Dislodged waste from a historic landfill scattered across the banks of Fox River and nearby coastline following severe rain in March 2019. Credit: Kelsey Porter

Report on dealing with plastics – Expert Reaction

A new report by Royal Society Te Apārangi states we have thrown away three quarters of the volume of plastics ever produced.

The report, Plastics in the Environment: Te Ao Hurihuri – The Changing World outlines how plastics are made, used and disposed of, as well as the risks plastics pose to wildlife and humans. It states the equivalent of a garbage truck-load of plastic waste has been dumped into the ocean every 38 seconds over the past decade, and how this leads to microplastics in our food chain.

The authors say there’s a need for more consistent and clear labelling of plastics, waste infrastructure to support recycling efforts, and more innovative design to allow for greater recovery and reuse.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report.

Dr Sommer Kapitan, Senior Lecturer of Marketing, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“Plastic use is becoming a moral issue. Like cigarette smoking once was, using plastic is an addictive, unavoidable part of our consumer landscape. Until our plastic dependency rises to the level of moral outrage that drives regulatory and social norm change, our fixation on the convenience of plastics will continue unabated.

“The issue is twofold: Consumers tell us overwhelmingly they care about the environment. But when we buy, we are still driven by habits, convenience, and the desire to look good.

So first, we must tackle habits. The single best predictor of a future behaviour is a past behaviour. The more our behaviours shift, even subtlely, via regulation or social norm, the more habits change. That means that the government’s bold step to regulate single-use plastic bags begins to shift our habits. Now we carry reusable bags or purchase sturdy plastic or fibre reusable bags at the shops.

“Then, we must raise the appeal of shunning plastic. We need reusable goods to be sexy. Social recognition is a subtle but pervasive force in this battle. Loyalty programmes for those who disdain single-use plastic, earning discounts for every single-use container avoided, rewards for remembering non-single-use takeaway containers. Many cafes already reward folks who bring reusable coffee cups, and shops charge for takeaway containers. People proudly display metal and bamboo reusable straws at the office, in restaurants, in the park for picnics.

“Finally, these forces together should form a new social norm: plastic shaming. Carrying and using plastic should become as objectively gross as blowing smoke in a baby’s face. We should all be outraged.

“The moral disgust of being a plastic user should create a new category of renegades. Instead of plastic shunners being the offbeat radicals with their reusable bags, bulk-bin containers, cotton netting fruit and vege bags and microbead-free soaps, plastic addicts will become the fringe, hoarding bags and takeaway containers like hermits.

“Consumers face a tough battle. It is hard to decide to forgo a coffee on a busy morning if we forget to bring a reusable cup. We are all busy, we are all juggling. But that’s what got us into this plastic dependency in the first place. The same rules apply for us – every choice we make, even once, to avoid plastics in our daily life… translates to the creation of a new, plastic-free habit. The biggest costs are incurred the first time you chose to avoid plastic. To carry your own container to the sushi shop, to read every label to find a soap free of plastics. To bring your own netted bags to the grocery store for fruit and vege. But after you invest the first effort to make a change, that change becomes easier, and habits begin to form.

“Also, consider the army of plastics you already have in your home. Refuse to let them become single-use. Reuse them. Refill your soap dispenser, reuse your plastic bags for wet gear, keep takeaway containers in the boot of your car or the bottom of your bag for the next time you get takeaway. That ice cream container becomes excellent food storage for baked goods and leftovers. Commit to have ugly or eccentric food containers by reusing sturdy plastics from the grocers or takeaway shops. Plant this spring’s herbs in yesterday’s single-use butter tub or milk jug.”

No conflict of interest. 

Dr Joya Kemper, Lecturer in Marketing, University of Auckland comments:

“In order to change the way to use and create plastics there will need to be a change in ‘regulation, infrastructure, technologies and social practices’.

“It also needs a change in business and marketing thinking – traditionally businesses have not examined what happens to their products after it has been bought by the consumer. However, there is now demand for companies to take responsibility for their products and its disposal.

“While such initiatives are now voluntary (i.e., H&M taking back their clothing after use), regulation is likely needed to hold companies accountable for their plastic disposal (i.e., currently media is being used to hold companies accountable, a case in point when Greenpeace found Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé to be worst plastic polluters). Such regulative action for New Zealand can come under the New Zealand’s Waste Minimisation Act 2008 which can require stewardship schemes for businesses to take responsibility for managing the environmental impacts of their products. Germany introduced such a scheme in the 90s, making it now the best country at recycling.

“New Zealand currently lacks infrastructure for recycling and needs to immediately invest in this area – we can’t ask consumers to recycle plastics more and better, if there is nowhere to send the plastics. That being said, individuals will still need to change their behaviours in regards to both the reduction of plastic use and recycling of plastics. Stores in New Zealand, most notably, GoodFor Wholefoods Refillery, allow you to bring your own containers and fill them with everything from tea, to baking, to laundry needs. Even some New World stores allow you to refill your EcoStore bottles. This will be the new normal and changes the way we shop, and it will require us to be more conscious of what we need to bring to the supermarket.

