The effect that plastic waste has on the environment is a modern-day problem without a clear solution. In recent years, New Zealand has undertaken various schemes to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic. One of New Zealand’s main problems is that there are no adequate facilities to accommodate for an increase in recycling. On top of this, if we are to make the business of recycling profitable, there needs to be more of an interest from overseas— “[There is a] cyclically low demand for mixed recycled plastics,” according to Packaging New Zealand.

“The solution is a double-whammy of innovative packaging and better disposal for the packaging that exists,” said Mike Chapman, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand. There are fundamental issues in the current system that inhibit sustainable recycling of plastics. Each sector of the industry has its flaws, but like Ken Snowman, CEO of Plastics New Zealand said, “To create such an extensive and systemic change, we must all work together for a better future.”

What's the best way to approach this?

“Just as there’s no point changing from plastic shopping bags to canvas ones if you’re buying far too many canvas bags, so too is it not helpful to use less plastic wrap if the subsequent product damage uses more resources in the long run,” according to Universal Packaging New Zealand. The end goal is a circular plastics economy—an economy where all plastic packaging is collected, reused or recycled into similar new products. Currently, suppliers are being asked to keep products fresh, but reduce the amount of packaging involved. The government and the supply industry are therefore pushing for stricter regulations around plastic packaging and recycling standards.

The supermarket industry is becoming increasingly focussed on creating loyal, returning customers—the power is in the hands of the consumer. However, consumer ideas like abandoning packaging at supermarkets in the act of rebellion are not sustainable solutions. Suppliers are aware of the need to develop ways in which they can operate more sustainably, but there is also pressure on them to provide quality produce. Furthermore, “Attempts made by the government sector to artificially increase the rate and/or type of material recycled can work for a while, but they do not have a good history of success,” according to Packaging New Zealand. In order to move towards a sustainable plastics economy, every sector must contribute and play their part.

Up until Christmas, New Zealand consumers had an outlet for soft plastics in the form of a nationwide recycling programme. However, the scheme is currently suspended after its main buyer in Australia had stopped receiving the plastic. It’s set to resume in April, in a reduced number of regions. Malcolm Everts, the recycling scheme chairman, said that the service was suspended to give the company time to work with its processing partners to build capacity, as well as find new and innovative processing solutions. The scheme was a success amongst consumers and saw the reprocessing of plastics into new long-life products. Before the service, soft plastics went straight to landfill.

“The journey to achieving [a circular plastics economy] is laudable and the ideal. It requires government leadership both central and local, sector collaboration, new infrastructure, and considerable technical innovation,” said Ken Snowman, CEO of Plastics New Zealand. The answer to the plastics question seems to lie in a multi-faceted approach. Everyone must be willing to lend a hand in reducing, reusing, and recycling, on top of suppliers reducing the amount of packaging in their products. Government influence must encourage and facilitate the switch to a “greener” industry, and in general, there needs to be a collaborative effort to increase the infrastructure and attitudes towards recycling in New Zealand.