Changing our relationship with plastics

A fundamental part of rethinking plastics is transforming widespread assumptions and practices concerning plastic. We need to start treating plastic as a valuable resource that is reused and repaired, rather than a resource that is cheap and disposable. This was articulated well by the former Executive Director of the UNEP, Erik Solheim:

Plastic isn’t the problem. It is what we do with it. And that means the onus is on us to be far smarter in how we use this miracle material.

Being smarter about how we use plastic requires us to look at our current relationship with plastic use and disposal. We can change how we use plastic to be more sustainable in a way that is innovative, benefits society and protects the environment.

Evolving our relationship with plastics requires transformative action across the whole system of plastic use. We need to create conditions that both encourage and enable more responsible use of plastic and local solutions to the plastic problem, based on new ideas and international best practice. This will have different implications in different parts of our society. Large businesses and government can make policy changes that have an immediate impact, all organisations may consider their procurement and disposal practices, local communities can inspire collective action, and individuals can limit their use of disposable plastic products. Collaboration between groups alongside central and local government working in partnership will help drive widespread change.

New Zealanders need to be supported by clear guiding principles that resonate across sectors and cultures. One such principle may be practicing kaitiakitanga or guardianship of the natural environment. A survey by Keep New Zealand Beautiful (KNZB) identified that 99% of respondents thought it was very (10%) or extremely (89%) important that Aotearoa New Zealand maintains our clean green image. Acknowledging that our image of ourselves is increasingly at odds with our practice of using and disposing of single-use plastic products is a first step to embracing change. Moving away from a system of waste management that relies on burying waste or sending it overseas for another country to deal with, where it could end up in the environment, is part of this change.

Here we present an evidence base from a collection of initiatives and ideas to guide current and future approaches to support system-wide transformational change of Aotearoa New Zealand’s relationship with plastics – ranging from individual actions to national legislation.

Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand: an illustration of the wide variety of groups whose actions can contribute to transformational change.

Central government action

The New Zealand Government is in a position to provide leadership that will enable our country to create lasting changes to our relationship with plastics. Policy changes that are implemented here also have the potential to help inform policy changes in other countries. There is goodwill from the community to rethink our relationship with plastics. Now is an opportune time to establish a regulatory framework for plastic to help accelerate change, support good practice and create fair, uniform rules within industry.

Throughout the Rethinking Plastics consultations, stakeholders have noted a desire for increased guidance and regulation from government. Many companies are looking to create change but without clear guidance or sufficient resourcing are worried about investing time and money into initiatives that may not align with longer-term government strategy. Some certainty around a national framework for plastics, including a national plastics action plan, could help ease the transition and accelerate change within industry. Similarly, school and community initiatives may be undermined by people losing faith in the current recycling systems. If circular systems were in place, and people considered these reliable and comprehensive, it would be much easier to encourage responsible disposal of plastic waste.

Throughout the Rethinking Plastics consultations, stakeholders have noted a desire for increased guidance and regulation from government

Current regulations and initiatives related to plastics

The New Zealand Government has several regulations, funding initiatives and programmes related to plastics currently underway.

RegulationBanned plastic microbeadsThe sale and manufacture of wash-off products that contain plastic microbeads for the purposes of exfoliation, cleaning, abrasive cleaning or visual appearance of the product are prohibited
RegulationBanned single-use plastic shopping bagsThe ban applies to all new single-use plastic shopping bags with handles that are made of plastic up to 70 microns in thickness
RegulationConsulting on mandatory product stewardship schemesThe Government is proposing having regulated PSS for six priority products: tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases, farm plastics, and packaging. Consultation submissions closed on 4 October 2019
Funding $40 million of the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) for waste initiativesThe PGF sought applications to crowd-source ideas to reduce plastic waste. Applications were due by 30 September 2019
FundingThe Waste Minimisation Fund (WMF)A fund provided by the waste disposal levy revenue to support projects that aim to reduce waste
ProgrammesGovernment-accredited product stewardship schemes (PSS)Government recognition that a scheme is accredited against requirements outlined in Part 2 of the WMA
ProgrammesGreen Ribbon AwardsNZ’s longest running environmental awards run by the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment to reward good practice. Note this is currently on hold
ProgrammesResource Efficiency and Circular Economy Transition (RECET) work programmeA work programme to take action on NZ’s waste through a circular economy approach focusing on expanding the waste levy, improving recycling, analysing where to invest in innovation and infrastructure, implementing PSS, and developing a national circular economy strategy
ProgrammeContainer return schemeWork underway by the Ministry for the Environment, Auckland Council and Marlborough District Council to develop a national beverage CRS

Summary and opportunities for central government

The current lack of a national strategy and action plan specifically related to plastic makes it difficult for industry, local government, community groups and researchers to know where to invest efforts in rethinking plastics. Government can provide this direction and also lead by example by embedding plastics in their agenda. These issues are addressed in the series of recommendations within recommendations 1 and 3.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • A national action plan could be strengthened by having a governance group with representation from government, community, business, education and research.
  • Efforts should connect with international initiatives, commitments and agreements.
  • Procurement to include bioplastics could learn from the US BioPreferred system for procurement policies.
  • Inclusion of waste and plastics in environment accounting could learn from Australia’s approach.
  • Demonstration of responsible use of plastics in all government agencies could include revision of procurement practices; responsiveness to new opportunities to improve practice; elimination of unnecessary plastic including single-use cups, cutlery and plates; working with caterers to find hygienic alternatives to plastic; working with healthcare providers to safely reduce the amount of plastic used in medical settings.

Local government action

Aotearoa New Zealand’s local and regional councils play an important role in the relationship that the community has with managing waste, including plastics. Councils’ responsibilities to do so are legislated under the Local Government Act 2002Litter Act 1979Resource Management Act 1991 and Waste Minimisation Act 2008. The responsibilities of local government that are related to plastics can be broadly grouped into:

  • Providing waste management and recycling services
  • Managing litter and/or illegally dumped rubbish
  • Public awareness, education and engagement with community groups
  • Procuring products for civil works and council operations.

Across the country, councils have different systems in place to manage plastic waste and recycling. The systems generally include household kerbside collections, public place collections, and drop-off points at transfer stations and/or community recycling centres. The services and infrastructure are either owned and managed by the council itself or contracted out to private businesses, for some or all of the process. For example, some councils own the landfill where local waste is disposed while others pay to use privately owned landfills. Where landfills are owned and operated by councils, a council’s role is more direct with the management of the asset than where private landfills are used. However, when waste management is privatised, the local council still has a responsibility to promote effective and efficient waste management.

Systems implemented by councils can support people to change their practices related to plastic use. One of the big challenges for councils is providing a system that encourages residents to minimise waste production and reduce contamination of recycling. A local study aimed to understand the drivers and barriers for residents to minimise their waste in Palmerston North.[1] The project identified social support, convenient access to sound information, products and services, experiential learning, and affordable and low-effort waste minimisation practices as key drivers of better practices. Councils can draw on these findings to provide tools that will motivate residents to minimise their waste, while also examining broader societal structures that can drive or restrict peoples’ efforts to reduce their own waste.

Councils can also support institutions in their district to work together on collaborative projects to reduce plastic use or help to establish facilities that can improve the quality of materials for recycling or composting facilities that accept compostable plastics. There is a great opportunity for regional projects to help new habits take hold in that area and model practices to the rest of the country.

In order to prevent mismanaged plastic ending up in the environment, councils provide facilities such as bins throughout public places. Councils are also responsible for managing litter, cleaning up illegal dumping of rubbish, and in some cases facilitating clean-ups of the environment when these systems are not used or are ineffective. The resources able to be dedicated to these efforts will differ between councils, as will the most effective approach. An Australian study that looked at a variety of methods employed by local councils to better understand which approaches are effective at reducing coastal waste found that the most effective approach was using a combination of outreach programmes (e.g. public education about litter) and providing waste facilities (e.g. kerbside collection and recycling bins). Overall these were more effective than regulatory policies that target specific problematic products.[2] These findings highlight the importance of combining the why (educating people) and how (providing systems) to support people to change their practices and deal with waste better.

In addition to their role in managing waste and litter, councils are also big users of plastic. Many of the large civil works that councils are responsible for, such as for construction, roading and managing water systems, include procurement of plastic products. Council operations also use plastic products and packaging in day-to-day activities. Therefore, there is an opportunity for councils to demonstrate responsible procurement and use of plastic and lead by example.

Current initiatives and ongoing efforts by local government related to plastics

In the table below, we highlight some of the current initiatives underway by local councils across Aotearoa New Zealand to mitigate the issues related to plastics, through communicating and educating the public and local businesses, fostering new ideas in the community and through direct action. Further initiatives by local councils are described in the Local Government New Zealand’s submission to the Environment Select Committee from May 2018.

ActionExample(s) of this practiceScalability
Communicating and educating the public and businesses
Provide detailed information about recycling and waste (online and in print)Many councils have local ‘waste guides’ online that provide detailed information about a range of products and how to dispose of them e.g. Palmerston North City Council Guru’s guide to what goes where, Southlands WasteNet Southlands Orange Pages, Timaru District Council’s One Planet Guide, and Auckland Council’s Recycle Right game. Others provide this information in print, e.g. Kaipara District Council (KDC) supplies a flyer to educate residents about what can and can’t be recycledEasily adaptable to other regions
Promote and encourage good recycling practicePalmerston North City Council has a ‘recycling champion’s initiative’ where they tag the recycling bin of households who have recycled properly and they go in the draw to win a $50 grocery voucher

Auckland Council’s Waste Solutions Communications programme during Plastic Free July focused on how to reduce plastic waste, supported by community engagement initiatives from Wastewise Advisors
Other councils can set up similar promotions
Offer educational initiatives and resources related to waste and recyclingAuckland Council has a team dedicated to engaging with the community and businesses around waste reduction and available services. This includes initiatives such as waste minimisation learning sessions at three centres, aimed at schools but community groups also welcome, and the Zero Waste Events resource to educate community groups how to run a zero waste eventScalable pending resources
Work with schools to develop plastic-related educational opportunitiesSeveral councils support external education programmes such as Enviroschools and Te Aho Tū Roa (read the case study 'Sustainability through connection, learning and action'), Para Kore (read the case study 'Para Kore – helping people reduce their waste'), and Dunedin City Council’s example (read the case study 'A council-led school event to raise awareness around plastic waste')Nationally scalable, could be supported by initiatives such as the Science Learning Hub
Provide support for businesses to audit and reduce plastic wasteChristchurch City Council provides free support to local businesses through their Target Sustainability programme, including a directory of recyclers, consultants for building design and up to 46 hours of free resource efficiency adviceAdaptable to other regions, pending resources
Foster new ideas in the community
Partner with or fund community groups and community recycling/ waste recovery centres Supported by their local councils, Xtreme Zero Waste in Raglan, Innovative Waste Kaikoura and Wanaka Wastebusters have seen those towns become famous for their waste reduction efforts

Auckland Council has established eight community recycling centres, with three more underway, as part of an overall resource recovery network vision. All are currently operated by community groups/social enterprises in partnership with Council. The Onehunga site recently had a funding boost of $2.25M from the WMF
Scalable, pending resources – could support applications to WMF
Support initiatives that help develop skills and ideas within the community and local businesses to reduce plastic use

Dunedin City Council (DCC) ran ‘Waste Jam’ with Startup Dunedin – an event to rapidly explore innovative ideas and build business plans and applications for funding with members of the community. DCC also used waste levy funds to support community workshops by Stitch Kitchen targeted at making tools for people to reduce their plastic use and waste, including textiles (e.g. making product bags, beeswax wraps, and sanitary pads)

Auckland Council runs the Waste Minimisation Initiatives Fund, which was used to support roll out of the Again Again (reusable cup system) service in Auckland

KDC partners with a local WMF funded organisation to provide waste minimisation learning workshops and education for events, local clubs and schools
Scalable, pending resources
Support local businesses in endeavours to reduce single-use plastics
Hamilton City Council partnered with several local businesses, including waste minimisation experts Mainstream Green and various cafés around the city, to encourage the use of reusable and sustainable products during Plastic Free July.

