Rethinking plastics in Aotearoa – Expert Reaction 

Reducing the burden of plastic is the theme of a new report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA). 

The 264-page report sets out six key recommendations aimed at driving New Zealand towards a circular economy on plastic use:

  • implement a national plastics action plan
  • improve plastics data collection
  • embed the report in the government agenda
  • create and enable consistency in design, use and disposal
  • promote innovation
  • mitigate the environmental and health impacts of plastic

The SMC asked six experts to comment on the PMCSA’s report. The report is available on Scimex for registered journalists. 

Associate Professor Duncan McGillivray, University of Auckland and MacDiarmid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

“The Rethinking Plastics report is extremely timely, and shows the depths of New Zealand’s dependence on plastic for our way of life, and also how much that is affecting our environment and potentially our quality of life. It provides a striking vision of a very different New Zealand in 2030 where our relationship to plastic has changed. And it presents in an equally striking way just how much is unknown about the amount of plastic that is used in New Zealand and what its ultimate destination is.

“It is important to remember that plastics are not inherently bad – the report gives several examples of their benefits. Advanced materials involving plastics make aeroplanes lighter, reducing the environmental impact of international travel. Plastics used in packaging foods can reduce the major international problem of food wastage. Innovative uses of plastic-based materials are being developed in New Zealand to sequester carbon dioxide, sense chemicals or prevent bacterial infection. It is essential when considering the impact of plastics on the environment it is necessary to consider the entire life of the plastic, the costs involved in producing the plastic, and what alternatives there are.

“Nevertheless, it is clear that there are issues with plastic waste – particularly around microplastics and nanoplastics that occur as waste plastic breaks down. We are only just beginning to understand how much microplastics and nanoplastics are in the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat, but we already know these particles permeate almost everything. We have even less knowledge of the long term impacts of this on our health or on New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna. There is a clear need to better determine how much micro- and nanoplastic there is in New Zealand, and its health effects, and how we might deal with these.

“There are many recommendations in the report, chief of which is to develop a national plastics action plan that involves the Government, the community, industry and scientists. We need to make sure that our use of plastics is done in the way with the most benefit, and the least impact. This will involve innovation, creativity, and education, and will need to involve everyone, but will leave us all in a better place.”

Declared conflicts of interest: I’m currently researching nanoplastics and their biological impact; and am a visiting Fellow at the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer, Scion, comments:

Rethinking Plastics is the apt title for this important report because plastics are necessary. Key functions of plastics are lightweighting and packaging protection for example, and critical to our export success. How we use plastics and what we do with them is a key to their remaining valuable to us without causing environmental and social damage and climate change.

“New Zealand has international obligations it must meet, and this requires national policy and regulatory consistency to reinforce change across our country. Our population of five million is too small to have multiple approaches. We are behind much of the world in our thinking, but this report gives us a direction to catch up and demonstrate our advantages in going bio, where we can create new plastics, degrade or recycle plastics.

“A great outcome of the report would be for government to become a key sustainable procurer and pay more for sustainability to kickstart change and business security for those who take the risk to redesign their products and use renewable resources.

“The report is a call to invest in our own future. We can be leading edge in adoption of new biobased and/or recycling standards and manufacturing with new biomaterials to replace today’s petroleum plastics. We can increase our focus, gather real data and be ready to prove our sustainable solutions to the world. APEC 2021 would be a great opportunity to lead the discussion on plastic pollution and the solutions New Zealand can offer.”

Declared conflicts of interest: I was a member of the Rethinking Plastics panel, am a member of the Packaging Council NZ Board, a management team member on the National Science Challenge for Science for Technology and Innovation (SfTI) and serve on a number of international bioeconomy fora.

Associate Professor Terri-Ann Berry, Director of Environmental Solutions Research Centre, Unitec, comments:

“Durable, flexible, inexpensive and lightweight; plastic appeared to be the perfect solution but now 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics have been produced globally (the same weight as 1 billion elephants) of which 79% could reach landfill. Risks associated with plastic use, include climate change, environmental consequences, health impacts and economic implications. This waste stream presents a global issue and this report suggests that New Zealand has not been at the forefront of initiatives which rethink plastic use.

“Globally, packaging/single use plastics are responsible for 36% of the total produced (page 19 of the report), with the next highest contribution from building and construction, followed by textiles and then consumer products. “Plastic isn’t the problem, it’s what we do with it”, says Erik Solheim, formerly UN Environment Programme. For example, in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 46% of plastic comes from fisheries alone. The current way we source and use plastics is unsustainable and we need a society-wide change of heart and practice.

“The report recommendations address all areas of society with a focus on education for schools and particular industries such as fisheries and agriculture. There is a considerable lack of information about the type and amount of plastic waste in the construction industry and a notable lack of enthusiasm for textile recycling (which was estimated to consume about 63% plastic as a feedstock). If we work on waste hierarchy which prioritises the 6Rs: Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Replace with disposal as a last resort, we can start to address these issues.  However, we are constrained by limitations due to our relatively isolated geographic location which affects our capability for recycling efficiently and access to alternative materials (at a realistic cost).

