Saturday, January 12, 2019

A good idea is suspended

A programme in New Zealand to collect soft plastics for recycling has been suspended. There was evidence we were headed that way for quite awhile, but its end, even if temporary, was sudden. Whether it resumes or not, the real issue is reducing the amount of soft plastics there are.

The programme began as a pilot in 2015, and was partly funded by the government of the day, led by the National Party, though it was a project of the Packaging Forum, which represents the packaging industry. The idea was to make it easy for people to drop off soft plastic packaging (basically anything plastic that a person could crumple in their hands), and it became very popular.

At the time the programme was begun, there was no governmental move to ban single-use plastic bags, so it was partly a way of dealing with all those used bags. The plastics were sent to Australia, but the long-term plan was to process them here in New Zealand.

In 2016, the project collected 106 tonnes of soft plastic for recycling, which grew to 366 tonnes in 2017. They planned to be collecting 447 tonnes by the end of this year.

However, the Australians stopped accepting our soft plastics, and it began piling up. By November of last year, 400 tonnes was in storage, some of it getting mouldy, making it unusable. A month later, six supermarkets stopped collecting the bags. That was probably the starting point of the end, because a few days later the packaging forum “suspended” the programme on December 31.

The forum “plans to resume a sustainable service in April 2019”, but that depends on finding some way to process the plastics collected, and to do so here in New Zealand. I’m extremely dubious that will happen.

I didn’t know any of this was going on. I didn’t go grocery shopping the end of December (I ordered online), so if there was any in-store announcement, I never saw it.

Earlier this week I went grocery shopping and brought my soft plastic packaging with me. I got to the Countdown grocery store, and the collection barrel was gone. I just thought that maybe they hadn’t been able to deal with it over the holidays. The next day, I went to The Warehouse, which also collected the bags, and looked for their barrel. It wasn’t there, either. When I was in the checkout I saw a sign on the wall saying that the programme was suspended.

I had one small bag of soft plastics, so it wasn’t a lot, but it raised a question: What was I going to do with it? And, should I save and store the plastics for four months in case the programme really does resume in April? No, I shouldn’t. There can be no guarantee the programme will return then or ever, and then I’d have to send it all to landfill. So, I’ll send it to landfill again, and, in fact, we’ve already started throwing it into the regular rubbish. I hated doing that, but there’s no practical alternative.

At the end of November 2017, I said of the programme that “I’d guesstimate I’ve probably diverted the equivalent of five 60-litre rubbish bags (probably more) from landfill.” At the time, I had no way of knowing that it would start piling up in storage and not be recycled.

All of New Zealand’s supermarkets have stopped giving away plastic shopping bags. The government has announced that they’ll be banned everywhere in New Zealand this year. So, the amount of soft plastic packaging we have to deal with will be cut dramatically. But there’s so much more that could be done.

The programme was always a way to deal with a problem after the fact. The better solution would have been to eliminate the problem by eliminating the plastic packaging. While banning the shopping bags will be huge, there’s still a lot of plastic shrink wrapping used, and potato chips and other snacks and food products, like frozen vegetables, come in plastic bags. These are not easy to avoid without also avoiding the products.

I have mesh bags to use when I shop for fresh produce so that I don’t need any plastic bags, which is part of the solution. The packaging industry should work to eliminate all the unnecessary plastics, like shrink-wrap, for example, which is almost never necessary. Despite all that, some plastic packaging will remain, and it would be good to find a sustainable way to recycle it. Maybe it’ll happen.

In the meantime, our own moves toward more sustainability have taken a step backwards. We’ll try to avoid the soft plastics we can, but some will be unavoidable, and that will unavoidably mean it’s headed to landfill again.

Maybe some times good ideas just need more time to work out.

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