Dunedin City Council worked alongside Ideal Cup to launch their programme in the city in 2019

Auckland Council is also in discussion with major supermarket chains over single-use plastics
Other regions can set up similar initiatives, drawing on local expertise and business opportunities
Direct action
Advocate to central government for regulation related to plasticsLocal Government Waste Manifesto developed by the WasteMINZ TA Forum comprised of 64 city and district councils from around NZ

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) have advocated for product stewardship and CDS on behalf of the group of authorities

Auckland Council advocates for policy such as product stewardship in their Waste Management and Minimisation Plan (WMMP), and commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of a container deposit scheme to form evidence-base for advocating for such a scheme
Councils can come together to strengthen calls

Other councils can join the WasteMINZ TA forum
Collaborate with other councils for consistency in systems and data collection, and economies of scaleOther groups of councils have shared WMMPs so that their goals of how to manage waste and collection of waste data are aligned, e.g. the Carterton District, Hutt City, Kapiti Coast District, Masterton District, Porirua City, South Wairarapa District, Upper Hutt City and Wellington City councils in the Wellington region have a shared WMMPAdaptable to other regions
Collaborate with research institutes and citizen science programmes as part of environmental monitoring programmesAuckland Council collaborated with Scion and the University of Canterbury on a study quantifying microplastics at Auckland’s beaches

Northland Regional Council is using the Sustainable Coastlines Litter Intelligence framework for monitoring beach litter (read the case study 'Litter intelligence')
Other regions could connect to similar projects to get baseline and ongoing data
Collaborate with product stewardship schemes to ensure systems are in place for the regionGisborne City Council works with the Plasback to offer the product stewardship scheme to the region and provides information on their websiteScalable to other regions
Reduce use of single-use plastic at council venues and facilities Wellington City Council has begun a single-use plastic bottle free trial at its five swimming pools, two gyms, four recreational centres and the ASB sports centre. During plastic free July, Council encouraged pool, gym and recreation centre goers to consider alternatives to single-use plastic bottles

Auckland Council is a member of Wai Auckland and RefillNZ and provides free refill of reusable water bottles at pools, leisure centres, and some libraries, and also had a single-use cup free day in all council cafes during Plastic Free July
Nationally scalable

Actions that local councils can take

As well as the examples listed in the table above, councils could take the following actions to support rethinking plastics in their region.

Communicating and educating the public and local businesses

  • Employ specialists in managing plastic that would be available to organisations that wish to move toward more responsible practices.

Fostering new ideas in the community

  • Encouraging/supporting events to be free of single-use products by providing a library of resources or advice on minimising waste for events.
  • Partner with and support local community groups and initiatives in schools or marae such as Para Kore and Toimata
  • Organise cross-sector hui that encourage creative, locally focused responses to reducing and managing the use of plastic.

Use of standardised bin labelling colours for bins at the Matakana Markets.

Direct action

  • Link council plans with iwi management plan and engage with mana whenua regarding environment and waste decisions
  • Update procurement guidelines for the council to include sourcing products made from recycled content and minimising the purchase of single-use plastics.
  • Adopt the standardised colours and symbols for bin labelling and te reo Māori translations established by WasteMINZ, the Packaging Forum, local councils and Para Kore for all public space bins.
  • Implement processes to filter out plastics in wastewater/stormwater treatment systems – particle sizing could be determined with local wastewater engineers.
  • Work with industry bodies and community groups on national solutions and actions (e.g. WasteMINZPlastics NZKeep New Zealand BeautifulSustainable CoastlinesBe a Tidy Kiwi)
  • Collect better data on plastic use and waste, set targets for reduction, and get the local community on board
  • Lobby central government to impose targeted use-restrictions or levies on undesirable products that create high volumes or particularly problematic materials in certain localities, e.g. tourism or fishing centres.

Current barriers to local government action

  • The fragile recycling system – due to volatile markets, reliance on sending recycling offshore due to limited onshore reprocessing capabilities, and poor quality recyclate (plastic sent to and processed in a recycling facility) due to variable practices nationwide precluding effective and enduring educational campaigns. These factors limit councils’ options for managing recyclable plastics and their ability to run education campaigns. For example, WasteNet Southland explained that they have been limited in their ability to use radio ads to educate the public about recycling as the radio zone includes Central Otago and the kerbside refuse and recycling systems differ.
  • The resourcing required and cost burden of managing plastic waste. The way these manifest differs depending on the size and location of the council, but include issues around increased waste due to tourism (where waste peaks and the cost burden falls on residents); challenges establishing economic systems in geographically dispersed areas with small populations, especially in rural areas and areas far from main centres; limited staff resourcing in smaller councils; limited revenue to move to best-practice facilities (e.g. modern landfills – read the case study ‘Modern landfill: a waste-to-energy innovation’) and the requirement for ongoing maintenance of poor quality or legacy landfills (read the case study ‘Compromised landfills at risk during extreme weather’); and the burden of managing waste from specific sectors in that region, due to lack of product stewardship (e.g. fisheries or construction).
  • Limited flexibility – due to relying on privately owned landfills, transfer stations, collections and other infrastructure; being tied into long-term contracts which lack incentives for waste reduction; prior investment in infrastructure/technology, which impacts the quality of material councils have to manage – e.g. comingled system vs source separated vs two stream recycling vs automated MRF.
  • Limited data on which to make decisions.
  • Lack of incentive to embed sustainable plastic use into procurement guidelines.

Summary and opportunities for local government

One of the biggest barriers to action for local and regional councils is the lack of a clear vision and action plan to which councils can align their management of plastics, which precludes willingness to invest in certain infrastructure or systems. Many of the recommendations from the National Resource Recovery Taskforce that were adopted by the government will help to address these issues, including supporting knowledge sharing and standardisation of practices through model contracts and a more nationally coordinated approach. These issues are also addressed by recommendations 1, 3 and 4.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • WasteMINZ has work underway to support standardisation of recycling practices across the country that should be built on.
  • Consistency of systems should be balanced against specific needs of each local context. An approach that could be modelled from is WRAP UK’s framework for greater consistency in household recycling.
  • When establishing new waste management systems (e.g. food waste collection) lessons should be learned from the current recycling fragmentation and a nationally consistent and coordinated approach should be taken. Industrial composters with organic certification cannot take compostable plastics so, to avoid variability and public confusion, the best approach may be to not include compostable packaging in kerbside food waste collection services everywhere.

Sector-led action

Industry-wide efforts and initiatives can be an effective way to accelerate change by bringing together many groups or businesses with common issues to work together on a collective solution. Practices that lead to overuse or mismanagement of plastic may be commonplace within a particular industry, so the most effective way to transform to a better practice will be to understand the current problematic practices and their drivers, develop evidence-based solutions, put systems in place that facilitate good practice, and get widespread support within the industry to change the practice.

Whole sectors will also be affected by regulatory changes or changes to trade policy at the same time, so may benefit from shared innovation and action, including through economies of scale. This will be particularly true for sectors within Aotearoa New Zealand’s export industry, which may risk being shut out of markets if they do not keep up with global trends and regulations in use of plastics in packaging.

Government can work with sectors to find innovative approaches to tackle their plastics issues and determine future policy levers that might help reduce environmental impact from plastics.

Here we address current problematic practices in key industries that use high volumes of plastic or are associated with high loss of plastic into the environment, and highlight opportunities and barriers to bring about transformation. The industries focused on are packaging, fisheries, agriculture, construction, textiles and the plastics manufacturing industry. These are by no means the only sectors who need to take a sector-wide approach to rethinking plastics, but are known high users of plastics or known to be significant contributors of plastics into the environment.

Bubble wrap


As the largest users of plastic globally, ahead of construction and demolition, textiles and automotive, packaging has been an initial focus of many of the efforts to rethink plastics because of its sheer volume, pervasive nature, short timeframe of use, and frequent presence in marine litter clean-ups. Over half of the raw resin imported into Aotearoa New Zealand is manufactured into packaging. Countless other packaged goods are imported.

The plastics packaging sector is complex and built on a linear economy approach (make-use-dispose). Collaboration and cooperation are needed to transform the sector into becoming circular. Aotearoa New Zealand’s packaging industry is already engaged in the process of rethinking plastics, with several brands and industry bodies investigating measures to generate less plastic waste. These include:

While some companies are being proactive, there remains much work to be done to transform the culture around sustainable packaging across the whole industry. A fundamental shift in how packaging is designed and viewed is necessary. Government regulation will be necessary to ensure that the best practice exhibited by some brands becomes standard practice across the industry. An action plan set by the government could guide brands towards using particular material types and avoiding others – aligning these to the systems and infrastructure invested in onshore – to support the transition to a circular economy for plastics.

A fundamental shift in how packaging is designed and viewed is necessary

Transformation at a sector level will require changing:

  • Where the burden of managing packaging at end-of-life sits. At the moment this is largely felt by local government and the community as a whole, rather than those who use the packaging or put it on the market. A goal of reform would be that brands support the development of product stewardship or take-back schemes to take responsibility for the packaging they put on the market
  • The main cost focus being production of the packaging. A whole-of-life accounting approach would ensure that life cycle environment impacts and end-of-life management costs are factored in as part of design, material choice and pricing. This should steer brands towards more sustainable packaging choices, including those with onshore solutions for reprocessing, and reduce the use of unnecessary packaging
  • The continual use of virgin materials. An industry-led approach to address issues around quality of H&S related to food-grade packaging could accelerate uptake and not disadvantage early adopters (read the case study ‘Incentivising the use of recycled plastic’).