“Therefore, it will require a change in our social practices – the routines and habits which we form. Depending on how the infrastructure will be built, it may also require us to separate our plastics, which we are already doing with soft plastics for example. This requires more effort on our parts, it may even mean we are responsible as consumers to bring plastics to recycling facilities, as is done in the Netherlands for example, outside most supermarkets there are bins to place your plastics, white and dark glass, paper etc. and plastic bottles are recycled in store where you are rewarded with a monetary incentive (i.e., 5c per bottle). In these cases, consumers may need help to identify the different plastics and means clearer labelling is needed about what type of plastic is used and whether (and how) it can be recycled.

“Specifically, the current Resin Identification Codes tell us a code (labelled 1, 2, 3 etc) identifying what type of plastic it is but doesn’t tell us whether we (New Zealand or the local council) has the facilities to actually recycle the plastic, which is why a company in the U.S for example, How2Recycle, is trying to make labelling more clear. But we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, many countries are doing a great job of recycling and diverting plastics from landfills, so we can learn from places like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.”

No conflict of interest. 

Emeritus Professor Thomas Neitzert, Chair, Vice Chancellor’s Taskforce for Sustainability, AUT; President, Engineers for Social Responsibility Inc., comments:

The Royal Society Te Apārangi has released a report on the life cycle of plastics from their production to their disposal including recycling and reuse. Some of New Zealand’s eminent polymer scientist have contributed to the report that also elaborates on the effect of plastics on the environment and human health. The report reads like a small textbook and is well illustrated. It covers the manufacturing of plastics, it various types and dominant usages. It provides numbers of total production volumes, recycling rates and amounts of plastic going to landfill. Globally the plastic production is still increasing exponentially and on average a quarter of plastic waste is recycled, the rest is either incinerated, with its own problems, or goes to landfill. New Zealand data are not always existent, but in 2017 of 300 thousand tonnes imported resin, 41.5 thousand tonnes were exported as waste. 

“Under “Disposal of waste plastics” the issues of recycling by plastic type are being discussed and an explanation is provided, that even compostable plastics usually require an appropriate commercial composting facility and will not break down in a garden compost. 

“The chapter on “Plastic debris in the environment” highlights how plastics ends up in the waterways and oceans, either not breaking down very fast or finally ending up as micro or even nano-particles. The latest findings are being cited about micro-fibres from synthetic clothing or tyre abrasions present in the sea, the air and being ingested by humans. Modern wastewater treatment plants are not necessary filtering them out and depositing their sludge subsequently on farmland. 

“The effects on humans, animals and the environment are also discussed. There is firstly the harm to animals by entanglement into plastics and the digestion of larger pieces. Then there are the additives which make plastics softer, colourful and fire retardant. Some of them are toxic at certain concentrations, but are mostly tested for food safety and might get regulated, like the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA). 

“The report states little is known about the effects of ingestion of plastics by animals. We know they get taken up in quantities by fishes and shellfish, but further research is required to determine the transgression of tissue barriers and the accumulation in the food chain. Unknown are also any detrimental effects of micro plastics in drinking water or any plastics we ingest directly as humans. 

“Finally the question is asked “How can we reduce plastic pollution?”. International attempts are being quoted and the opportunities of industry in the design stages of products are listed. The replacement of fossil fuel based plastics with biodegradable ones from sustainable resources is mentioned. The power of consumers is acknowledged, but seen as limited compared with regulations, infrastructure and technologies. The report ends with formulating open research questions to fill obvious knowledge gaps. 

“The document is certainly a good summary of our current understanding of plastics and its effect on the environment as well as humans. While it points out the downsides of plastics, it also tries to highlight the positives in the area of medical technologies, light-weighting of transport and safe food-keeping. The last aspect is not without controversy considering the many standards with regards to contamination of food through leaching packaging materials and the regulation of BPA.

“The report remains in neutral territory, when it comes to firm recommendations. It is disappointing that the precautionary principle is not being referred to. Although the report talks about the recent ubiquity of plastics on land, in the sea and in the air, plastic materials are seen as being benign until proven guilty. In the absence of knowledge either way, a more favourable opinion of alternatives would be justified.

“For the way forward, it is mentioned the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor is conducting a project, Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa, New Zealand. If this project follows the lead of the report, then we can expect more research on the open questions from the report and work on the infrastructure of commercial composting as well as a move to biodegradable and compostable materials.

“A context for this work should also be the latest special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global warming of 1.5C, which asks to reduce global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels to 2030 to limit temperature rise to 1.5C to avoid serious consequences. The report from the Royal Society states plastics are responsible for 4% – 8% of global oil production through being a raw material and energy use during manufacturing. If we are serious about carbon emissions, then we have to reduce the overall consumption of plastics and establish the circular economy. This will also affect and should include competing materials like glass, steel, aluminium, concrete and timber. The recycling and wastage rates of these materials equally suffer from a lack of regulations, standards and infrastructure.”

No conflict of interest. 

Janine Brinsdon, chief executive, Waste Management Institute New Zealand (WasteMINZ), comments:

“Currently manufacturers use the plastics identification symbol as a signal to consumers as to whether an item can be recycled. With more and more plastic types no longer able to be collected for recycling, on-pack labelling needs to be improved to tell the public whether an item is recyclable, where and how. Soft plastics is a case in point where they can only be recycled at specific drop off locations in Auckland.

“Research is currently being undertaken by WasteMINZ into household recycling bins to understand how well the public is recycling at the moment, and to identify where messaging can be simplified and improved to reduce confusion. This hands on research will complement the literature review of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, and the work of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Dr Juliet Gerrard. WasteMINZ’s results will be published in early 2020.”

No conflict of interest declared.