Problem plastics to be phased out – Expert Reaction

The government has announced problem plastics and some single-use plastics will be phased out, in three stages, by July 2025.

The outlawed plastics will include hard-to-recycle food and drink packaging and some single-use plastics, such as produce bags, straws, fruit labels, and cutlery, plates and bowls.

New Zealanders toss out an estimated 159 grams of plastic waste per person each day. It’s hoped the new policy will remove more than two billion single-use plastic items each year from our landfills and environment. A $50 million Plastics Innovation Fund is also launched today.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Professor Duncan McGillivray, Professor of Physical Chemistry, University of Auckland and Visiting Fellow at the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, comments:

“The decision to ban certain problematic types of plastic from use in New Zealand is a sensible response to our growing awareness of the persistence of plastic waste in the environment. It is becoming clear that as plastic waste naturally degrades it spreads through land, air and especially water, and is extremely difficult to remove or treat especially as it breaks down into the smallest pieces – micro- and nano-plastics.

“We are only at the beginning of understanding the effects of this waste on our sea life and ourselves, but it is clear that so far the only reliable solution is to prevent the release of problematic plastic waste in the first place.

“I am pleased to see that this ban has also included funding to support plastic innovation, enabling us to rethink how we use or recycle plastics. Plastics are miraculous materials that lie at the heart of many modern materials technologies, but not all plastics are equal. New Zealand has an opportunity to develop our global position in reducing harm from plastics while developing expertise the world can call on.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Professor Duncan McGillivray is a Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Auckland whose research group studies the effects of nanoplastics on biological systems. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.”

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

“It is great to see a positive move towards reducing plastic waste reaching landfill and becoming a contamination issue elsewhere, especially as this will hopefully set the trend to address waste issues in general for NZ. We have an international reputation as a clean, green country but our waste issues need more focus if we are to maintain this.

“Although it is good to see these “problem” items identified, it is important to note that plastics can and do have their uses in society. Currently, some plastic uses do not have suitable alternatives available which without effective research could lead to worse environmental issues – for example, increased energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions by replacing plastic with aluminum substitutes.

“While the food sector is a natural starting place to identify plastic items that can be phased out – we should seek to address other problem sectors such as the Construction and Demolition industry. Construction and demolition (C&D) waste was estimated to contribute at least 10,000 tonnes to the amount of plastic landfilled in Auckland annually. The growing use of plastic in the packaging of building materials and the use of polystyrene and products like building wrap are contributing to this. Unlike in other countries, such as the UK, most construction waste is not sorted on site and C&D waste is often co-mingled so therefore little analysis of the recoverability of plastics has been made. Little is known about both the diversion potential and the potential economic value of plastic waste. The limited research undertaken to date has not disaggregated the various types of C&D plastics and assessed these for recycling potential.

“There is a need for improved understanding and awareness around the composition and fate of plastic C&D waste. More detailed information about plastic C&D waste will help to identify opportunities for and ways to minimise use of plastics in building construction, and will help to advance the development of reuse and recycling solutions.”

Conflict of interest statement: ” I have been consulted on the new plastic innovation fund by the Ministry for the Environment, and I added some suggestions (although haven’t seen the final version to see if they have been included).”

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Independent Owner of Bioeconomy Futures, comments:

“It is great to see New Zealand continuing to follow through with its commitment to reducing the global plastic waste problem. It will be critical to ensure that not only packaging is targeted but some of the other major waste culprits – such as construction and clothing – are also included in the initiative.

“Also important will be to ensure that (naturally biodegradable and environmentally friendly) plastics are enabled and not inadvertently captured in the proposed ban. These are often currently captured still in plastic classes regarded as hard to recycle, whereas it could be more beneficial to reuse, recycle, biodegrade to reusable chemical components, or simply biodegrade naturally as in bioplastics such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). There are New Zealanders actively researching such solutions for the future, as New Zealand can also not sell its products both locally and globally without the support of packaging and/or appropriate strength of materials for purpose (eg medical applications).

“The establishment of a specific fund to support change is an excellent announcement. It will also be important how NZ deals with imports to NZ – both packaging and products, and this requirement to deal with non planet-friendly plastics.”

Conflict of interest statement: “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.”

Dr Florian Graichen, General Manager – Forests to Biobased Products, Scion, and co-leader of the 3D/4D Printing team, Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge, comments:

“Government actions are a critical part in mobilising a systemic shift towards a circular economy for plastics – globally and in New Zealand. Phasing out problem plastics and some single-use plastics by July 2025 also requires industry commitments and innovation around circular and sustainable plastic alternatives. This has to be complemented by circular product design, increased public education and awareness. We have to reinforce each other and hold each other to account on the path to making it a reality.

“The announcement of the $50 million Plastics Innovation Fund is also a step in the right direction. Addressing the symptoms of this crisis through phasing out and clean-ups is not enough. We need to move away from today’s linear take-make-waste model and fundamentally rethink the way we design, use, and reuse plastics – remembering plastics is not the issue – it is what we do with it

“A fundamental re-thinking – tackling the root causes is required – an economy where plastics is a valuable resource in which it never becomes waste or pollution. Guiding principles should be the 6Rs – REPLACE – RECYCLE – REUSE – REDUCE – REFUSE – RETHINK – as outlined in the “Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand’ Report.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Graichen was part of the reference group for the Rethinking Plastics report.