Specific actions individual brands can take are detailed here.

The different types of packaging that need to be considered are:

  • Primary packaging: in direct contact with the product itself and usually what the consumer receives and has to dispose of. Its main purpose is to protect the product and inform the consumer via labelling – e.g. a milk bottle
  • Secondary packaging: used to group individual product units, for branding display or for logistical purposes. Sometimes retailers remove this packaging or leave it to sell grouped products, so who needs to dispose of it varies– e.g. plastic wrap to group a pack of tinned food
  • Tertiary packaging: used to group and protect product units during transit through the supply chain. It is either disposed of by the retailer or collected for recycling – e.g. pallet wrap.


Though not one of the sectors with the highest use of plastics, there is ample evidence that the global fisheries industry is a significant contributor to marine plastic waste. It is estimated that about a fifth of all marine plastics pollution is actually generated from maritime uses, with commercial fisheries being a large contributor.[3] At least 46% of plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from fisheries,[4] and the UNEP estimates at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost every year.

Marine-based fisheries operations depend on a wide range of plastic materials such as plastic fishing line, ropes or netting, soft plastic lures, light sticks, floats, bins and other containers, safety and wet weather equipment, and scientific tags. These are used in an environment where plastic is easily damaged or eroded and where there is limited infrastructure or capability to deal with waste.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s fisheries sector should prioritise rethinking plastics because:

  • Our wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of the oceans. Māori have a deep connection to the sea (Tangaroa), and this is shared by most other New Zealanders. In addition to the commercial fishing industry, our community depends on a healthy marine environment for recreational fishing. There is both an expectation and a shared responsibility to keep it free of plastic pollution. This responsibility extends to the Pacific. Given the interconnected nature of the ocean, Aotearoa New Zealand has a responsibility to demonstrate kaitiakitanga to reduce the impact of our fishing industry on our Pacific partners.
  • We have the fourth largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world – roughly 15 times our land area and with 15,000 km of coastline. Our EEZ contains much of the commercial catch that we export.
  • Our seafood industry is a significant contributor to exports ($1.8 billion in 2017) and employment (13,000 full time workers) and approximately 50% of fisheries quota are owned by iwi/Māori. Continued plastic pollution could impact the industry, including Māori business.
  • Influencing regional norms and reforming practices to minimise the prevalence of plastics in the fisheries sector could help our Pacific partners. The oceans and fisheries are vital to Pacific Island countries’ social, cultural and economic wellbeing. Aotearoa New Zealand contributes significant resource to supporting Pacific Island states to sustainably manage fisheries and marine resources for maximum economic, social and environmental benefits, and our learnings could be shared with these fisheries-dependent countries.
  • It could protect our reputation as a leader on oceans issues. With fisheries plastic gaining increasing international attention, poor practice by Aotearoa New Zealand may pose a reputational risk (as highlighted by the Rapa Nui example) but best practice may present an opportunity to show international leadership on the issue.

Aotearoa New Zealand has legislative frameworks in place which implement the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Annex V). MARPOL provisions prohibit the discharge of waste, including plastics, from all ships in Aotearoa New Zealand waters and on the high seas. Aotearoa New Zealand has also signed up to other international controls for the discharge of plastic from fishing vessels, including the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO). These also prohibit the discharge of plastic waste, and the disposal of fishing gear (with exceptions around accidental loss and safety).

Despite these existing regulations, there is evidence that Aotearoa New Zealand’s fisheries companies are contributors to this global problem – most of the plastic fish bins washed up on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) were identified as Aotearoa New Zealand brand names. However, we currently lack the data needed to quantify our industry’s contribution to this problem (discussed further in Chapter 5). These findings suggest that there would be benefit in government partnering with Aotearoa New Zealand’s fisheries sector to explore practical approaches to address the operational challenges that lead to marine plastic pollution. Sector-wide dissemination of best-practice approaches will be critical to ensure that these become standard practice, and may be further supported by regulatory measures.

Determining which approaches to take to rethink plastics in the fisheries industry should be guided by evidence and informed by industry experience. Data presented by a UN expert group at the Pacific Island Forum highlighted the different activities that lead to marine waste from fisheries, based on 20,000 MARPOL violations reported by observers on fishing boats from 2003–2018. The approximate proportions were:

  • 77% waste dumped overboard (38% being plastics)
  • 7% abandoned or lost fishing gear
  • 16% other and non-plastic waste (e.g. oil spillages).

Though these estimates are not specific to Aotearoa New Zealand, and the level of non-compliance by local fisheries is unknown, they can be used to prioritise and guide efforts to reduce the impacts associated with fisheries-related plastic pollution.

Fishing net

Waste dumped overboard

Dumping waste overboard from fishing vessels is the result of a lack of infrastructure or capability to deal with waste on-board underpinned by elements of a cultural norm that it is an acceptable or standard practice. Priority should be given to supporting a change in this practice. Approaches could include:

  • Workplace education about the impacts of marine pollution, including access to information and resources. This could continue best-practice examples such as Tina Ngata’s talk at the Māori Fisheries 2019 Conference where she explained the broad impacts of microplastics and current studies underway, to share that knowledge with members of the industry.
  • Establishing a collaborative environment that promotes the sharing of knowledge and ideas for mitigating issues related to waste dumping within industry, and between industry and government.
  • Implementing flat fees for waste disposal – with plastics free or reduced – in port facilities that receive waste (all major ports in Aotearoa New Zealand) to avoid the disincentive of bringing back less waste to reduce costs. A fixed fee has been implemented in the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Though the results of the effectiveness are not yet clear for the port, it has been estimated that this approach could lead to an impact reduction of 5%–20%.
  • A requirement to record all plastic that is taken into the setting and audit to confirm return.

Abandoned and lost fishing gear (ghost gear)

Fishing gear that has been abandoned, lost or discarded at sea harms fish or other marine life. Ghost gear such as big nets, buoys, fish aggregating devices (FADs), and fishing lines can snare birds and marine mammals. Over time, the gear breaks down into microplastics and contributes to the environmental hazards caused by this (discussed in Chapter 4). The scale of ghost gear is considerable. As a result, ghost fishing is considered a growing threat to marine life that urgently needs to be addressed. Research looking at Australian and Indonesian fisheries management shows that gear loss or abandonment at sea is ultimately the result of a chain of events, rather than one particular practice.[5] These are due to both operational and regulatory fisheries management challenges, and a multi-faceted approach is needed to prevent gear loss.

Aotearoa New Zealand has already taken some steps to prevent abandoned and lost fishing gear, which could be built on. The legislation and voluntary initiatives outlined here address gear loss, FADs are not used in Aotearoa New Zealand waters (although they are sometimes used by certain vessels that fish on the high seas), and Aotearoa New Zealand supported the draft Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Voluntary Guidelines on Marking Fishing Gear in 2018.

Further approaches to prevent or remediate lost gear could include:[6]

  • Deposit return scheme for fishing gear to increase collection and recycling rates at end-of-life (the Icelandic fisheries’ system collects an estimated 59% of plastic material and recycles 90% of the materials that are considered recyclable)
  • Regular gear maintenance (renewals/repairs) to decrease gear loss
  • Mandatory marking of fishing gear to allow tracing back to the vessel (which would support audits of reported gear loss). There are international efforts underway to get mandatory marking schemes in place, building on voluntary guidelines mentioned above
  • Modifying gear to reduce likelihood of snagging
  • Materials innovation to make nets less harmful in the ocean in the long-term (e.g. moving to marine biodegradable plastic FADs), including release mechanisms to render them less harmful if they break free
  • Gear recovery campaigns to collect decommissioned marine farming equipment (note the value for money of gear recovery for lost fishing equipment compared to other approaches has been questioned)
  • Reporting of gear loss for subsequent gear recovery campaigns
  • Using technology to improve the traceability of lost gear for recovery (when coupled with a payment system that rewards return or disclosure of lost gear it is estimated to reduce impact by up to 20%)
  • Zoning controls to limit or prohibit the use of different types of gear that are known to cause damage and loss of gear when they come into contact (gear conflict) (estimated to reduce waste generation by up to 20%). This is not known to be a significant issue in in Aotearoa New Zealand waters as drift netting, which is the worst offender when it comes to ghost fishing gear, is already banned.

Best practice becomes standard practice

Some seafood companies are leading the way for change, and the wider industry could follow suit. Voluntary compliance is unlikely to get the industry to the transformational level of change that is needed, in the urgent timeframe required, to mitigate plastic pollution effects on the marine environment. Regulation can be used to ensure that the best practice demonstrated within the industry becomes standard practice.

Sanford Ltd is an example of a fisheries company in Aotearoa New Zealand leading the way in some areas. The company has committed to reduce plastic waste by 70% and reuse or recycle those plastics that remain necessary across operations, by 2025. A range of additional initiatives are in progress, including packaging innovations, phasing out plastic in retail operations, and ongoing roll-out of operational innovations, such as eco-ties in aquaculture operations. The company is also undertaking a gear recovery campaign in the Marlborough Sounds, as well as a targeted engagement programme, raising awareness of marine plastic pollution. Similar efforts to reduce, replace, remediate and educate should be taken by the whole industry.

Connect internationally

There are many international initiatives that could be used as a platform for progressing action in this area. In addition to existing the conventions and commitments there are opportunities for Aotearoa New Zealand’s fisheries industry to connect to international efforts to prevent derelict fishing gear. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program in the US is working with fishers to provide a place to dispose of fishing gear free of charge and support new, innovative prevention strategies through technological advancements in fishing gear. The program has collected more than 2.1 million pounds (around 950 tonnes) of gear from 41 locations across the US so far. Similarly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK is partnering to support efforts to monitor and decrease ghost fishing.


In Aotearoa New Zealand, agriculture is a high-use sector for plastics, using 15% of plastic products manufactured onshore. In agriculture, plastic is used directly in the environment, so there is a high risk of plastic leaking into the environment in these settings, and the industry may be vulnerable to impacts from plastic pollution. For example, the potential for microplastic contamination to impact on soil production or other agricultural outputs is unknown, but should be considered.

The use of plastics in agriculture has increased significantly over the years, though we lack data to quantify the exact types and amount of plastic used. Many practices that did not use plastic in the past now do, such as storage of hay or silage on farm paddocks. Each practice that uses plastic requires careful consideration of whether:

The renewable, biodegradable net clip developed for the viticulture industry by Scion. Image credit: Scion.

  • Innovation is required to reduce downstream impacts. For example, in viticulture and agriculture it is common practice to use plastic clips to keep various types of netting down and these often fall off into the environment when the netting is removed. The reason these clips escape into the environment is the speed at which the nets are removed. Rather than individuals carefully removing each clip, which takes time, an innovation to make clips out of a material that can compost in the environment may be a better solution, as shown by the biodegradable vine net clip developed by Scion in partnership with manufacturers EPL Group.
  • Reduction is possible.
  • A change in practice is necessary.

