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Source: Greenpeace New Zealand

Who would have thought we’d get to know some new folks during lockdown? Folks we’d usually spend mere minutes of time with before moving them onto their next job (of lasting 500 years or so polluting the earth’s surface). Since lockdown kicked-off, these unwanted guests (plastic bottle Joe and co) have been camping out at our place for over a month – talk about overstaying your welcome!

Either that or they’ve had to go with our non-recyclables to the landfill, which I’m afraid to say is where they probably end up anyway.

Go outside and take a look at your trash – what can you see? When I look in our recycling bin at home I can see empty biccy packets, a plastic Pump bottle, a collection of empty wine bottles (it’s been a long month, okay?) and things like honey pots and peanut butter jars, in those really thick plastic containers that lots of councils won’t even take anymore. 

I can see some tetra-packs placed in the recycling bin hopefully by my flatmates – even though I’ve told them they’re pretty much impossible to recycle because of their multilayered plastic-metal-cardboard structure (although you can turn them into really strange-looking wallets). 

Emerging research shows just how toxic and harmful plastic can be on human health because it breaks down and gets in our food chain; it is being linked to infertility and cancer. More research is finding microplastics in alarming places like our drinking water (and in lots of food we eat, especially seafood).

Covid has shown us that some medical-grade plastic is essential for protection against viruses, and is indeed saving lives. 

But what about that bottle of Coca Cola? Is it really worth clogging our oceans and risking our health for?

Collection of coca cola bottles and caps found on Freedom Island, Philippines, during a cleanup activity.

Mass production of plastic began just six decades ago, used during the second world war because of its versatility and durability.

After the war, plastic producers wanted to find a new market for their goods.

They convinced middle-America it was the best thing since sliced bread and we’ve been using it ever since.

A new PBS investigative documentary explains that when the US public did try and push back against plastic waste in the eighties, the industry started promoting recycling as a solution – even though industry executives knew it wasn’t viable.

Here in New Zealand it was cheaper to make plastic bottles than it was to refill glass ones, even though the glass bottle collection system itself worked really well, so it too had to go. 

And now we’re stuck with a problem that weighs 8.3 billion metric tons – and growing. Most of it disposable items that didn’t need to get made in the first place.

When I embarked on this post I was intending to give you the low-down on the different kinds of plastic you might have met over the last month and what happens to it i.e. a meet-and-greet of your recycling. But then I remembered that only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled. And I decided it would be better to just break the news to you now:

Recycling isn’t going to save us.

In fact, we know that pretty much all plastic ever made is still in existence, so why are we still relying on a system which isn’t working?

Here’s why:

Big oil companies and the plastic industry are right now working together to keep prescribing us plastic. Forever. 

More than half the plastic now on Earth has been created since 2002, and plastic pollution is on pace to double by 2030. They get away with this by telling us it’s our fault that so much plastic is getting in our oceans (litterbugs), and at the same time they lobby against strong action by governments to limit plastic production so they can just keep making it. Even right now, during a global pandemic, plastics industry propagandists in America are trying to phase out bag bans by spreading myths about plastic saving us from disease.  

So if recycling plastic isn’t going to save us, what is?

If recycling is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.

The first thing to do is look at the waste hierarchy – it’s a bit like the food pyramid but upside down – it tells us that recycling should be a last resort. Reduction and reuse systems are where we need to start. 

So let’s take it from the top by starting with reduction.

We’ll keep it simple for now by looking at your own plastic footprint. 

You might have heard of people “going zero waste”, and while often these people are jar-clad hipsters with nice glass water bottles (I must admit I am sometimes this exact person), I’m happy to tell you that you don’t have to buy fancy shmancy reusable coffee mugs or shop at boutique waste-free stores.

In fact, the people that do zero waste living well find having less plastic and packaging in their life actually saves them quite a lot of money!

Check out kiwi duo Hannah and Liam of The Rubbish Trip – who are living a completely waste-free life by simply being resourceful and creative. Their inspiring blog and recipes are a great start point to lowering your plastic intake whilst saving money.

