Monday, August 30, 2021

The problem is more than plastic

New Zealand is serious about reducing waste and pollution, even if not everyone necessarily agrees on what that means or what needs to be done. A couple months ago, I talked about the NZ Government’s new plans to phase out certain “problem plastics”. While that’s a worthy goal and target, it's very complex, and not the only problem.

The photo above is an example of the difficulty in fixing this problem. It shows the top of a bottle for a squeezable bottle of American-style mustard, and it’s not recyclable. We know this, first, because it doesn’t have a recycling mark on it. That may mean it’s made up different of plastic types—such as the red and yellow being different types of plastic, or maybe the specific blends of one or both. Of course, it’s also possible that the manufacturer just couldn’t figure out where to put the recycling emblem, but the point is that without that code, we consumers have to assume that the plastic isn’t recyclable and put it in the bin for rubbish headed to landfill. As it happens, the bottle itself is Type 4 plastic which is recyclable, however, there’s no company in New Zealand that does so, and countries overseas are no longer accepting foreign plastic waste, so the bottle will also end up in landfill.

One solution is to regulate to forbid mixed and/or unmarked plastics like that bottle top. This will probably take the manufacturer some time to work out, but that’s no excuse to not push them along.

Some solutions companies have tried in recent years haven’t been successful. For example, some years back, I bought a cup of coffee with a lid that, it claimed, was compostable (photo at left). I knew from my research that such things aren’t home compostable because they require the much higher temperatures found in commercial composting facilities—and at the time there were hardly any of them. Such facilities are being built especially to accept organic waste, including food scraps collection programmes in cities like Hamilton and Auckland, but none of them accept supposed “compostable” packaging.

Another problem with such products was that they were often plastic-based, and when they degraded they created microplastics, a huge problem in themselves. Some of the supposedly compostable products like coffee lids use cornstarch which is theoretically better—but there isn’t anywhere to take them, either.

I decided to put the coffee lid in the photo into my own compost bin to find out how long it took to degrade in our conditions. After about a year it was still intact, even as the organic contents of the bin were breaking down. I don’t know if it ever started breaking down because the final year in that house, 2019, was a bit too tumultuous for me to care about it anymore. Even so, I doubt it ever broke down at all.

The government is already planning to ban such products, which is the best solution. However, that doesn’t solve the question about what to use for lids, nor does it deal with the problem of the cups themselves, which are also a huge waste problem. In the short term, the government could reduce both problems by, say, tripling GST (Goods and Services Tax) on coffees bought in takeaway cups, but not on coffee served in customers’ own reusable cups. The government won’t do that, mostly because it insists on one flat GST rate on everything to keep the tax system simple, however, it’s an example of one way that people could be encouraged to use reusable coffee cups instead of disposable ones. Of course, companies could charge a couple dollars more for a single-use cup, providing an incentive for customers to switch, but how many cafes would risk pissing off customers?

A lot of companies have been experimenting with alternatives, like disposable cutlery and plates made from wood. Washable, reusable steel drinking straws are cheap and available everywhere (I don’t personally have any; I don’t use straws often and have way too many paper ones to use first). I’m sure there are plenty of creative people in search of opportunities who can come up with a lot more alternatives to single-use plastic products—and now they’ll have the incentive thanks to the announced timeline for banning such plastics.

Earlier this month, a major NZ food company announced that it would slowly start switching its tags on bags of fresh bread to recyclable cardboard instead of the small plastic tags used now. Even if the cardboard bread tags end up in landfill, they’ll eventually decompose naturally. That still leaves the problem of the plastic bags, but first things first (we can recycle those here in Hamilton and Auckland, but that’s not nationwide). This change will affect how I clean up after painting stuff, as well as how I clean some other things, but it won’t change using them as, well, tags, like I did for my prescriptions for awhile.

In November, the government plans to launch a $50 million Plastics Innovation Fund to “help support projects that reimagine how we make, use and dispose of plastics”. Environment Minister David Parker said, “We need to back New Zealanders to innovate, find solutions and then scale them up.” (Full disclosure: I know and worked with David Parker when I was a volunteer in the Labour Party).

What all of this is about is making New Zealand cleaner and greener, with a circular economy in which nothing is wasted if we can prevent it. “We want to be part of global solutions to tackle the impacts of plastic pollution,” Parker said. For years now, I’ve been trying to do my part, as I’ve discussed on this blog, and will continue to do. Cynics say our efforts are too small to make any difference, but the retort to that is simple: It’s always better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.


Roger Owen Green said...

obviously a huge prob in the uS. Our city is still taking 1-6 plastic, though I'm told the market for everything above 2 is not robust.

Arthur Schenck said...

Auckland and Hamilton (and probably other places) also collect PLastics 1 through 6, and they recycle 1, 2, and 5. The rest go to landfill.