodegradable waste.

A few weeks ago, Sage was at another Christchurch recycling plant, EcoCentral, where she announced agreement in principle for up to $1.8 million grant funding for a plastics optical sorter and $15 million grant funding for a fibre optical and mechanical sorter.

It’s all part of $124 million from the Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund that is being invested in waste infrastructure. And the optical sorting machines mean Covid risk-averse recycling workers don’t have to touch the plastics.

“The challenges of maintaining rubbish and recycling services during the Covid lockdowns have underlined the need to upscale and upgrade New Zealand’s recycling infrastructure,” the minister says.

New Zealand will emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic with a far better resource recovery and recycling system, she adds, creating hundreds of permanent jobs.

But is more recycling the right answer?

Dr Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke was the lead author of a plastics report for the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

She tells me she sees an opportunity, in the collapse of the offshore recycling market, to build up the local recycling capacity – but also to restrict the use of low-grade plastics in packaging in New Zealand. That is, she says, “one of the positive impacts of the pandemic.”

Phil Vine from Greenpeace would go further. “Recycling is a failed solution that needs to be reexamined,” argues the former Fair Go journalist. “Only nine per cent of all plastic ever made has been recycled.

“There is no facility in NZ for recycling plastic bottles and turning them into replacement plastic bottles so every year more plastic resin has to be imported.”

There is a developing consensus among government, environmental groups like Greenpeace and even the plastics industry around some solutions. For instance, refilling bottles, or bottle return schemes – I’m old enough to remember raising money or a school camp, by going door to door collecting bottles to take them into the depot for about 5c a bottle.

There is broad support for an official plan to phase out plastic straws, drink stirrers, produce bags, tableware like plastic plates, bowls and cutlery, and non-compostable fruit stickers.

The new product stewardship scheme, too, invites some manufacturers to take responsibility for their packaging (though not plastic bottles).

For Greenpeace, the government must “stop fiddling around the edges and ban single-use drinks bottles” – a call that has been backed by more than 43,000 people in a petition.

Why petrochemicals firms are making more plastic

Much has been written about the unexpected environmental benefits of the global coronavirus shutdowns: with the dramatic slowdown in travel came a reduction in carbon emissions from burning jet fuel.

But that’s not all good news for the environment.

The reduced fuel demand has led to a drop in oil prices – which unfortunately is encouraging the petroleum industry to look elsewhere to protect its revenues. So they’re piping their petrol to their petrochemical divisions, to sell more plastics, cheaper than it has been for decades.

“As oil prices are affected by Covid-19, it is more difficult for recycled plastic producers to compete against the price of new virgin plastic,” says the plastics consultation paper.

Here’s another problem: those dozens of water bottles they keep delivering to our room in the isolation facility are just about as good as single-use plastic water bottles get. But that’s still not very good.

These Pure NZ still water bottles, made by NZ Drinks Ltd, are all manufactured from 100 per cent recycled polyethylene terephthalate plastic (RPET). The company’s big new bottling plant at Pokeno, south of Auckland, can produce and supply more than 200 million bottles a year.

“With this capacity comes a large responsibility to sustainability and the environment,” the company website says.

PET is one of the most recyclable plastics, but each time it’s melted down and moulded again, it deteriorates. Three or four times is the max – if the bottles are even recycled at all.

Because, of course, most of those bottles (including more than a million thrown out by occupants of the managed isolation facilities) are going straight to the tip.

Plastic is not the only problem

When the coffee van arrived outside the Mangere office of Plastics New Zealand yesterday, Rachel Barker grabbed her reusable cup off the shelf to get her fix of hot chocolate with almond milk. When she went to the supermarket that morning, she wore her reusable face mask. Admittedly, she did forget her reusable shopping bag. “As always, I go in thinking I’m only getting two things, don’t take a bag and walk out balancing 10 different items,” she says ruefully.