The agricultural industry is broad. Within the industry, particular groups with common practices may come together to tailor solutions and government can connect with these groups.


The construction sector is the second biggest user of plastics globally, after packaging, and in Aotearoa New Zealand uses 15% of the plastic products manufactured onshore. The use of plastics in building and construction has increased in recent years as a result of more plastic being used in construction as new products (e.g. plastic building shrink wrap) and many established building materials changing to plastic from alternatives (e.g. plastic pipes). However, we do not know exactly how much plastic is used in buildings in Aotearoa New Zealand or by how much use has increased. There is a great need for reliable research and data on the composition and volume of construction waste in order to address issues of plastic waste in the industry.

Common plastics used in building and construction include:

  • A range of products, including building shrink wrap, insulation, window frames, cladding, guttering, sealants and adhesives, paints and other coatings, packaging and furnishings (carpets, luminaires, furniture), both made locally or imported.
  • Many different types of plastic, including a wide range of resins and raw plastics with chemical entities outside Types 1 to 7 (e.g. polyurethanes).

The increases in plastic use will be environmentally beneficial in some instances and detrimental in others. This requires further analysis on a product or application basis, taking into account LCA and environmental leakage. Practices related to plastic use in the construction industry that need to be addressed include:

  • Practices on building and demolition sites that lead to plastic entering the environment. For example, expanded polystyrene (EPS) has great propensity for breaking off and is prone to being poorly handled on construction sites. Plastics NZ’s EPS Sector Group has developed a best-practice storage and handling guide that will be provided to companies upon purchase of construction EPS products. This best practice needs to become standard practice across the industry. Practical end-of-life options need to be developed after certain uses, such as for EPS used as fill or in flooring. Opportunities to encourage changing practices in the construction industry – as has been achieved by banning lead-based paints and asbestos – can be taken from other sectors. For example, a similar accreditation scheme to the one used by the plastics manufacturing industry (read the case study ‘Operation Clean Sweep’) could be established to ensure zero leakage of plastics into the environment from a construction site.
  • Inefficient use of resources and waste generation. A significant proportion of waste to landfill comes from the building and construction sector. As part of a pilot trial conducted by Christchurch City Council in 2014, the ‘Resource Efficiency in the Building and Related Industries (REBRI) certification scheme’ was developed to promote, advocate and assist resource efficiency measures. Sector-wide adoption of such a scheme or integration of these measures into existing certification schemes could help to improve efficiencies in plastics use and reduction of plastic waste in the industry.

Expanded polystyrene in waterways at a construction site.

Example of building shrink wrap on a building worksite on Karangahape Road in Auckland.

  • Increased use of plastic overall, including new uses of plastic such as building shrink wrap, without recycling options. For example, limited end-of-life options for building shrink wrap are being reported by industry. The sector could be supported to reduce use of virgin plastic materials and develop systems to ensure reuse or recycling of plastics via product stewardship schemes. Opportunities also exist to accredit and/or mandate the existing product stewardship schemes for PVC (#3) pipes. Sufficient onshore recycling infrastructure is required in order for these approaches to work.
  • Leakage of plastics into the environment caused by weathering of plastic products. The Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) reported on this in 2007 and highlighted that manufacturers and specifiers need to be aware that choosing specific additives to prevent weathering is crucial to make lasting products. It is also important to understand the toxicity implications of these additives, if applicable
  • Sustainable material choice, including plastics. Best practice sustainable material choice could be facilitated via guidance and decision-support tools for architects, building scientists, quantity surveyors and other professionals (e.g. using life cycle assessment (LCA)) and through uptake of voluntary accreditation systems such as Homestar and Green Star.
  • Use of plastics from non-renewable sources. BRANZ reported in 2008 that there is potential for bioplastics in Aotearoa New Zealand’s building industry, but that specific construction applications may be limited due to the trade-off between durability and biodegradability for some of these materials. Collaboration with materials scientists to meet the specific needs of the construction industry could help to address this issue.

A transformative approach that could help to reduce the amount of plastic leaking into the environment from construction sites, as well as reduce the overall amount of plastic waste and ensure higher rates of recycling and reuse for products used in this industry, is to design for deconstruction and build offsite. The Clever Core facility owned by Fletcher Building is an example of offsite home manufacturing which is cited to reduce building waste by up to 80% per home built. Different approaches are likely to be needed for larger commercial construction sites and residential construction waste. A greater understanding of the waste needs and initiatives applicable to residential construction sites is needed (read the case study ‘Plastic waste during new-build construction’). A Building Research Levy-funded project seeks to undertake an industry-wide survey and provide information on the extent of the issue and gauge industry opinions on possible solutions.

Estimates of the number of fibres released from acrylic, polyester and polyester-cotton blend clothing during a laundry cycle. Figure adapted from Statistica.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 63% of virgin feedstock used for clothing is plastic. Global estimates put the textiles industry as the third-largest consumers of plastic (see Figure 3) and indicate that around 1 billion tonnes of polyester, polyamide and acrylic fibres have been produced since 1950. These effects are largely due to the exponential increase in synthetic textile production as a result of the rise of the fast fashion industry. In addition to the concerns around low recycling rates for clothing (reported to be <1%), a big concern for the textile industry is its contribution to plastics entering the ocean through washing. Synthetic clothing is one of the biggest sources of microplastics in the environment, as the process of washing plastic-based textiles causes microfibres to shed which then enter the waterways. Recent research showed that the delicate wash releases on average 800,000 more microfibres than other cycles which use less water.[7]

The case for rethinking the global textiles system, starting with clothing, has been made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. There are multiple issues with the current way textiles are made, used and disposed, most of which fall outside the scope of this report. The lack of infrastructure to manage clothing in a circular way, which leads to most textiles ending up in landfill at end-of-life, compounds the issues related to plastic-based textiles. Aotearoa New Zealand’s efforts to rethink plastics need to factor in synthetic textiles. Sector-led action in Aotearoa New Zealand is required to drive transformational change in how we use and dispose of clothing, with a particular focus on phasing out materials that release synthetic microfibers and microplastic fragments (e.g. glitters, sequins and embossed images). This can build on existing best practice, such as the textile reuse programme established by The Formary.

In the short term, mitigating the effects of microplastic fibres will require measures to physically stop or filter out these particles, and in the long term, new materials and production processes drastically reduce microfibre shedding are needed (read the case study ‘Microplastics from our clothing’). The limited manufacturing of textiles in Aotearoa New Zealand means that the focus on rethinking plastics needs to also factor in brands and retailers, and to consider import measures, such as content environmental labelling (read the case study ‘How big is the plastic clothing problem for Aotearoa New Zealand?’). There are also severe infrastructural limitations for onshore textile recycling in Aotearoa New Zealand. The textile manufacturing and retail industries need to be supported by government to take a collective approach to move towards a circular economy for clothing, with appropriate systems and infrastructure to do so. Some companies are leading the way in demonstrating circular principles in action in the textile industry (read the case study ‘Recyclable shoes’). This best practice needs to become standard practice across the industry.

Plastics manufacturing industry

Ultimately, plastics manufacturing is at the top of the chain of all plastic that is produced and used, and therefore changes to current practices within this industry could have huge flow-on effects to support efforts to rethink plastics.

An analysis for the European Commission on ways to reduce microplastics at source identified supply chain accreditation for pre-production pellets as having the greatest potential to reduce environmental impact and be the most cost-effective of all measures studied.

It is worth noting that many of the plastic products used in Aotearoa New Zealand are manufactured overseas and imported (though we don’t know exactly how much and which types). Therefore, our local plastics manufacturing industry cannot be fully responsible for driving the shift of plastic use and disposal in Aotearoa New Zealand – brand owners and importers will need to demand change from international plastics manufacturers or suppliers as well. Plastics manufacturers are somewhat restricted in their product development by brand owners, but do have the opportunity influence decisions and work with brands to develop more sustainable solutions.

Practices by the plastics manufacturing industry that could support transformation in plastic use and disposal include:

Summary and opportunities for sector-led approaches

Sector-led action on rethinking plastics has the potential to drive a collective solution at scale and with pace. The packaging sector is making some headway, but regulatory levers could be used to ensure that best practice becomes standard practice so that progressive companies are not disadvantaged against competitors that refuse to change. Creating a system that supports businesses to rethink their packaging is covered in recommendation 4.

The fisheries, agriculture, construction and textile industries are examples of sectors that would benefit from a sector-wide approach to reducing their impact on the environment caused by plastics. Government could work with these industries to facilitate action and use regulatory frameworks to ensure best practice becomes standard practice. These are captured in recommendations within recommendation 4.

The local plastics manufacturing industry need support from government to shift to more sustainable use of plastics, which will be a demand from sector-wide changes in packaging, construction and agriculture, and a regulatory framework to reduce environmental impacts currently associated with the industry. These are captured within recommendations 4 and 6.

Regulatory levers could be used to ensure that best practice becomes standard practice so that leading companies are not disadvantaged against competitors that refuse to change

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:


  • The co-regulatory, not-for-profit Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) partners with government and industry to reduce the impacts of packaging on the environment and is a successful model that Aotearoa
    New Zealand could replicate.
  • WRAP UK provides exemplary industry guidance and sector-specific action plans that could be drawn on and connected to by Aotearoa New Zealand’s sector groups.


  • Local policies and solutions should build on Aotearoa New Zealand’s existing international commitments and workstreams e.g. the International Maritime Organisation Action Plan.
  • The Government’s Aquaculture Strategy to 2025, released in September 2019, indicates that the Ministry for Primary Industries will work with the aquaculture sector to ‘foster connections with other primary sectors to share and partner innovations in packaging, processing and transportation’ to reduce waste. Because many companies are involved in both fishing and aquaculture, this work could be built on by the fisheries industry.



  • A formalised and transparent accreditation or certification scheme for construction and demolition material waste companies could progress the work of the REBRI Certification led by Christchurch City Council.
  • Best-practice guidance could build on existing guidelines for construction and demolition waste, including:
  • Sustainable use of plastics could be integrated into existing tools and environmental rating schemes (e.g. EnviroMark, Homestar, and Green Star).
  • Existing voluntary product stewardship schemes in the sector (e.g. those for PVC (#3) pipes) could be scaled-up, accredited and/or mandated, and other schemes could be developed for other materials (e.g. building shrink wrap).
  • Lessons could be learned from Operation Clean Sweep® (read the case study ‘Operation Clean Sweep’) to design and implement an accreditation scheme to reduce environmental leakage on site.
  • Determining whether to phase-out or restrict the use of certain problematic products (e.g. artificial grass which is known to shed microplastics) could be coupled with connecting to researchers and innovators to develop sustainable alternatives.


