Speaking from New York, in the United States, Niamh Peren is upbeat about what 46,175 people have achieved by encouraging the Government to adopt a nationwide waste and recycling strategy.

Last month, Environment Minister David Parker announced a three-pronged plan to “transform recycling”. The ideas, open for discussion, are to standardise kerbside recycling, give incentives to return empty drink bottles, and get businesses to separate food scraps.

The aim is to lift the country’s relatively low recycling rate, of 28 percent. (By comparison, Germany, Austria and Wales recycling more than 50 percent of all waste.) Each year, nearly 13 million tonnes of waste goes into New Zealand landfills.

Days before the announcement, Parliament’s Environment Select Committee, chaired by Green MP Eugenie Sage, reported back on the 46,175-signature petition started by Peren in 2018.

Actually, two petitions were presented to Sage on the steps of Parliament in November 2019. (More on that later.)

Is the announcement aligned with what the petition wanted?

“It is and it isn’t,” Peren says, via video call. “It is aligned in the sense that we wanted change. But whether I would ever call it transformational? I definitely wouldn’t. It’s not transformational at all.”

She adds: “It appears to be more of a Band-Aid solution than actually going to the cause and the root of the problem and actually helping us change our habits so that we can actually look after our futures and create healthier ecosystems.”

Sage, speaking as Green Party environment spokesperson, says via email the proposals will make a significant difference. “They will improve the quality and quantity of recycling collected, which should make materials recovery and re-use easier.”

Parker’s spokesman says via email: “A core set of materials consistently accepted in household kerbside recycling (as the Government is currently consulting on) will make it easier for manufacturers to improve their on-pack labelling as they will know whether their materials are actually recyclable or not.

Let’s backtrack

In 2018, Peren started the campaign Thumbs Up New Zealand, Tino Pai Aotearoa, which called for a fix to the confusing jumble of waste and recycling programme around the country. Not only did it get tens of thousands of signatures, 47 of the country’s 67 mayors wrote letters of support.

But the campaign was more than about just standardisation. The name “Thumbs Up” was the genesis for the second petition – a suggested system of food and drink packaging labelling.

Two green thumbs up would signify if the packaging was 100 percent recyclable in New Zealand, and made from 100 percent recycled material, a horizontal yellow thumb means it’s recyclable in NZ but not made from recycled material, while two red thumbs down meant the packaging is not recyclable in NZ.

Peren says there’s not much point in tinkering with kerbside recycling if the material is still being shipped overseas and, potentially, not being recycled. That’s not solving the bigger problem.

“A truly transformative strategy would shift from a linear economy to a circular economy. It would think big picture. It would think through the full picture. It would protect future generations from our rubbish by designing it out of the system.”

Food and drink companies should be encouraged to buy upcycled material for their products, and refillery systems should spring up for consumers, creating what she calls a “low-waste, zero-waste effect”. Compostable plastics should be banned, she says.

“If we are going to do something, we need to do it right. And we can.”

There are examples of what happens in our throw-out-and-hope culture.

After China refused to take our waste, it was sent to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. RNZ’s excellent 2018 Insight programme showed Malaysia had become a dumping ground for New Zealand plastics.

Back home, thousands of tonnes of plastic bales were stockpiled as a new processor was sought.

While pre-Covid there was confusion about recycling, especially with councils having different rules, that turned to deliberate rule-breaking after the pandemic hit, leading to threats to take residential bins off shoddy recyclers.

In 2020, the Ministry for the Environment consulted councils and industry – but not Thumbs Up NZ – on improving kerbside waste and recycling collection. The culmination of that work was the announcement by Parker.

Last month’s Select Committee report on Peren’s petition said plastics are more confusing than glass when it comes to recycling. “The ministry is aiming to phase out some problem plastics from the system, and we understand Cabinet is considering regulations early this year.”

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 a $15 million grant for a fibre optical and mechanical sorter. Photo: Supplied

Peren is studying a Master of Science in strategic design and management at Parsons School of Design at The New School, in New York. She earned a President’s Scholarship in 2020, and became a John L Tishman scholar last year.

She wants to be polite, wrestling over whether to call the Government response “weak” as it’s a “nasty word”.

But she’s forthright about the constant fight to be heard, how no MP championed the campaign, and how a promise to join a labelling working group and advisory group wasn’t kept. (Ministry for the Environment explained to the select committee neither group was established.)

Getting a report back from the select committee on the petition prompted tears of joy. But at the same time, she felt no one read the paperwork.

The environment committee’s first response, to the Thumbs Up labelling system, was issued in August 2020, when Labour’s Duncan Webb was chair. In it, the Business Ministry (MBIE) said compulsory labelling would impose extra costs that, manufacturers and retailers said would typically be passed to the consumer.

Such a recommendation would only be recommended if there was a “clear market failure, and if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs”.

Industry groups raised doubts. WasteMINZ, which represents the waste, resource recovery and contaminated land sectors, said Thumbs Up wouldn’t fulfill all requirements of a comprehensive and effective labelling system.

The Packaging Forum thought it wasn’t the right system – that a more detailed national standard was required. Plastics NZ, meanwhile, thought Thumbs Up was too simplistic – and could lead to increased waste.

The select committee thanked Peren for the petition, but said “we are not convinced the ‘Thumbs Up’ is necessary the right [labelling system]”.

Sage, the Green MP, tells Newsroom that labelling food and beverage containers is only one aspect of improving recycling. “The Australian experience suggests that standardising the materials collected is likely to make more of a difference than improving the labelling on packaging; and require less effort from households.”

Peren says the country doesn’t need to spend money on different bins, or more trucks – although that seems a natural consequence of a standardised national waste and recycling scheme.

“It’s actually about a system, and then communicating that system, right?”

In responding to Peren’s petition, last month, on standardising waste and recycling across the country, the Select Committee, now chaired by Sage, noted the Ministry for the Environment published a report recommending the adoption of the Australasian Recycling Label scheme. (The scheme was ranked highly by the United Nations Environment Programme.)

The Committee commended Peren on her campaigning work, and noted “much consultation and work” was needed before changes could be made. “We recognise the need to design waste out of the system. We hope that the new waste strategy and waste minimisation legislation is ambitious and far-reaching.”

It recommended MfE revisit its own recommendation to set up an advisory group on an improved recycling labelling scheme.

Part of Peren’s frustration is with Sage. Initially, she was reluctant to accept the petition on the steps, then she was late for the appointment. The MP, who was Associate Environment Minister in the last Government, also suggested the petition be sent directly to the MfE. She then split the petitions, and forgot to sign them before they were taken to clerk’s office, Peren says.

Sage says the petitions were tabled in Parliament and considered fully by the Environment Committee.

“I may have been late for the presentation of the labelling petition and regret any inconvenience caused. The realities of ministerial and MP commitments, and a full daily diary, means that from time to time I have been late for events. I do not recall the details of the conversation with Ms Peren. If I mentioned the Ministry for the Environment, it was to ensure they were aware of the petition.”

Is Peren bitter at how things have happened? She says she still wants to help fix the system.

“Home is really important to me. And that’s why I did it was because I thought, ‘Hold up, there’s a really simple solution here’, and it doesn’t have to be tricky,” she says.

“The more research I did, the more obvious it became how easy it could be. And I still wish I wish that I would wake up one morning to an email from Government being, like, ‘Can you help?’”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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