At a time when Greenpeace videos show Southern Royal Albatrosses dying after swallowing plastic bottles, it would be easy to demonise those lobbyists in charge of Plastics NZ.

But Barker, the chief executive, certainly doesn’t seem like a bird-killer. “Environmental protection is an area I’m passionate about,” she says.

This is the industry group representing, you guessed it, plastics companies. Its 15-strong national executive includes representatives of Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, Polymers International, Elite Polymers, Interplas Agencies, Expol, Chemvin Plastics, Pack Tech Moulding, Wadding Solutions and assorted other extrusion, moulding and packaging companies.

Before Covid, Barker had a tough sell: she had to acknowledge that yes, single-use plastic was bad – but that perhaps other single-use alternatives might be even worse. Don’t just look at the end-of-life environmental impact of plastic, she would say; look at the whole-of-life impact of the alternatives. (For instance, making paper and cardboard means cutting down trees).

Covid has made her sales pitch easier, I suspect.

She is sympathetic to my complaints about all the water bottles – but says the transfer and washing of glasses, plates and cutlery would present too high a risk of viral transmission. “With the strong focus on infection control that may be a reason you’re still being flooded with bottled water.”

For the same reason, she argues, manual recycling facilities will refuse to deal with waste from Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities. “The risk of virus transmission will be relatively high.”

(This seems an overstatement – many of us in managed isolation are coming from countries in the Pacific where there is no Covid, or the likes of China where it is well under control).

Barker says there is a definite place for plastic in the healthcare system, for both the treatment of patients and the protection of staff. And in some cases plastic provides improved protection for food products and reduces the potential for virus transmission, for instance with pre-wrapped bakery items in the supermarket.

Sterilised reusables are ‘safe’

In the heat of the pandemic, this claimed need for plastic is an argument that is being embraced almost uncritically by many institutions. At the very least, they accept the need for single-use items and packaging.

Eugenie Sage says: “Health considerations and preventing the spread of Covid come first in managed isolation facilities. This can mean more single use items being used to prevent the risk of contamination when items are exchanged between staff and those isolating.”

But in our continued reliance on disposable packaging in the pandemic, are we thinking far too narrowly?

For instance, in our family’s isolation room, we have asked the hotel to stop delivering us 10 water bottles a day; we are happy to drink tap water then wash our glasses. And we have suggested that instead of delivering us five fruit salads for breakfast in five containers, they just deliver us one bigger one. Small steps but, across 32 isolation and quarantine facilities, that could stop a million water bottles going to the landfill.

If those small improvements can be made in isolation facilities, how much more could be achieved by the whole team of five million?

Greenpeace plastics campaigner Phil Vine says that in many cases single-use plastics can and should be safely substituted with reusables, to avoid a Covid single-use plastic spike. He cites a statement signed by 125 health experts from 19 countries, saying reusables are just as safe as disposables in the pandemic.

“The experience of returning Kiwis in managed isolation having five to 15 single-use plastic water bottles thrust upon them every day is indicative of a tendency for people to turn to this polluting form of packaging for perceived reasons of hygiene,” he says.

“After decades of marketing, people have been conditioned to think that something wrapped in plastic is somehow inherently safer. Except for medical grade plastic, that is simply untrue.”

Even in hospitals, the Rethinking Plastics report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and Dr Chiaroni-Clarke highlights new tools, like Christchurch company Medsalv’s sterilisation system to allow disposable medical devices to be reused. The report suggests government provide more support to roll out this technology in hospitals.

That report was published just before the emergence of the coronavirus. Covid – rather than overshadowing the findings on managing waste – makes the report’s recommendations even more pertinent.

Hygiene has contributed to the popularity of single-use plastic, says Chiaroni-Clarke now, but is it not the only hygienic material. Covid and the associate concerns about hygiene have disrupted progress towards reusing items in everyday life, she warns.

“We don’t want to lose the progress we have made …”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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