The Challenge of Recycling Plastic Packaging

Plastic was revolutionary when it was invented in 1907 and its applications are numerous and sometimes lifesaving. But public backlash against plastic packaging has grown recently, due to the increased use of single use plastic and irresponsible disposal leading to plastic pollution on a mass scale. The time has come to differentiate between plastics with a purpose (such as preventing food waste) and plastics that just make our lives more convenient without necessarily adding any value to society.

The Ministry for the Environment is currently consulting on the phase out of difficult to recycle plastics such as plastics 3 (PVC), 6 (polystyrene) and EPS (expanded polystyrene), as well as some single use plastic items. Meanwhile, many councils are no longer collecting plastics other than 1 (PET), 2 (HDPE) and 5 (Polyproplyene), because these can be recycled onshore in Aotearoa (and also have good overseas markets).

What does this mean for the food and beverage industry? To put it succinctly, it means embracing innovation and circular solutions to ensure a resource can be used as many times as possible before it reaches the end of its life. It may be as simple as replacing plastic 3 (PVC) packaging for cracker and biscuit trays, with clear plastic 1 (PET) packaging.

Or it may mean a whole system change through the implementation of reusable or refillable packaging, such as with the Eco Store’s refill station in some New World supermarkets.

Some New Zealand companies have already started to address plastic packaging in innovative ways by ensuring they use recycled plastic in their packaging. In 2018 Earthwise began packaging laundry and dishwashing liquid in 75% recycled plastic 2 (HDPE) bottles. Fonterra have recently launched new packaging for milk made from plastic 2 (HDPE) derived from sugarcane. While plant-based this packaging is still 100% recyclable with other HDPE plastics.

Research by industry body WasteMINZ has highlighted several ways manufacturers have inadvertently limited the recyclability of their plastic packaging aside from the type of plastic they use. For example, the inclusion of a shrink-wrapped plastic sleeve and using coloured PET both limit the recyclability of a product.

Labelling is another key design feature which can impact recyclability. Many brands rely on the plastic identification symbol as a proxy for recycling information. However, research has found that only 40% of the public actually understand what the symbol means.

Compostable plastic packaging is an innovation in packaging which while aiming to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging can actually add to the confusion. A Colmar Brunton survey conducted in May found that 24% of respondents mistakenly believe that compostable plastic packaging will break down quickly if littered, while 64% of respondents believed that compostable bottles and cups are recyclable.  In reality, compostable packaging is designed to biodegrade in a specific composting system (either industrial or home) and cannot be accepted in kerbside recycling nor in greenwaste and food scraps collection.

These examples highlight the importance of manufacturers liaising with New Zealand recyclers and composters when designing new packaging to ensure that their packaging can be appropriately processed at end of life.

The Government consultation closes on 4 December. https://www.mfe.govt.nz/node/27007

WasteMINZ research, titled  The Truth about Plastic Recycling can be downloaded here.