Friday, May 10, 2019

Baby steps through rubbish

New Zealand has a recycling problem. While New Zealanders love their natural environment and want to protect it, but our options for dealing with recyclable waste are severely limited. We’re slowly making progress, but it’s baby steps. It would be nice if this baby could walk by now, though.

Today the New Zealand Government announced what they call their “Plan to recharge recycling”, and it has some important components. Among other things, it will seek to ensure the right things are recycled, that Kiwis are educated about can (and can’t) be recycled, that industry takes more responsibility for the packaging used for the products we buy, and that we develop onshore systems for recycling low-value plastics.

Part of the reason that we have trouble with contaminated and unusable recyclables collected is that many New Zealanders don’t fully understand what’s recyclable. One way around that is to educate people, and the video above from Auckland Council is one version of that (there’s an expanded version of that video at the bottom of this post).

One of the major problems we have is that both China and Australia announced that they would no longer accept our recyclables for processing. That meant the soft plastics recycling programme was suspended in December of last year. A month ago, they announced that the programme would resume on a limited basis after Easter, and then at the end of April they announced on Facebook the programme would resume at 37 locations in Auckland on May 20—at locations to be announced later. Their goal is to keep the programme sustainable, which is good, but only part of the solution.

Manufacturers must take responsibility for the waste they produce, and the government wants them to do that, saying “This could include regulations around ensuring plastic packaging is able to be recycled and/or to require a portion of recycled content in packaging.” The latter should already be happening, but the only food container I can remember that uses recycled plastic is a product from Denmark. There could be New Zealand ones, too, but if so, they certainly don’t promote that fact.

As it is, much packing isn’t recyclable, usually because it’s made of mixed materials or simply that it’s not recyclable. For example, look at the labelling on these Countdown supermarket own-brand products I bought recently:

The package on the left tells us to send its packaging to landfill, while the one on the right tells us that it can be recycled (and the tub and lid are also coded for the type of plastic). I bought similar products from a competing grocery store, and they didn’t have those labels, but they were both recyclable (not the film, of course, because that’s soft plastic). The labels in the photo are good in that that they make clear that some packaging has to go to landfill, however, it ought to be made of recycled plastic and be recyclable.

There have been proposals that manufacturers be forced to accept returns of their packaging, because, the argument goes, it would make them quickly find ways of reducing it so they don’t have to deal with it. In reality, they’d probably just pay to send it to landfill. Another proposal has been to tax manufacturers for their packaging, giving them a financial incentive to reduce packaging, Putting aside questions about how, precisely, such a tax could work, it’s an interesting idea. But if manufacturers were both taxed and required to accept the return of their packaging, that might work. But we don’t live in such a perfect world, so the more likely thing, in my opinion, is that the government will issue regulations that manufacturers must adhere to, and, ultimately, consumers will pay for it—but we do, already because we have to pay to bury the non-recyclable stuff.

So, there’s a bit of progress on dealing with our mountain of waste, to recycle what we can, and reduce what we can’t. It should already be much easier than it is, and consumers shouldn’t have to work so hard to figure out ways to reduce our packaging waste. We need government action to speed things up, and while the government is definitely moving in the right direction, it needs to move faster on the things that can be done right away. Hopefully, they’ll do so. This baby needs to start running.

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