  • Efforts should be aligned to those led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on a circular economy for textiles and support moves to a shift to more sustainable fabric use (including wool).
  • Local brands could align targets to the ‘Fashion Pact’ launched at the G7 Summit in Biarritz in October 2019 and signed by several large fashion brands, which includes a series of targets related to use and pollution of plastics. Local retailers could support brands that have agreed to these targets.

Plastics manufacturers

  • Scion’s Roadmap for a New Plastics Economy is working with the local plastics industry to determine a pathway to a circular economy for plastics, with a focus on the shift to bio-based feedstocks for plastic.
  • As the industry body for plastics manufacturers, Plastics NZ could help guide sector-specific approaches.
  • A requirement for manufacturers of plastic (in conjunction with brands/retailers) to demonstrate that there is a known end-of-life solution for the product being manufactured could contribute to more sustainable use of plastics.

Business-led action

All companies, from micro-businesses to SMEs through to multinationals, have a significant role in changing the way plastic is utilised in production, distribution and consumer use. Aotearoa New Zealand businesses can and should be at the forefront of this change. Businesses can lead the shift to a culture where considering the full life cycle impacts of a product is carried out in the design phase and taking responsibility or making provisions to support the management of their product at its end-of-life are strategic imperatives. To make informed decisions and changes based on the evidence, businesses require high-quality and accessible information, data and decision-support tools. A worst-case scenario is, for example, consumer push-back about plastic packaging triggering a product redesign to a non-plastic alternative that is actually less recyclable in our local context or has more detrimental environmental impacts. Ensuring appropriate processes are in place for sourcing, manufacture, distribution and returns/recycling, will put businesses at the forefront of initiatives that reduce the amount of plastic lost from the economy as waste. Secondly, it affords individuals more choice as to the action they can take to reduce their own environmental footprint.

Already, Aotearoa New Zealand is home to a growing cohort of forward-thinking businesses that have adapted their business models to challenge the current ways they use plastic in product design and throughout the supply chain. These businesses demonstrate that operating in a sustainable way and being more circular in their approach to plastic management can be a source of advantage. Spurred by a global trend, there is a growing momentum among the wider business community to change their relationship with plastics. Businesses must actively consider the long-term consequences of their operations and initiate strategies that will reduce the amount of packaging waste in our lands and oceans. The question arises as to what business infrastructure, initiatives and incentives would support more companies to do so. We can learn from the experiences of those businesses at the cutting-edge by recognising ways of managing the plastic value chain that are a source of improving performance and advantage, and removing the barriers that currently slow or prevent change.

Perhaps most importantly, those businesses at the forefront of innovation and transformative change around plastic use should be acknowledged as positive change-makers and success stories shared. We can take inspiration and insight from mātauranga Māori and Pasifika success stories, which align with circular economy innovations that scale, to support change that is global in reach and local in character. Best practice in management of the plastic value chain needs to become standard practice. For example, if one company can demonstrate use of a more sustainable plastic for a particular application, without loss of functionality, quality or aesthetics, then regulatory levers could be in place that can drive other businesses to follow suit. Initially this might be encouraged by ensuring the users of existing plastics are confronted with the full-life costs of that material, including its disposal. This would help to make pricing more transparent so that bio-benign alternatives can compete and gain market share, since it would be expected these materials would become cheaper as demand rose.

Transformative action business can take, with local examples

The tables below list examples of actions that businesses can take that will support the system-wide cultural transformation behind rethinking plastics. Many of our recommendations aim to lower or remove the barriers listed for businesses. The points below are evidence of industry-led transformative action driving positive change in regards to Aotearoa New Zealand industry’s relationship with plastics. Some businesses are taking responsibility for their impact on our environment, and also recognising that taking action can result in added value and improved productivity. This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights approaches that may be applicable for other businesses alongside examples that will help steer us towards a new plastics economy. Further details about the innovations driving some of these actions are available here.

Market-facing initiatives

Actions businesses might take that have public benefits and/or marketing advantages, including communication, branding and education of consumers.

Market-facing actions that businesses could take to support rethinking plastics

ActionHow it helpsExamplesBarriers
Make declarations and set targets about reducing non-renewable plastic production and wasteSets the goalposts for business




Raising awareness
Multinational and local businesses have signed the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration and/or the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, pledging to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in NZ operations by 2025Current infrastructure limitations in NZ may limit some company’s willingness to make these commitments (e.g. switching to compostable when there are insufficient facilities to manage waste)
Publicly disclose data on plastic production, use and waste (audit current use and forecast to 2025 and beyond)Potential to contribute to aggregated national data to inform infrastructure planning

Provides better data to support business planning
Some companies have publicly disclosed annual plastic packaging volumes as a total tonnage value, as part of the New Plastics Economy Global CommitmentCommercial sensitivities

Lack of framework to guide data collection
Commit to gaining industry certification or accreditation for environmental best practiceIllustrates best-practice targets

Identifies feasible performance metrics
Various certifications exist e.g. Cradle to cradle, EnviroMark, ISO14001Cost and feasibility may be prohibitive

Availability varies between industries
Offer take-back schemes/ product stewardship for products Provides a returns or recycling pathway for consumers to utilise

Opportunity for potential product/process innovation
H&M will take back any clothing (including other brands) to manage at end-of-life through rewear, reuse or recyclingInfrastructure needed
Provide or facilitate reuse optionsReduces the need for packagingSome stores such as Bin Inn provide a discount for bringing containers for bulk buy purchases

Countdown and Foodstuffs now allow reusable containers where previously single-use packaging was used, e.g. in the deli

For The Better Good developed a reuse system for water bottles (that are also compostable at end-of-life)
Maintaining convenience of single-use

Food safety issues
Switch to certified compostable plastic packaging and facilitate collection if industrially compostableMaintains convenience of single-use

Reduces waste to landfill

Certification of product ensures it will compose as advertised

Ensures compostable plastic ends up in appropriate facility at end-of-life

For food packaging, may increase the amount of food waste collected
Certified compostable mailer bags by Compostic or r3packLack of infrastructure, collection methods and standards for compostable plastics (read the Case Study)

High risk of contaminating PET (#1) recycling stream may outweigh benefits

Increased emissions if ends up in landfill
Provide support to business and community groups wanting to take action to change current practices of plastic useSharing the responsibility


Plastic free events and conferences guides

Envision supports community groups and social enterprises taking action against plastic waste
Encouraging collaboration between community groups with scarce resources

Ensuring support and advice aligns to national plan or direction
Operational actions

Actions taken by businesses that are targeting internal operational processes, such as manufacturing or services, with the intention of improving performance.

Operational actions businesses could take to support rethinking plastics

ActionHow it helpsExamplesBarriers
Redesign product or packaging to improve recyclability in NZ (speak to local MRFs and recyclers for guidance)Reducing the volume of poor plastic recycling optionsCoca-Cola is shifting from coloured to clear PET (#1) bottles for Sprite and L&P so that there is better chance of these being recycled because clear PET (#1) has a better end-marketBrands may face competing interests between needing to maintain brand properties and designing packaging for recyclability

Lack of good practice guidance and consultative support for businesses for the local context (e.g. for product design, packaging, recycling)
Establish new business models based on reuse systemsIdentifies innovative value proposition for plastic managementThe Honest Eco offers a refill service for household products that doesn’t rely on people taking their product to a physical store

Ecostore has refill stations — read the case study 'A business enabling people to rethink their use of plastic'

Numerous businesses have established borrowing/leasing systems for reusable coffee cups – read the case study 'A reusable system to replace single-use cups'

Spout Alternatives are piloting a keg system for milk for cafes
May need to invest in new technologies and R&D

Cost-benefit analysis

Feasibility studies

Cost-barriers to uptake unless widely accessible (e.g. in supermarkets) and with price parity to single-use options
Create a product using recycled materials or products Reduces demand for virgin materialsCritical Things is a social enterprise that makes furniture and homewares by upcycling plastic waste

Coca-Cola is making all plastic bottles smaller than 1-litre and all water bottles from 100% recycled content
Quality and availability of recycled content

Food-safety issues if used in food packaging

Virgin plastic can be cheaper than recycled plastic

Infrastructure in NZ not currently sufficient to provide 100% food grade rPET (#1) so materials must be imported
Remove single-use plastic items from offeringReduce circulation of single-use plasticAir New Zealand is removing nearly 55 million single-use plastic items from its operationMaintaining convenience and efficiency

Possibility of substitution having worse environmental impacts
Engage with researchers to develop new materials or solutionsCan address particular pain points

Can develop new uses for ‘waste’ material
Zespri and Scion collaborated with a NZ plastics processor to produce a product from a bioplastic and residual kiwifruit waste. Read the case study 'Staying at the leading edge of global sustainability trends'Business may need a ‘quick fix’ and can’t wait for R&D developments which can take a long time

Desire for off-the-shelf solutions

Cost of research can be prohibitive as can the capital equipment required for commercialisation
Implement consistent and informative labelling on productsInform and educate consumers, encouraging informed decisionsThe Australasian Recycling Label (ARL). Read the case study 'The Australasian Recycling Label'

Crunch and Flourish developed a digital ‘packaging star’ label to show the recyclability of a plastic product

GS1 system. Read the case study 'Capturing plastic packaging data through a supply chain database'
Fragmented recycling system precludes consistent labelling messaging

Digital reach limited
Switch to a more sustainable alternative material Reduce non-recyclable plastics in circulationFriendlyPak compostable starch-based foam packing product as an alternative to EPS

Alto’s recycled PET (#1) (rPET) meat tray developed for Foodstuffs is made of 50% recycled plastic and is 100% recyclable rather than alternatives such as PS

Sanford Ltd is shifting from EPS trays for shipping seafood (not readily recyclable in NZ) to insulated cardboard
Many brands are not equipped to investigate sustainability of material choices through standardised methods (e.g. LCA)
Collaborate and innovate with people outside own business for shared solutionsOpen innovationTe ōhanga (based at Scion) supports circular collaboration between businesses and people in a workspace environment

SBN brought companies together to chart a pathway to a circular plastic packaging system for NZ. Read the case study 'Empowering brands to make informed packaging deicisons'
Non-willingness to share information with competitors

Lack of incentives
Supply chain actions

Actions businesses can take in monitoring and managing their supply chains, with a longer-term goal of reimagining the supply chain.