General comment

“Values associated with kaitiakitanga may provide powerful drivers for social change to improve environmental outcomes, however without including mahi kotahitanga (building relationships and working together), this aim becomes less achievable. Key hurdles to progress include addressing the education gap that exists for adults who are often more poorly informed than children. This may be due to a lack of engagement in what may be considered to be another ‘green’ issue but also due to a lack of accessibility.  There is still significant confusion around plastic types and the use of alternatives such as “biodegradable” and “compostable” products. One of the main barriers to a truly circular economy is the lack of clear resource markets for products for reuse/recycling. We need to recognise the potential value of waste materials to provide a consistent and stable resource market on which future commercial/industry designs can be based with a degree of confidence.”

Declared conflict of interest: none.

Dr Olga Pantos. senior scientist, The Institute of Environmental and Science Research (ESR), comments:

“As the report highlights, even the tiny plastics can have significant impacts on some of the most important biological processes on earth including the production of oxygen in our oceans.

“Something that we all have to realise is that every single piece of plastic polluting the environment is manmade. The properties of the plastic that have made it such a success, its strength, low weight and durability, have made it an integral part of everyday life, being used in everything from clothing to food packaging to aeroplanes.

“But this extensive use has led to the pervasive nature of this pollution. Everyone is exposed to it every day.

“Whilst the research around the impacts of plastics on the environment and human health is still in its infancy, we do know that plastic is not meant to be in the environment, and it would be better if it wasn’t there. Its impacts are wide-ranging and variable depending on the type of plastic, its size, the chemicals in it and the ones it may gain from the environment. It is vital that we learn more about the impacts on ourselves and on our environment.

“Whilst it is unlikely that we’re going to stop using plastic it is important for us to limit its use. We can do this by ceasing to use unnecessary plastics, and improving the way it is handled at the end of life. By reducing our use of plastics we can decrease the levels of those non-recyclable items going to landfill, and lower the energy needed for recycling. To achieve this it is important to think about the whole lifecycle of the plastic item before you buy it. We need to ask ourselves ‘do we really need to have it?’ If we do, what’s going to happen to it when we have finished with it? If there is there a better alternative, choosing the one that’s either not plastic or has the least environmental impact.

“The Rethinking Plastics report is a call to action. It means thinking about the environmental and social costs of plastic and making that a central part of our daily lives.”

Declared conflict of interest: I was on the Rethinking Plastics Aotearoa expert panel.

Niki Harre, Professor of Psychology, University of Auckland, comments:

Plastic is an important part of our everyday lives. We now need to figure out now how to make non-toxic plastics from sustainable resources and develop social systems to ensure these products are correctly managed. For individuals and organisations, the familiar Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and Repair, is a very useful approach.

“Whenever possible, reduce how much plastic you use by reusing and repairing. Replace single use items with reusable items regardless of what they are made from. A reusable plastic bottle for example, carries a much lower environmental burden than multiple single-use glass bottles. And, if possible, repair items rather than throw them away.

“Many plastic products can be recycled and efficient sorting systems help people put items they no longer want in the appropriate bin – signage, training sessions and waste audits are all good ways of developing a culture of correct disposal. Ultimately, we need to evolve a culture of care for all the resources we use. This takes organisation, time and cooperation – all of which add to the quality of our lives together.”

Conflict of interest statement: I was a member of the Rethinking Plastics panel. No other conflicts.

Dr Florian Graichen, Science Leader, Biopolymers and Chemicals, Scion, and co-leader of the 3D/4D Printing team, Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge, comments:

“This report is the first step in a journey of thousand miles. While a sobering account of the current New Zealand plastic situation, it is an encouraging call for action and blueprint for a sustainable future. While we can’t deny the negative environmental impact of plastics when it is manufactured, used and disposed in inappropriate ways – it is important to accept the importance of plastics for our world. No single solution will resolve the waste issue – but this challenge comes with opportunities for shaping a more sustainable future and rethinking plastics.

“The ‘6Rs’ of the new plastics economy – REPLACE – RETHINK – RECYCLE – REFUSE – REDUCE – REUSE are guiding the much-needed innovations for our relationship with plastics. This can lead to new product designs, manufacturing technologies, new biomaterials, new recycling techniques and new business models. New Zealand’s research activities in this area are cutting edge and very encouraging.

“Examples of science and innovation include:

  • A multiparty additive manufacturing team in the National Science Challenge – Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) is combining product design, bioplastics development and 3D printing to create new, more environmentally friendly and fit for purpose products across multiple industries.
  • Scion is working with industry partners to bring technologies to the market that allow the use of agriculture, horticulture or forestry side and waste streams in polymer and composite applications.
  • Developments into new fully biodegradable bioplastics – like polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) is also ongoing These polymers are substitutions for petroleum-based plastics – suitable for manufacture in NZ with our own renewable resources.
  • Building on this report – and funded by the Waste Minimisation Fund (WMF) – Scion is leading the project ‘Roadmap for New Zealand’s New Plastics Economy’. The Roadmap is based on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘New Plastics Economy’, which gives a global vision for the future of the plastics economy and is already being adopted internationally.

“These activities are encouraging signs that New Zealand is in a great position to turn the challenges outlined in this report into new opportunities.”

Declared conflict of interest: I was part of the reference group for this report.