This week the Royal Society Te Apārangi has put out an accessible report on Plastics in the Environment: Te Ao Hurihuri – The Changing World. It is a great summary of the problems we face internationally dealing with the mountain of plastic waste that humans have generated globally. The report explores how we use and dispose of plastics and highlights the current evidence around how this impacts our environment and health in Aotearoa. There are great infographics that illustrate some of the key pieces of information, including the global scale of plastic production, the complexity around bio-based and fossil fuel-based plastics and the way they degrade, the many different sources and pathways of plastic pollution, and how microplastics enter the wastewater treatment system. You can view the infographics here.

The report provides an excellent backdrop for Rethinking Plastics  – the main project for our office this year – and is a great example of how the Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Chief Science Advisors can connect in the science advisory ecosystem (as we describe in a recent article here). We will be building on the evidence base presented in the RSNZ’s report and expanding the scope of the work into the policy domain.

Plastics was chosen as a major focus by both the Royal Society Te Apārangi and our Office because Aotearoa New Zealand is at a pivotal point where change is urgent, but the evidence base to guide change is lacking. The public is increasingly concerned about the way we use and dispose of plastic and how that impacts our health and the environment. In fact, the Colmar Brunton Better Futures 2018 report cited that 72% of New Zealanders have plastic as a top concern. The government has begun to address issues related to plastic pollution by banning single-use plastic bags and microbeads and initiating a work programme to take action on waste. Industry is also beginning to respond to concerns, with several New Zealand businesses, along with the New Zealand Government, signing declarations committing to making all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The issue is current and wide-reaching, so we saw it as an opportunity to provide science advice based on available evidence and expert opinion that could support policy decisions in an effort to reduce the negative impacts of plastic, without losing out on its many benefits.

Our project kicked off late last year. We began with a scoping exercise to better understand the biggest issues, key stakeholders, international experience and local workstreams to build upon – one of which was the Royal Society Te Apārangi evidence synthesis. It quickly became clear that rethinking plastics would require a system-wide approach that considered the whole plastics value chain, rather than a particular focus on one issue such as single-use packaging. It also became clear that there is plenty of work to draw on, from both local and international sources, but there’s no central resource that brings it all together. In response, we’ve developed a portal on our website that houses key reports. It is evolving as the project progresses and can be found here.

The first workstream ‘To what extent can we quantify Aotearoa’s plastic? New Zealand’s data challenge’ provides a current snapshot of the available data for plastic material flow through Aotearoa New Zealand. This first body of work is near completion and has primarily identified key knowledge gaps and places where we need to collect data in order to make responsible choices. This has been made available to policymakers, ahead of the final project report, to assist in their work. Consultation and research on the three other workstreams are well underway and will continue over the coming months. These workstreams cover:

  • Life cycle assessment of product systems: to explain the role of life cycle assessment in measuring the environmental impacts of plastics and summarise the currently available evidence through case studies.
  • Innovation solutions: to synthesise and prioritise the opportunities available to mitigate our overuse and waste of plastics, including materials recovery, bio-plastics, alternative materials, logistics innovation and system redesign.
  • Changing our relationship with plastics: to identify the methods that will be most effective to galvanise change at different levels, from individuals to communities, businesses, local and central government.

So far during the project, Rachel has attended the Ōhanga Āmiomio: Ellen MacArthur Foundation Pacific Summit in Rotorua in April and Rachel and George attended the Plastics NZ Conference in Queenstown in May. Both have been invaluable in engaging with stakeholders and building up the evidence base for our report.

We have a dedicated webpage to share progress on Rethinking Plastics project that includes documentation from panel meetings, key resources and reflections published throughout the project. You can keep track of our progress here.