WE HAVE A ‘WICKED PROBLEM’

—-by Sharon Humphreys, Executive Director, Packaging Council of New Zealand

If 2017 is going to be the year when New Zealand gets serious about packaging waste issues, we first have to have an honest conversation about packaging. Unfortunately, the need for sensible discussion and objectivity in this space has eluded us year after year. It is easier, it would seem, to play a blame-game directing responsibility for packaging proliferation at some global packaging industry conspiracy rather than acknowledging the inescapable, definitely inconvenient, fact that it is consumerism which drives packaging demand, not the other way around.
At the most basic level, packaging provides containment for the product, preventing spoilage and damage. Without it, we would squander the resources that are embedded in the products themselves. But consumerism has also created a market for packaging which goes beyond simple physical containment and into the realms of functional enhancement and sensory delight.
Consumerism has blurred the lines between what we need from packaging and what we want from packaging.
This has come at a cost.
Fuelled by ever-increasing technological capabilities, packaging enables products to meet society’s desires and demands which reflect our lifestyles, aspirations, demographics and wellbeing.
Enhanced functionality in packaging design, and innovations in packaging materials, are contradictorily responsible for a proliferation in packaging and a reduction in the resources it takes to effectively and efficiently produce and deliver goods.
Quite simply packaging has become a wicked problem. (A ‘wicked problem’, according to Wikipedia, is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.)
So, if we are going to challenge the waste created by packaging, we first have to be prepared to challenge the very core of consumerism.
The next challenge we need to acknowledge – another inescapable fact – is that New Zealand is a land of limited resources and limited influence in the global consumer-goods market. That is not an excuse to do nothing, but does dictate what is economically and environmentally intelligent to do. The nature of ‘wicked problems’ is that often what is sensible to do is generally more complex and less sexy than fits into a 10-second media sound-bite.
PAC.NZ is thankful that the Minister for the Environment is aware of the complex nature of packaging and waste management and the need for cost-effective, lasting solutions. But just imagine what could be achieved if the regulators, local authorities, industry and community could find common ground and work together instead of fostering fragmented recovery solutions, cherry-picking materials for recovery based on ‘popular’ demand rather than evidence-based facts to establish if ‘doing the right thing’ is in fact the right thing to do, and implementing ad-hoc schemes which are resource inefficient across a whole raft of life-cycle environmental indicators.
If we can move beyond our differences and are prepared to embrace what we can’t and shouldn’t do, we will be a long way towards finding common agreement on what we can and should do. I would like us to prioritise what particular packaging waste issues we want to see addressed as a country. Then we can determine if and where intervention is required, what resources are already in place, provide analytical assessment if these resources are enough, and if not, establish what else is required and from whom.