Zero waste heroes Para kore are helping Marae and Māori communities become waste-free. They’ve got awesome resources for your local school or Marae, so check it out!

A great online community to join on Facebook is Zero Waste in NZ! where thousands of people across the country share ideas and support each other to get waste free together.

More importantly though, what about the plastic footprint of companies like Coca Cola? How can we keep them in check?

We can ban non-essential single-use plastics like kiwi campaigners #TakeawayThrowaways are calling for. Or what about banning plastic bottles? 

And we can do the next best thing on the waste hierarchy; reuse.

Meet Oregon. It’s a state in the US, a similar size to NZ but more blob shaped, and it’s got something called a Container Return Scheme (that’s where all beverage containers carry a deposit that customers get back when they return empty bottles to a drop-off point). This simple incentive means that Oregon has an almost 90% recovery rate i.e. 90% of all bottles made in the state are returned via collection depots to a central hub where they are recycled (like actually recycled – 100% of the plastic, aluminium and glass collected through the scheme is processed domestically). Better yet – Oregon has designed the scheme so that a lot of the returned glass bottles get refilled.

BottleDrop Express drop vault for depositing tagged green bags and a BottleDrop kiosk for creating an account, printing out redemption ticket and bag tags for green bags

The Ministry for the Environment here in New Zealand is currently working with experts and stakeholders to design a Container Return Scheme that fits a kiwi setting. If it goes ahead it will make use of the sixty or so resource recovery and environment centres distributed around the country. We’ll probably also see those space-age reverse vending machines popping up too – where you put an empty bottle in and the machine spits money back at you. 

Getting a Container Return Scheme would be a game changer for New Zealand. Time and again, studies show that the simple deposit is enough of an incentive to lift bottle recovery rates as high as 80-95%. Not only that, but the returned bottles make for high quality recycling because the public drops them off as a single resource stream, meaning there’s no chance of contamination with other recyclables. By the same token, getting bottles out of our kerbside collections means contamination rates there go way down too (glass bottles smashing are the main contamination culprits of kerbside collections).

A Container Return Scheme would also mean that we’d be collecting back enough glass bottles to make it worth our while to refill them. Gone would be the days of tonnes of South Island glass recycling being landfilled or turned into roads because it’s too difficult or contaminated to get it up to New Zealand’s one glass recycler in Auckland. The bottles could be taken to the local bottle washer and refiller instead.

To make the scheme work properly for reusables, we’d need refillable infrastructure to support this scheme – just like they have in places like Germany. We’d also need to ensure plastic bottles are truly recycled at places like Flight Plastics in Wellington (who reckon they could recycle all of New Zealand’s clear PET, if only it wasn’t so contaminated). 

I know bringing back reusables sounds complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. Why don’t you read the finer details here: We commissioned this report to show you how possible it would be to imagine a New Zealand without waste – where we reduce, reuse and refill. Where recycling is our last resort and our landfills are the size of a pea (OK maybe not quite, but pretty close).

For New Zealand to become single-use plastic free we’ll need to step up the game. We’ll need to go hard on the plastic producers creating all the mess and get them to acknowledge the billions of tonnes of plastic getting chucked every year which washes up on our beautiful coastlines.

It’s been a few decades of using this stuff and already it can be found on every single part of the planet, including Antarctica.

Actor and Antarctic ambassador Javier Bardem and submarine pilot John Hocevar from Greenpeace USA surfacing after exploring the Antarctic seafloor on around 270 meters depth in Charlotte Bay off the Gerlache Strait. Greenpeace went on a three-month expedition to the Antarctic to carry out scientific research, including seafloor submarine dives and sampling for plastic pollution, to highlight the urgent need for the creation of a 1.8 million square kilometre Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary to safeguard species like whales and penguins.

While we can’t recycle our way out of this mess, like plastic producers would have you believe, we can reduce our way out of it. We can turn off the plastic tap by demanding plastic companies become responsible for the whole life-cycle of their product and supporting things like bans on single-used packaging, plus encouraging reuse of resources already in existence so that we don’t need to make so much more plastic. 

The solutions are already here, and other communities across the world are showing us the way.

So, what are we waiting for?