Johan Verbeek looks at what’s being done in the plastics area to reduce single use and options for recycling, arguing some plastics are necessary, especially during the pandemic

Comment: The problem with plastic waste has been on everyone’s mind over the last few years, and the problem is persisting. This has led to a mindset of “plastics are bad” – but this is not entirely correct.

Plastics are extremely valuable materials and not inherently flawed; it is how we use them that is. As a society, we need to change our behaviour to reduce waste, but it is worth remembering that we do need plastics!  

We are seeing a good example of this need during the current Covid-19 pandemic, which has required a diverse range of single use plastic items for personal protection including masks and gloves. Similarly, the medical industry has required massive amounts of sterile products, such as needles for the vaccination programme, and this has been enabled because of well-designed plastic packaging. And without plastic packaging, we would see a great increase in food spoilage leading to other types of environmental problems.

The trick is to design these products carefully and avoid unnecessary packaging – and we must do things right. Earlier this year a company in New Zealand was warned for misleading advertising regarding the recyclability of their product. Even though most plastics are recyclable in theory, without the proper infrastructure in New Zealand it may not be practical.

But it is not all doom and gloom. A lot has been happening in New Zealand in the last couple of years to address this problem. Different councils and government have put in significant effort to improve our infrastructure for collecting and sorting plastic waste. Government has introduced several initiatives over the last few years to drive change, for example banning single use plastic bags and introducing product stewardship schemes.  

Earlier this month, Auto Stewardship New Zealand was the first to be accredited as a regulated product stewardship scheme for vehicles, called Tyrewise. This is a fantastic move towards circularity in the tyre industry and will present many opportunities for creating new products from used tyres.

What is often least visible is what industry is doing already to reduce reliance on single use plastics or reduce the amount of waste generated. In August this year, Goodman Fielder announced the partial replacement of plastic bread tags with cardboard tags, a move that could potentially divert a significant amount of waste away from landfill.

More recently, it was announced that Meadow Fresh milk bottles will now include 30 percent recycled HDPE (High Density Poly Ethylene) and will not contain white plastic, which makes recycling into new plastic bottles and other food packaging possible.  

Also announced in November is Mitre 10’s new initiative, “Pot Recycle”, to collect and recycle polypropylene plant pots. This scheme will prevent garden pots ending up in landfill and reduce the reliance on new plastic pots. Under this scheme, clean pots are actually re-melted and processed into new pots to be used by the same suppliers of plants to Mitre 10.

People may also not be aware of the option to recycle expanded polystyrene at many hardware stores, which is offered free of charge by Onehunga-based Expol.  

Another example is the Better Packaging Company that recently launched sustainable eCommerce packaging made, 100 percent, from ocean bound plastic. As most plastics in the ocean enter through rivers, this company works with coastal communities around the world to collect plastics before they enter the ocean and recycle it into packaging. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement where these communities can earn a good income and the same time clean the environment.

Other examples are initiatives like the soft plastic recycling scheme, which turns plastic film into products such as fence posts. Other innovative products use wool as an additive in plastics to reduce the amount of virgin material. One industry that is surprisingly reliant on petrochemical plastics is horticulture.

Growing fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes requires a lot of twine and clips to support growing plants. These cannot be composted with the organic material or be easily recovered. Fantastic innovations have emerged in New Zealand to combat this problem; for example, Extrutec’s compostable twine.

One thing is for sure, the situation in New Zealand will change even if it’s a bit slow. The Government has a strong focus on catalysing change and recently announced the $50 million Plastic Innovation Fund targeted at reducing plastic waste and seeding innovative solutions to better use plastic materials.

Over time, as our behaviour changes, what we hope to see is that consumers can safely recycle materials that they use at home and there will be an adequate infrastructure to collect, separate and reprocess plastics into value added products like the initiatives and innovations I have highlighted.

Associate Professor Johan Verbeek is from Faculty of Engineering, University of Auckland.

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