Actions related to the supply chain that businesses can take to support rethinking plastics

ActionHow it helpsExamplesBarriers
Audit the supply chain to look for opportunities to reduce plastic useReduce plastic waste from circulation

Ensures transparency of supply chain and availability of information/data
Supply chain databases (e.g. GS1) could be utilised for this. Read the case study 'Capturing plastic packaging data through a supply chain database'Cost, feasibility and legitimacy of a supply chain audit can be difficult
Challenge suppliers/ customers to deliver/ demand packaging solutions that reduce waste or footprint in plastic usageProvides opportunity for returnable transit packaging solutions

Shifts use of problematic plastics to preferred plastics or alternative materials

Removes from market

Drives innovation or reuse
International examples:

Walmart’s ‘sustainable packaging playbook’ for its suppliers has detailed information about recyclability for each major packaging format (guidance, not compulsory)

Tesco pledged to ban brands that use excessive packaging, after previously providing suppliers preferred materials list requirements

San Francisco Airport banned the sale of single-use plastic bottles
Smaller retailers may not have the influence to demand high level of change

NZ size of market may limit power to influence material change for large multinational companies
Shift to plastic sourced from renewable resources Less reliance on non-renewable source of feedstockEcostore switched their packaging from recycled fossil-fuel based plastic to a bio-based plastic made from sugarcane. Read the case study 'A business enabling people to rethink their use of plastic'Cost of switching to new resource

Understanding the total cost of renewable resources (e.g. sugarcane is a water-intensive crop, sugarcane farming has also fuelled deforestation)
Prioritise collaborative relationships with supply chain partners who share the same commitments in regards to plasticLeveraging resources

Sharing knowledge

Creating synergies throughout the supply chain
The Warehouse is working with its supply base to ensure its suppliers share the same standardsSmall retailers will find it difficult to shift larger supply chain partners

Supply chain collaboration requires sharing of sensitive information

Summary and opportunities for business-led action

The competitive nature of the business sector makes it difficult to ensure widespread uptake of responsible plastic use without backing from legislation and sector-wide approaches. Most businesses, particularly small-to-medium enterprises, struggle to navigate the complexities around sustainable use of plastics. Government guidance and action is crucial to enable all companies to adopt best practices and will be fundamental to rethinking plastics, including addressing barriers currently faced by business, which is captured in recommendations 4 and 5.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • Best practice guidance for packaging could build on and localise existing efforts such as the UK WRAP’s Rigid Plastic Packaging Design Tips for Recycling, the Packaging NZ Code of Practice and the US Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Design for Recycled Content guide.
  • Support could be strengthened by the establishment of a group that provides advice through consultation during packaging design.
  • The Circular Economy lab in Queensland has been a successful ‘sandbox environment’ to encourage businesses to collaborate and be creative about shifting to circular economy which could be modelled from. Part of the success comes from starting small with closed systems, before scaling up.
  • Aligning materials requirements with Australia could strengthen case for multinational brands.

Community-led action

Community groups, not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities are at the heart of action against plastic pollution. Community groups have traditionally played a strong role in leading environmental initiatives. They are particularly good at leading place-based action that brings together people to protect or enhance a particular ecosystem (such as a river, beach front, park or forest), or to build environmentally responsible norms within a community. For example, before the single-use plastic shopping bag ban was legislated, several community groups launched initiatives and programmes to encourage their community to move to using reusable alternatives, since as far back as 2005. As this example demonstrates, community action can instigate changes in consumption and business behaviour that can produce positive change on a much larger scale. Enduring change will stem from behaviour change.

Local initiatives and ongoing efforts

There are many community initiatives aiming to tackle plastic waste and pollution throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. In the table below we highlight some community groups and projects that are leading by example.

Community initiatives throughout Aotearoa New Zealand leading the way in tackling plastic waste and pollution

Larger national NGOs/NFPs
Sustainable CoastlinesNGO that established a citizen science beach litter monitoring program (Litter Intelligence), provides resources and information to support people to take action to prevent litter. Read the case study 'Litter intelligence'NationwideGrowing (since 2011)Scalable with new volunteers and citizen scientists
Aotearoa Plastic Pollution AllianceA collaborative forum of researchers, educators, scientists, industry and conservationists working to mitigate and prevent plastic-related pollution in Aotearoa and OceaniaNationwideYoungPotential to grow with increasing collaboration between groups
Sea CleanersTrust that coordinates volunteers to help with coastal clean-ups and educates the public about how to prevent marine pollutionAuckland and NorthlandMature (since 2002)Could expand to other regions with more resource
Keep New Zealand BeautifulNFP that provides public education to reduce litter through national campaigns, supports volunteer clean-ups, and undertakes research. Also runs the KNZB awardNationwideMature (since 1967)Well established in NZ and connected internationally
GreenpeaceLocal arm of global organisation that takes action on plastic waste through public-facing information, supporting campaigns, petitions, and writing policy papersNationwideMatureWell established in NZ and connected internationally
Zero Waste NetworkNetwork of community enterprises that support the zero waste movementConnects regions across NZMatureCan support knowledge sharing between groups with common goals across different regions
Para KoreSupports marae and other groups to become zero waste. Read the case study 'Para kore – helping people reduce their waste'North Island, expanding to South IslandMature (since 2009), but growingScalable nationwide pending resourcing
Ghost Fishing NZLocal arm of international organisation who remove lost fishing gear and other waste from harbours and the ocean through divingNationwideGrowing (since 2015)Growing in NZ and connected internationally
Smaller local community groups/initiatives
Golden Bay Plastic Bag FreeThe first community initiative in NZ to go plastic shopping bag free in 2005Golden BayMatureNow national regulation enforces this
Newtown Community and Cultural Centre Wash Against WasteA hireable community resource containing cutlery, crockery and napkins that can be borrowed by the publicWellingtonMatureOther community groups could replicate this – e.g. Timebank Raglan has a similar initiative
Palmy’s Plastic Pollution ChallengeCitizen science project between Environment Network Manawatu and Massey University to measure litter from urban streamsPalmerston NorthYoungCould expand or connect with other regional efforts and align data collection with Sustainable Coastlines methods, which are accredited Tier 1 measures
F.O.R.C.E (For Our Real Clean Environment)Organises monthly litter clean-up eventsWhangāreiYoung (formed mid 2018)Scalable with potential to begin tracking litter data
Love KaiparaRun school and community-based education programmes on waste minimisation and offer site visits and waste audits for businesses to reduce wasteKaiparaSince 2016Learnings could be shared with other groups
Kaipatiki ProjectOffers educational events for community groups and schools on sustainability, including recycling and using more sustainable resources (e.g. harakeke)KaipatikiMatureLearnings could be shared with other groups
EcoMattersShares knowledge and tools to support the community to reduce wasteAucklandMatureA model that could be adopted by other local communities
Sustainable Whanganui (including Plastic Free Whanganui)Community trust that has a physical resource library, runs community projects and events, and provides online resources, including reducing plastic useWhanganuiMatureLearnings could be shared with other groups
The Rubbish TripOffers presentations to community groups, schools, businesses and households about reducing rubbish. Also provides regional guides for low-waste option shops, cafes etc.Toured around the country and online resourcesSince 2015Can reach more people with more touring and growing library of regional guides
RefillNZInitiative that shows a cafe or restaurant is happy to fill up your reusable water bottle to support the practice of reuse and avoid single-use plastic drinks bottlesNationwideScaling upCan grow throughout the country

Actions that community groups can take

Community groups can be small localised approaches through to NGOs that foster international linkages. Across these groups, actions and approaches that will help community initiatives take hold include:

  • Connecting with community residents as neighbours, rather than as representatives of an institution.
  • Engaging with local schools or existing community initiatives or NGOs to establish a local arm (e.g. Para Kore).
  • Using clean-up efforts as an opportunity to collect data (and standardise this nationwide) – see Sustainable Coastlines as an exemplar (read the case study ‘Litter intelligence’).
  • Sharing successful community initiatives to inspire other community groups.
  • Going plastic free for events or conferences (an Australian marine science conference detailed their experience of going plastic-free for The Conversation).
  • Raising awareness of the issues around plastic pollution and educating the community about new practices to minimise these issues.

Barriers and hurdles to action

  • Community initiatives may have limited funding and rely on volunteers.
  • Community groups may be short-lived and have limited reach, unless able to partner with government, schools or businesses.
  • Without funding and reach, it is hard to share learnings and leverage resources that have been developed.
  • A poor understanding of baseline attitudes may make it difficult to understand what approaches are more or less effective.

Summary and opportunities

Community groups need to be supported to continue to lead local environmental initiatives related to plastics and sustainability and share their successful initiatives further afield. This is addressed within recommendation 5.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • Engagement with successful community initiatives could help government understand what barriers could be removed to help community projects related to plastics succeed.
  • Ensuring that any funding related to plastic is accessible for community groups could help the grassroots and localised initiatives that lead to wider change.

Initiating changes through education

Education is a critical lever for cultural transformation. There are many opportunities for rich, in-depth and ongoing learning and action across the education sector. Within this context, we can inspire and develop a new generation of people who practice kaitiakitanga. Children and young adults can learn to take action and can share their new practices with whānau, friends and wider communities. This has potential to help these practices become a new norm embedded within communities, and society more broadly.

We know that school is where many students learn about environmental issues, so it is critical to ensure these learning experiences are effective at empowering students to take action and support cultural transformation towards a holistic approach to living sustainably.

For education to effectively support this cultural transformation, we need:

  • A curriculum framework that supports teaching environmental and sustainability education
  • Schools that foster a culture of sustainability and environmental protection
  • Teachers to be capable and equipped to teach environmental education through engaging and interesting formats that not only raise awareness of environmental issues, but support students to develop the dispositions and skills needed to take action.

The New Zealand Curriculum provides a broad framework for guiding each school and kura to develop their own localised curriculum. Although environmental education, education for sustainability, and environmental education for sustainability are not mandated learning areas, the curriculum nonetheless encourages a focus in these areas. For example, two of the values to be encouraged in whole-school curriculum development are community and participation for the common good, and ecological sustainability, which includes care for the environment. Similarly, a key principle underpinning school curricula is that the curriculum has a future focus, encouraging students to ‘look to the future by exploring such significant future-focused issues as sustainability [and] citizenship…’ In addition, the current framework is well-suited for plastics to provide a rich and meaningful context for cross-curricular learning through science, technology, social studies, sustainability and mātauranga Māori.

The individual school environment also plays a significant role in cultural transformation. A school-wide commitment to issues of sustainability can provide tangible opportunities for students to take meaningful action and therefore foster a sense of empowerment, rather than risking a sense of disempowerment associated with the size of the problem. This is illustrated in this case study which outlines the Te Aho Tū Roa or Enviroschools programmes, contributed by Heidi Mardon. School prioritisation of environmental and sustainability issues also strengthens the impact of individual teachers’ lessons and actions. School staff can lead by example and support students on the path to developing new routines and habits,[8] with the goal of making these behaviours the social norm within the school.[9]

Teachers’ confidence and ability to teach broader themes around the environment and sustainability is a prerequisite to improving students’ understanding of these areas. Without being mandated in the curriculum, the level of coverage varies between teachers based on individual or departmental views and commitments. This is particularly variable at primary school where teachers are typically generalists. Aotearoa New Zealand’s teachers are adept at developing content – however, low scientific knowledge and scientific literacy (knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes to provide a context for addressing problems and support decision making) among our teachers (compared to other countries) may prevent teachers from making science the focus of that content. In order to make the most of education as an avenue for cultural transformation for how we use plastic, we need to support our teachers with resources and sustained professional learning and development to build confidence in teaching environmental education and education for sustainability, in a holistic way that includes scientific, social and te ao Māori perspectives.[10]

There are already numerous resources available to support teachers to do this (see the table below for examples related to plastics). Raising the profile of existing resources and making it easier for teachers to access and utilise them, in particular by aligning them to the curriculum, will help to increase uptake and effectiveness of the resources. The Science Learning Hub has already done this for some plastics resources (see Appendix 2).

Effort could be made to use engaging formats at school to improve the effectiveness of teaching these environmental issues and science more broadly. Students who engaged in science-related activities (but not students who had higher interest in science) were significantly more optimistic about the environment, suggesting engagement is particularly important for ‘wicked problems’ such as plastic that can lead to pessimism.  Examples of engaging learning formats include:

  • Game-based learning[11] through digital[12] or non-digital platforms: For example, a school-based litter reduction study that used a game to assess how students would be motivated not to litter found that linking the issue of litter with possible downstream effects (by offering to donate money to support an endangered marine animal) improved motivation among students by adding a moral dimension to the issue.
  • Citizen science: Online citizen science can connect students with projects and data that they would not otherwise be able to access.

Improving education about, in and for the environment has the potential to inspire and empower the next generation to practice kaitiakitanga by supporting students to develop their action competence.[13]

Tertiary education also provides opportunities for learning and action and supports a wider shift in society through leadership and research. In addition to the function as a critic and conscience of society, universities contribute to the body of research across science, engineering and social change policy that provides the evidence to inform efforts to rethink plastics (see table below). Within a university setting, there is opportunity to build a platform to support changing practices. For example, Aotearoa New Zealand universities ranked highly in the global impact rankings by Times Higher Education on how universities are performing against the UNSDGs. This provides a fantastic platform to adopt and build on rethinking plastics – universities could have a collaborative discussion to share their teaching and research on plastics and consider how to progress these ideas collectively.

Local initiatives and ongoing efforts

There are already several established educational programmes that include plastics education, but there is plenty of room for these to scale and grow, become more widely adopted, and for additional programmes to be developed.

Primary and secondary school initiatives related to plastics and sustainability

Cross-curricular teaching materials developed to support the
New Zealand curriculum
A range related to plastics, packaging and sustainability, e.g. ‘All That Packaging!’ resource from NZ maths and ‘Transform – a visual arts based investigation of waste’ for the Arts

The Connected Journals and School Journals also have relevant articles, e.g. ‘Turning Old Into New’ and ‘The Plastic-free Challenge
NationwideVariedOpportunity for further materials related to plastics

Existing resources could be highlighted to teachers
Curious Minds programmeIncludes citizen science projects related to plastics e.g. ‘Project Litter: tracking beach trash’ and ‘Can recycling help homelessness?Various locations across NZMature programme, projects variedMost projects funded for localised applications but successful projects and data collection efforts could be scaled or replicated
Science Learning HubProvides an extensive range of educational resources related to plastics (e.g. What happens to our plastic bottles? Made in collaboration with Flight Plastics)

The Futures Thinking Toolkit is designed to scaffold students’ consideration of possible and preferable futures
Nationwide (online)MatureAll accessible via the internet
Nanogirl LabsPlastic education projectVarious locations across NZNewReach and longevity of project likely to depend on funding
Toimata programmes (Te Aho Tū Roa and Enviroschools)Teaches students about sustainability and environment issues using action-based learning

Read the case study 'Sustainability through connection, learning and action'
Various locations across NZMatureRoom to grow
Para KoreTeaches methods to help achieve zero waste for kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, kindergartens and schools

Read the case study 'Para Kore: Helping people reduce their waste'
Various locations across NZ (mostly North Island)MatureScalable to further schools and South Island
Sustainable CoastlinesDelivers educational presentations to schools and can train others to be able to address plastic pollution issues with schools. Read the case study 'Litter intelligence'Various locations across NZMatureCould train educators for broader reach
Zero Waste EducationProvides waste minimisation education units from pre school to year 8, funded by local councilsVarious locations across NZMature (since 1993)Could expand to other regions/councils
Visy’s recycling educationRecyclers in Auckland provide materials to teach students about recycling aligned to the NZ curriculum and can also host school visitsAucklandMatureCould host more local school visits but fewer coming through due to recent H&S changes
Keep the Oceans Clean school projectA free educational programme (resource and guided museum visit) linked to NZ curriculum run in conjunction with a sailing race to teach children about ocean plasticsVarious locations across NZOnce off in 2011/12Future projects could be modelled on this
Wellington ZooWorking to remove or reduce single-use packaging from use at the Zoo and partner organisationsWellingtonOngoingCould share learnings with other zoos

Initiatives related to plastics and sustainability at tertiary institutes

InstituteExample initiativeMaturityScalability
University of OtagoUniversity community provided plastic bottle caps which were made into an artwork to educate people about the impact of plastic on marine life One-off project in 2018Similar initiatives could be adopted by other universities
University of Auckland Coordinated a citizen science day with Sustainable Coastlines to collect microplastics data for current research projectOne-off event in 2018 Could repeat and support scale of Sustainable Coastlines programme. Read the case study 'Litter intelligence'
Massey UniversityJoint initiative with Palmerston North City Council on the Plastic Free Palmy project involving citizen science OngoingSimilar initiatives could be adopted by other universities
Waikato UniversitySeveral waste minimisation initiatives, including the Eco Emporium – a sustainability space, where students can learn new skills, repair things, up-cycle unwanted items, volunteer, or seek advice on waste and sustainabilityOngoingSimilar initiatives could be adopted by other universities

Actions schools, kura and kindergartens can take

  • Engage with the ‘Mātauranga whakauka taiao, Environmental education for sustainability. Strategic and action plan 2017 – 2021’.
  • Embed learning about, in and for the environment, including in relation to plastics, within cross-curricular learning programmes and as part of the school kaupapa.
  • Engage with the local council (read the case study ‘A council-led event to raise awareness around plastic waste’), local community groups or citizen science projects related to plastics through organisations such as those listed in tables above.
  • Encourage projects focused on plastics for science fairs and similar school projects.
  • Use games to incentivise students to think about their use or disposal of plastics.
  • Access NCEA sustainability standards as part of senior secondary programmes.
  • Embed sustainability in the school through whole-of-school programmes (e.g. for recycling and composting).
  • Establish a sustainable procurement policy.
  • Establish a waste plan and reduction goal for the school.

Actions tertiary institutions can take

  • Ensure operational practices reflect responsible use of plastics, including through sustainable procurement of plastics.
  • Undertake a plastics audit that covers the curriculum, research and civic arms of the institute to highlight opportunities for improvement.
  • Offer courses and teaching units within courses that teach sustainability and issues related to plastics in particular.
  • Create greater space in Teacher Education for all student teachers to explore education for sustainability.
  • Undertake research on plastics and develop communication channels with end-users to ensure uptake.
  • Engage or collaborate in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on marine litter.
  • Build the plastics problem into case competitions.
  • Act as a ‘critic and conscience of society’ by ensuring that new research on plastics is made widely available through the media and other public communication channels.

Current barriers to action

Schools, kura and other educational institutions face the same barriers to responsible practice as all institutions, and so therefore may appear to be ‘teaching’ one thing and ‘doing’ another. Addressing the following will help to reduce barriers for rethinking plastics efforts in the education sector.

  • Resourcing at schools (funds, time in a busy curriculum, teacher expertise, passion and commitment).
  • The curriculum and structure of NCEA does not mandate teaching of particular environmental issues, although this has the upside of allowing flexibility and innovation within schools committed to the ‘future focus’ principle.
  • Individual teacher capability and capacity to teach environmental and sustainability education.

Summary and opportunities for the education sector

The education sector has an important role to play to support cultural transformation in how we use plastics. In order for the sector to be effective in doing this, teachers need to be supported to teach the right topics in a way that empowers students to take action. As a huge government procurement sector, education is an opportune sector to demonstrate sustainable procurement of plastics. Universities also need to demonstrate responsible use of plastics, as well as be supported in research and collaboration related to plastics. Recommendations 3, 5 and 6 address this.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • There are ‘education for sustainability’ standards at Levels 2 and 3, but not at Level 1. Nationally, advocates such as the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education have been pushing for these for many years.
  • The UNEA UNEP recommended enabling support to integrate green and sustainable chemistry education, innovation and sustainable business models into mainstream curricula in 2019.
  • DOC has been driving an education for sustainability strategy and action plan that could be built on for integrating plastics education into schools.
  • NOAA’s Marine Debris Program in the US supports projects across the country that use outreach and education as a way to prevent marine debris, which could be modelled from locally.

Individual actions

Ehara taku toa i tetoa takitahi
engari he toa takitini [14]

Governments and big business can take action to achieve substantial, immediate impact on how plastic is used, but individuals and small groups are key to help raise public awareness, create a mandate for policy change, demonstrate new practices and inspire others.

We can think of individuals as being at both ends of the change needed in how we use plastics – individuals are responsible for their own practices and can influence others through social contagion. This grows into larger effects at community and regional levels, and can cause the groundswell that leads to changes implemented by government and industry. Moreover, individuals are voters so they choose who is in power and therefore show governments what action they want. As consumers, individuals can also drive change through their disposable income.

In order for people to want to change a practice there needs to be a value proposition that resonates. When people understand the possible impacts of their choices it may help with motivation to learn a new practice. At the same time, people are limited to making choices within the system that they are part of. If systems are not in place, it makes it difficult or impossible for people to do the right thing.

People’s individual acts are noticed by others. As copiers by nature, people may then adopt the behaviour as their own. This can help create ‘social contagion’ in which a particular practice grows.[15] The rapid adjustment of New Zealanders to taking their own bags to the supermarket, rather than rely on being provided with them at the store, is an excellent example. Data from the General Social Survey collated by Statistics NZ captured how New Zealander’s behaviours changed in preparation for the bag ban. It showed before the ban took place more people were using reusable bags, with most significant increase in young people. Use was almost universal before the ban set in, with 96% of people saying they or someone in their household used reusable bags. This was helped by many supermarkets encouraging such practices, and hence the structural environment supported individual motivation to change.

Once practices become habitual, they become part of the individual’s identity and the person concerned will then carry the practice into other settings. This may include agitating for the change necessary to facilitate the practice.[16] There may also be spill over effects in which adopting one environmentally responsible practice leads to other related practices (read the case study ‘A reusable system to replace single-use cups’).[17]

Individuals are always limited by the social context and the opportunities available to them. Most people, most of the time, will do what the situation demands of them. This is why a sustainable change in our relationship with plastics will require both encouraging change agents to demonstrate alternatives, and holding more responsible practices in place through changes to policy and law.[18]

People also learn from ‘behavioural traces’ which are physical signs of the normal and expected behaviour in a particular environment. Waste management systems and the labelling of products can help create behavioural traces that encourage people to ‘do the right thing’.[19] In particular, bins that separate rubbish act as behavioural traces that enable positive action from individuals.

Individuals can also notice problems with the system around them and raise concern. Recently a high-school student raised the issue of exams being wrapped in plastic and alerted a Member of Parliament to take this to parliament. This is an example of a person noticing something wrong and taking action. Understanding the forces of social contagion will be critical in inspiring New Zealanders to reduce their plastic consumption.

Local initiatives and ongoing efforts

There are several existing initiatives that can support individuals to rethink their use of plastics, as outlined in the table below, that could be taken up by others and built on.

Examples of local initiatives that help individuals change their relationship with plastic

Plastic Free JulyA challenge to refuse single-use plastic for the month of JulyGlobal and being implemented in various locations in NZMatureEasily scaled and applied by individuals through to larger organisations
Connecting GoodAccreditation scheme for businesses demonstrating sustainable practices that gives consumers a vote to influence business decisions NationalMatureCurrently used by 13,000 Kiwis
ReCirclerInteractive consumer-facing platform that companies can use to advertise take back schemes to divert waste from landfill to be recycledChristchurchIn development (awaiting funding)Pitched for Christchurch but if funded should be considered for effectiveness and scalability nationally

Actions that individuals can take

People are inspired by the action of others. Therefore, each person can make changes that may not only reduce their use of plastic or its impact on the environment, but also inspire others around them to make similar changes. Individual actions that will contribute to the transformative change in our relationship with plastics include:

  • Supporting businesses that use plastic alternatives.
  • Doing a bin audit to see what waste could be avoided, recycled or composted (there are instructions of how to do this on Plastic Free July).
  • Carrying reusable items with you when using them regularly. This might include cups, drink bottles, bags for fruit and vegetables, cutlery for takeaway meals.
  • Choosing alternatives to plastic when available and affordable.
  • Refusing unnecessary plastics (e.g. straws, lids on coffee cups, plastic wrap).
  • Choosing products made from recycled and recyclable content.
  • Repairing broken products when possible or take to e-waste or resource recovery station.
  • Disposing of products as directed (recycling or landfill) based on the product’s labelling and local council instructions.
  • Talking about responsible plastic use and disposal with others.
  • Listening to the suggestions of others, especially children, who have up-to-date knowledge about plastics or who are concerned about their impact.
  • Researching and advocating for plastic alternatives in your workplace, school or community organisation.
  • Joining a local group that is campaigning reform to plastic related legislation or policy.
  • Looking for opportunities to make submissions on local or national policy and legislation in this area.
  • Avoiding fast fashion by buying fewer clothes and not disposing of clothes that are not worn out.

Examples of brands using innovative approaches to support people to change their practices are available here.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing the plastic shopping bag ban

“I also underestimated the strength of feeling amongst everyday New Zealanders around this issue. One of the groups of people that have helped me realise how much people care about plastics in the environment were children.

The biggest issue I get letters on from the public are about plastics and it comes from children. I literally get hundreds and hundreds.

We in government have a role to play in the way we manage these kinds of issues and the way we respond to the public when they call upon us to address what might seem like a small issue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the announcement of the bag ban. Photo credit: Sustainable Coastlines.

Current barriers to action

A broad barrier to people changing their practice is that often doing things a different way isn’t feasible, because the right systems are not in place to support that change. Other barriers include:

  • Lack of easily accessible consumer-friendly information to support better practice (e.g. what happens to recycled products, coloured PET doesn‘t always get recycled).
  • Misconceptions: There are common misconceptions in the public about what can be recycled and what the recycling symbols mean. This highlights the need for both standardisation of labelling and public education.
  • Lack of a better alternative: In many cases plastic is the cheapest, lightest, strongest and most convenient and one or more of these factors would need to be sacrificed for an alternative. Plastic can also contribute to enhancing food safety, extending product stability and shelf life, and reducing food waste.
  • The entanglement of plastic use with other valued practices or principles. For example, disposable plastic plates, cups and cutlery accompany eating out with friends from many outlets; cheap plastic toys allow people to give children affordable gifts; single-use plastic is considered ‘hygienic’ in many circumstances. Organisations such as schools and sports clubs can help to change the culture of plastic use and normalise it to be spread further.
  • Ease and accessibility of disposal options: Keep New Zealand Beautiful’s Litter Behaviour Study identified that people who littered most commonly said they did so because there were no bins around. There is also evidence that convenience is one of the strongest predictors of householders’ recycling behaviour.[20] This highlights that making good practice easy and convenient for people is a key way to reduce litter pollution and increase rates of recycling.
  • The sense that plastic is not a ‘real’ problem or the government would have acted on it. If a society’s leaders are not visibly taking action, then it may be very hard for people to take an issue seriously. At present, responsible use of plastic, may be seen as a ‘virtue’ but it is not morally required.[21],[22] This requires government-led action to demonstrate responsible use of plastic and also regulatory action to show that this is significant issue that needs addressing.

Summary and opportunities for individuals

Most people want to do the right thing, but they need to know what the right thing is to do and have the systems in place to make it easy to do it. Ultimately, we need a system that allows individuals to change their relationship with plastics – whether that’s through using less plastic overall or ensuring that the plastic materials they use remain in circulation. The key components that will help individuals change their practices are addressed in recommendations 3 and 4.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • A public education campaign could use simple, consistent messaging linked in with new, clear systems.
  • The WasteMINZ bin audit could inform messaging for a public education campaign.
  • Ambassadors could be an effective way to get messages through to the public. It was recently announced that the new All Blacks training kit will be made from upcycled marine plastic waste – and that some members of the team were driven to become ambassadors after an educational session on marine plastic waste.

Part of a global community

Aotearoa New Zealand is not the only country that needs to take transformative action and change our relationship with plastics – the issues related to the scale and disposability of plastic are global. Many other countries or jurisdictions are also taking action, and our country needs to align efforts with those that are leading the charge through agreements and initiatives. Aotearoa New Zealand does not have to face these challenges in isolation, but instead should focus on connecting with international groups and sharing best practice, and bringing great ideas from overseas home and tweaking these to fit our local context. We can also help our neighbours in the Pacific to deal with the issues of plastic waste.There are several opportunities to connect with the international community on plastics, such as:

  • Embedding more sustainable use and management of plastics in trade agreements and establishing international product stewardship principles
  • Aligning data collection efforts to international guidelines to support aggregation of data
  • Fostering international research collaborations, including connecting to research by indigenous communities in other countries
  • Connecting citizen science efforts to international citizen science projects
  • Signing international pacts or treaties related to plastic use and waste
  • Aligning regulatory practices with external trading partners
  • Connecting to international NGO or government-led working groups (e.g. WRAP) to share knowledge
  • Sharing knowledge and building scale for clean-up efforts (particularly with Pacific Island nations)
  • Modelling best practice, including managing our own waste and not exporting large volumes of plastic.

Summary and opportunities for global connections

Connecting our efforts to transition to a more circular economy for plastics and remediate plastic pollution with the international community is a critical part of rethinking plastics. This is addressed in a number of recommendations within recommendations 2, 3 and 6.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:

  • Opportunities to incorporate plastics into trade agreements could be considered, e.g. extending product stewardship schemes across national borders, as suggested at the recent CPTPP forum on marine plastics.
  • As the host of APEC 2021, Aotearoa New Zealand could highlight circular economy principles for plastics as an area for cooperation among this influential group of 21 economies.



[1] Farrelly et al., “Action Research and Residential Waste Minimisation in Palmerston North, New Zealand,” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 91 (2014)

[2] Willis et al., “How Successful Are Waste Abatement Campaigns and Government Policies at Reducing Plastic Waste into the Marine Environment?,” Marine Policy 96 (2018)

[3] Li et al., “Plastic Waste in the Marine Environment: A Review of Sources, Occurrence and Effects,” Science of the Total Environment 566 (2016)

[4] Lebreton et al., “Evidence That the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic,” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (2018)

[5] Richardson et al., “Understanding Causes of Gear Loss Provides a Sound Basis for Fisheries Management,” Marine Policy 96 (2018)

[6] Gilman, “Status of International Monitoring and Management of Abandoned, Lost and Discarded Fishing Gear and Ghost Fishing,” Marine Policy 60 (2015)

[7] Kelly et al., “Importance of Water-Volume on the Release of Microplastic Fibers from Laundry,” Environmental Science & Technology  (2019)

[8] Darnton, A, Verplanken, B, White, P and Whitmarsh, L. (2011). Habits, routines and sustainable lifestyles: summary report. AD Research and Analysis for DEFRA, London.

[9] Long, J., Harré, N. and Atkinson, Q. D. (2014). Understanding change in recycling and littering behavior across a school social network. American Journal of Community Psychology, 53(3-4), 462-474.

[10] Ernst, J., and Erickson, D.M. (2018). Environmental education professional development for teachers: A study of the impact and influence of mentoring. The Journal of Environmental Education, 49:5, 357-374, DOI: 10.1080/00958964.2018.1451813

[11] Jabbar et al., “Gameplay Engagement and Learning in Game-Based Learning: A Systematic Review,” Review of Educational Research 85, no. 4 (2015)

[12] Clark et al., “Digital Games, Design, and Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Review of Educational Research 86, no. 1 (2016)

[13] Defined in this context as ‘the ability to arrive at solutions for individual and societal problems through critical analysis of environmental issues’.

[14] My strength is not that of an individual but that of the collective

[15] Christakis et al., “Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior,” Stat Med 32, no. 4 (2013); Harré, Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2018); Long et al., “Understanding Change in Recycling and Littering Behavior across a School Social Network,” Am J Community Psychol 53, no. 3-4 (2014)

[16] McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)

[17] Elf et al., “Facilitating Positive Spillover Effects: New Insights from a Mixed-Methods Approach Exploring Factors Enabling People to Live More Sustainable Lifestyles,” Front Psychol 9 (2018)

[18] Harré, Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet; Harré, Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet.

[19] Goldstein et al., “Using Social Norms as a Lever of Social Influence,” Science of Social Influence: Advances and Future Progress  (2007)

[20] Miafodzyeva et al., “Recycling Behaviour among Householders: Synthesizing Determinants Via a Meta-Analysis,” Waste and Biomass Valorization 4, no. 2 (2013)

[21] Hauser, Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong (New York: HarperCollins 2006)

[22] Harré, Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet.