Ideas for a more sustainable future – embracing innovation

The development of plastics and all plastic products is born from innovative thinking and design. Our urgent need to rethink plastics provides an environment for more boundary-pushing ideas. New ideas and innovative thinking are needed across the whole system of how we use and dispose of plastic. Many of these ideas exist already and need to be accepted, scaled to context and location and implemented as part of complex changing social systems.

The challenge to use plastic sustainably is ripe with opportunities for innovation. But the nature of innovation is not linear. Many breakthroughs and game-changing ideas come from left field and arise in response to a new need. To achieve the goals of rethinking plastics, we can construct a system that enables an innovative environment – one that doesn’t prescribe the solutions people come up with, but instead is receptive to new ideas. The research and innovation system can then nurture game-changing ideas and support scale-up of those that are proving to be successful.

Plastics are so ubiquitous in our lives and the issues posed by them are now so large that a single innovation, or even a single type of innovation, will not solve the challenge. There is no silver bullet. New materials and new machines, new recycling techniques, new uses for recycled materials, new business models, and perhaps most importantly, citizens who are ready to form a new relationship with plastics are all needed.

Plastics are so ubiquitous in our lives and the issues posed by them are now so large that a single innovation, or even a single type of innovation, will not solve the challenge

The development and adoption of new technologies can be a long, slow business. If we are to meet our aspirations to reduce our use of plastics and keep the plastics we use in circulation, we cannot wait for technological fixes to be developed – the key will be maximising the technologies we have already and encouraging fast adoption of new ways of thinking and new behaviours, as individuals, communities, businesses and government. It will also be important to ensure that pathways to later ideas that might provide better answers than the ones we can see today are not inhibited by rushing to quick solutions. For example, it would be disadvantageous to invest in recycling infrastructure for a particular type of plastic if a more sustainable alternative that is not compatible with this technology is just around the corner.

Innovation that supports the system-wide transformative change needed in how we use and dispose of plastics will be ongoing. In this chapter, we present a snapshot of ideas and innovations based on the principles of the 6Rs that can be adopted now or in the future. Supporting continued innovative thinking, sharing of ideas and supporting scale-up of the most successful concepts in this space will be key to making these examples of best practice, standard practice.

The 6Rs guide our ideas and innovations for rethinking plastics.


Many of the issues raised by plastics are not caused by the properties of the plastics themselves but by the way we design, use and dispose of them. As a contrast, gold is as persistent in the environment as plastics but its initial cost and recycled value are strong incentives for it not to accumulate in landfill. If packaging were made of gold, we would not have a recycling problem![1] Plastic on the other hand is seen as disposable and part of our ‘throw away’ culture. Plastic products and packaging materials tend to be designed around cost, convenience and appearance, without consideration of end-of-life options. Even when issues such as biodegradability, recyclability and other options are considered, decisions are often made for functional and marketing reasons without a solid evidence-base for their overall impact on the environment. Rethinking and redesigning plastics requires a whole-of-life accounting approach to better account for the environmental costs of plastic and not just the cost of putting a product on the market. Product stewardship schemes are one way to begin this.

Factoring in the whole-of-life costs of a product will likely lead to a more sustainable result. Products can be designed in a way that extends their use, improves their recyclability in the local context, or reduces the chance of contributing to environmental leakage. Manufacturers currently seeking sustainable solutions struggle to navigate complex issues with no clear guidance from government. How aligned new design is to the future plastics economy of Aotearoa New Zealand will be limited by the support given to businesses by government and the degree to which good practice can be shared and scaled. Ideas that could form part of a system-wide rethink in how we use plastic are listed in the table below.

An example of a collection bin for compostable plastics to take them to an industrial compostable facility at Wellington Airport.

Ideas and innovations that can help us rethink plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Guidelines and a code of practice for industryIndustry/ Government partnership, to be followed by businessWRAP


Packaging NZ’s code of practice

Danish circular plastic packaging manual

UK circular economy standards
Can support a reduction in use of problematic plastic or packaging designs

Businesses that have been waiting to see government direction before investing in change can do so

Helps businesses consider life cycle of material (e.g. only use compostable packaging if collection systems)
Exported packaging needs to meet specific country’s requirements

Immature infrastructure so difficult to deal with all plastics that businesses will be directed to use onshore

Many products used and disposed onshore are imported
Develop clear guidelines for polymer, additive and colour use, and when to use single-use, compostable and reusable packaging

Signal the direction of infrastructure development and timelines on any polymer bans to industry
Sustainable product design so all resources stay in the economy (see here for designing out plastic and here for sustainable materials)Brand owners/ manufacturers EMF published a series of case studies demonstrating circular designDesigning for longevity, remanufacture, or material recovery can reduce waste

Use of LCA supports evidence-informed product design and factors in full life cycle environmental costs
Lack of incentive to change current practice

Limited funding aimed at innovation to rethink plastics

Cost of LCA studies prohibitive for some businesses and most are commercially sensitive
Expand waste levy to disincentivise waste
Mandate product stewardship

Support access to LCA info for businesses

Funding and environment that enables innovation
New business models based on leasing vs ownership and the ‘sharing’ economy IndustryAgain Again coffee cupsReduces waste by increasing the reuse of products

Supports a change in practice around the need for ownership
High upfront cost for inventory for such business modelsFunding and environment that enables innovation
Circular system redesign through collaboration, use of AI and/or big data and blockchainMultiple businesses/ industriesXLabs: a circular economy lab for businesses in Auckland

Coreo circular experiment
Google Impact Challenge supporting initiative such as Gringgo

SAP’s Plastics Cloud
More likely to find resource or use a waste product if more businesses involved

Big data can support industrial symbiotic processing (wastes or by-products of one industry or process becoming raw materials for another) where it is difficult to determine manually[2]
Fragmentation – particularly with small businesses who struggle to reach economies of scale

Challenges of complex global supply chains, cross-border trade of products, e-commerce and recycling [3]

Access to AI, blockchain, and available data
Run a pilot project for a shopping strip or town

Technological developments enabling effective small scale distributed approaches

Connect businesses to repurpose waste streams as a resource or share logistics – could model off Industrial Symbiosis MBIE programme run by Scion for biorefineries

R&D to support digital tools guiding circular transition


One of the simplest ways to lower the amount of plastic in the environment is to not use it in the first place. Refusing certain types of plastic would also help to support infrastructure by funnelling economies of scale, which will benefit collection, sorting, processing, reuse and recycling options. We discussed how individuals can change their habits to refuse unnecessary use of plastics and outlined some actions businesses can take to support transformative change in how we use plastic, including some local examples, in the ‘Changing our relationship with plastics’ section. In the table below we highlight innovative approaches that can reduce the overall amount of plastic entering the market.

Ethique is an Aotearoa New Zealand company that produces concentrated, plastic-free cosmetic products.

Ideas and innovations that support refusing plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Ban certain single-use plastic products and types of plastic for certain applications GovernmentBanned single-use plastic shopping bags (read the case study 'Is banning single-use plastic bags the right choice?')

Bans as of 2018 detailed in UN report

The EU and Canada banning single-use products and types of plastic for food and beverage packaging by 2021

EMF recommend limiting PVC (#3), EPS (#6) + labels for packaging
Removes the plastics that cause the most harm, supporting more sustainable plastic use

Will drive innovation to replace these materials
Slow and still requires other system changes

Need to give business plenty of time to redevelop packaging where necessary
Implement bans alongside other changes, e.g. product stewardship with incentives that drive the use of preferred plastics, a targeted tax on problematic materials and/or subsidy for approved materials
Concentrated and compressed products that eliminate plastic packagingBrandsEthique beauty bars

Dishwashing tablets
Toothpaste tablets
Edible sachets
In some cases, removes plastic use altogether

May reduce transport emissions
Can take a significant investment to develop

Need to compete against well-established products with a foothold in market

Need to ensure product isn’t more environmentally problematic than what it is replacing
Support for R&D for innovations that reduce or remove plastics

Brands can connect with retailers who want to provide customers with sustainable options

Perform LCA studies to compare new product or packaging against current alternative


By 2050, plastics manufacturing and processing may account for as much as 20% of petroleum consumed globally and 15% of the annual carbon emissions budget. However, it is important to remember that while plastic is itself a contributor to carbon emissions, it also helps to reduce emissions by offering a lightweight alternative to materials such as metal and glass. In order to retain the benefits of plastic and balance these against a need to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, innovation is required to reduce the amount of plastic we use and shift to using bio-based and/or recycled plastic where possible. Manufacturers and polymer scientists can work to reduce the amount of plastic used in certain applications. In the table below we highlight ideas that may help to reduce the amount of plastic used.

Ideas and innovations to reduce the amount of plastic used in Aotearoa New Zealand

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Light-weighting materials Plastics industryDuPont developed thermoplastics to replace metal and plastic car components

Nestlé reduced weight of water bottles by 22%
Product fulfils same purpose

Reduces emissions
Can reduce the effectiveness of mechanical recycling

Some sorters at MRFs cannot detect plastics if too light

Can take a significant investment even for small reduction for brand

Manufacturers may not have infrastructure needed
Support innovation or R&D across businesses that benefits all

Collaboration between businesses and researchers

Equip NZ manufacturing industry with necessary processing equipment

Equip recycling industry with infrastructure adapt to lighter bottles

In silico testing
Changing product to reduce required plastic packagingBrandsUnilever made a laundry liquid 6x more concentrated and reduced plastic volume by 72%Material cost savings

Reduced emissions from transport
Cost of R&D to change product may prevent brands doing this

May depend on a willingness of consumers to change a practice
Regulate to ensure whole-of-life costing via product stewardship of products to drive business to reduce use of packaging


There has been a significant amount of innovation for reuse systems in recent years. We shared some local examples of businesses facilitating reuse or establishing new business models based on reuse systems in the ‘Changing our relationship with plastics’ section. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) published a detailed report on reusable packaging, which includes examples of innovative reuse systems. In the report, EMF describe four reuse system models for business to consumer packaging: the user refills at home, refills on the go, or returns the packaging from home or on the go. Different systems are needed for non-packaging industries and business to business (B2B) packaging or products. In the table below, we highlight ideas to support reuse of plastics.

Ideas and innovations to support reuse of plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Reusable systems to replace single-use products or packaging BusinessesEMF shares 69 examples, including Globelet – a local company (read the case study 'A reusable system to replace single-use cups')Cuts costs

Builds brand loyalty

Improves user experience

Gathers intelligence

Optimises operations

Adaptable to individual needs
Difficulty reaching economies of scale

Competing against convenience of buying new single-use product
Adapt global ideas to local system

Establish reward schemes to drive uptake

Education for businesses and retailers
Logistics innovation in supply chains for reusable secondary and tertiary packagingIndustryCHEP provides reusable options to reduce single-use plastics in logistics (read the case study 'Reuse systems in global supply chains')

Benefits all parties in the supply chainSmall population and large geographical distances present particular challengesEnsure solutions are designed for NZ
Product librariesCommunity groups/ councilsToy libraries across NZ

Tool libraries
Changes ideas about need for ownership

Reduces waste by keeping product in circulation
Resource to get up and running

Profitability or reliance on volunteers
Partner with businesses or organisations to give second-life to old equipment
Logistics innovation to keep products in circulation (e.g. toys)BusinessLego is piloting a free return system for unwanted bricks to be given to children in needEasy for people to return

Reduces waste to landfill
Distance from manufacturers or brands if multinational may make logistics difficultConnect systems with Australia

Develop local solutions for unwanted toys – e.g. give to toy libraries
Sterilisation of single-use products for reuseMedical industryMedsalv reprocess single-use medical devicesCost savings

Reduction of waste to landfill

Tracked process for safety and quality assurance
Most hospital’s sterile service departments do not have access to equipment for cleaning intended single-use productsSupport scale-up of organisations like MedSalv who have this equipment
Refill stations and servicesBusinesses/ community groups/ GovernmentRefillNZ (water)

Ecostore refill stations
Provides system for people to reuse bottles, reducing overall plastic use

May prevent litter
Resourcing required for public stations for water

Competing against convenience of buying new single-use product
Prioritise resource here to reduce spend required to clean up the environment later

Incorporate cost of packaging into product cost to balance against convenience
Repair and reuse businesses or organisationsBusinesses, community groups, local councilsOp-shops

Secondhand shops

Community reuse centres

Repair cafes
Can give a wide range of products a second life

Can provide funds to community groups
Competing against new products

May rely on volunteers
Partnerships between community groups and councils

Embed within other organisations


Recycling is not the only solution to our plastic problem, but it does have an important place in rethinking plastics. Without high-quality recycling streams there is no economic viability in recycling plastic due to limited market pull-through. Without a functional recycling market, the current environmental issues we face related to plastic use and waste will be ongoing. Addressing issues related to the quality of plastic that enters and leaves the recycling stream will help to establish a more stable onshore recycling market, which in turn can reduce demand for virgin plastic and reduce plastic waste to landfill.

The type of plastic ultimately dictates which (if any) method of recycling technology can be used to keep the material in circulation. In practice, product design, collection and sorting methods, and individual behaviours also determine whether a product is recycled. Traditionally we have relied on mechanical recycling techniques to keep plastic in circulation. These methods have proven to be ineffective for the majority of plastics, with estimates that globally only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. In addition to innovative products, business models and materials, we can look to ways to improve current recycling practices, so that we can get the most out of the plastic materials used. We can also consider whether there is a place in Aotearoa New Zealand’s new plastics economy for new processes that keep materials in circulation, such as chemical and monomer recycling, and feedstock and energy recovery.

Different recovery techniques available. Adapted from Denmark’s New Plastics Economy, McKinsey and Company.

Different recovery techniques available. Adapted from Denmark’s New Plastics Economy, McKinsey and Company.

In their detailed overview of the state of Aotearoa New Zealand’s recycling sector in late 2018, the National Resource Recovery Taskforce (NRRT) highlighted that there are issues across the whole value chain of the current recycling system that need to be addressed in order for recycling to be a feasible solution for those plastic products that cannot be eliminated or reused. As this was in response to China National Sword, the recommendations were mainly focused on packaging applications of plastics.

Taskforce recommendations from the NRRT that were accepted by the Ministry for the Environment include:

  • Identifying the gaps in materials recovery and waste infrastructure where investment is needed
  • Reviewing kerbside collection and processing systems to identify how to increase the quality of recyclables and to ensure more materials can be recovered and recycled instead of going to landfill
  • Undertaking feasibility studies around how to increase Aotearoa New Zealand’s fibre (paper and cardboard) processing and plastic reprocessing capacity
  • Examining how product stewardship for packaging can be used to ensure manufacturers consider what happens to packaging once a product is used by the consumer
  • Assessing the options for shifting away from low value and difficult-to-recycle plastics, such as single-use plastic bags and other low volume and/or mixed materials. This could include regulations around ensuring plastic packaging is able to be recycled and/or to require a portion of recycled content in packaging
  • Running an education campaign to help New Zealanders ‘recycle right’, and reduce the amount of recyclable materials going to landfill because of contamination
  • Developing model contracts for the sector to reduce contamination, increase transparency and to better accommodate fluctuations in market prices for recyclable materials
  • Developing a sustainable procurement plan and guidelines to encourage purchase of products made of recovered and recycled materials.

Here we build on the NRRT’s recommendations by outlining improvements and innovations that could be implemented across the whole recycling value chain to address current issues and improve rates of recycling.

Areas where new systems and innovations could improve recycling.

Areas where new systems and innovations could improve recycling.

Design for recyclability

If recycling is the desired end-of-life outcome for a product, it should be designed to ensure that it can and will be recycled in the local context. Figure 31 illustrates the types of materials that are easy (commonly collected), possible (collected in some places), and difficult-to-recycle (collected in no or few places) in the kerbside recycling systems across Aotearoa New Zealand. The value of the recycled content affects whether it is practically recycled because whether there is a market for the materials drives whether a council collects it. With current infrastructure, recycling markets and reliance on sending a significant proportion of recycling offshore, clear PET (#1) and natural HDPE (#2) have the highest recycling value; coloured PET (#1), coloured HDPE (#3), LDPE (#4) and PP (#5) are recyclable but likely to end up in a ‘mixed plastics’ recycling stream with low value, PVC (#3), PS (#6) also end up in a ‘mixed plastic’ stream in low quantities so it is difficult to find a market, and  ‘other’ types of plastic will not be recycled and will likely contaminate other recycling streams.

Other factors aside from material choice can impact recyclability, including colour, the size of the product, the size and material of the label, and electronic tracking systems and sensors. It will also depend on whether the product is used in the household and therefore enters the kerbside recycling stream, or if it is used in a commercial setting. For example, PVC (#3) packaging is unlikely to be recycled but PVC (#3) pipes could be through various commercial recycling streams that exist locally. Best-practice guidance for businesses that includes information on how to design their products to improve recyclability is needed. Some examples of best practice that would improve recyclability through design changes are outlined in the table below.

Left: Though plastics 1-6 are all technically recyclable, the volume and market for the recycled content dictates whether councils accept these across the country. Credit: licenced under CC BY 3.0 NZ.

Ideas and innovations for improving the recyclability of products in Aotearoa New Zealand

IdeaWhyLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Avoid using coloured PET (#1), PS (#6), PVC (#3) and rigid PLA (#7). Switch to clear PET (#1), natural HDPE (#2) and PP (#5)Onshore processing exists for clear PET (#1), natural HDPE (#2) and PP (#5)

Good markets for these plastics

Reduces contamination of PET (#1) recycling stream by rigid PLA (#7), PS (#6) and PVC (#3)

Material able to go through multiple rounds of recycling

Colour can change the flow properties of the plastic, making it less predictable in certain processes

Blending different coloured plastics turns an ‘icky’ brown or grey colour with low or no value
Currently the cost of alternatives is cheaper

Coloured packaging may be part of brand properties
Whole-of-life costs factored into PSS or CDS to drive use of recyclable material

Industry-wide acceptance for level playing field
Avoid using multiple materials where they are not easily separableMonomaterial-based products are more easily recyclableSome products require multiple different materials because each material achieves a particular functionClear labelling system that shows what part of product is recyclable

Design for disassembly by consumers

Research into multilayer materials where each layer has different physical properties but same chemical composition
Label size under 60%Optical sorters need at least 40% of the packaging to be visible to detect type of plasticBrand willingness

Size needed for mandated information

Want to include recycling labelling as well with limited space
Digital barcodes for more labelling information online

New sorting tech
Using different packaging material if product is hard to wash off plasticResidual contamination renders the material unrecyclableUse of glass (which is easier to wash) increases weight which can increase transport emissionsLCA studies to understand life cycle impacts to guide choices

Ease and understanding of how to recycle

To maximise opportunities for resource recovery and reuse at end-of-life, we first need to ensure that all types of plastics can be identified at end-of-life and disposed of correctly. If a plastic product can be recycled or composted, it needs to end up in the appropriate recovery system. If a plastic product can only be composted in a commercial composting facility, it must not end up contaminating the recycling stream or a domestic compost heap where it will not decompose. The complexities around how plastics are categorised are covered in the subsection ‘The current state of plastics in Aoteaora‘. This complexity has led to general confusion in the public around the currently relied on resin ID codes and recycling symbols.

WasteMINZ survey responses illustrate high levels of misunderstanding for the existing recycling and resin ID codes that are used on plastic packaging. All respondents (n=1005).

At the time of publication, there were no national standards on how to categorise or label plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Current approaches rely on voluntary uptake and are limited in their application and effectiveness (outlined in Appendix 3). We need clearer language and symbols for plastics, including a simple recycling label that tells people whether to recycle or dispose of a product. This will improve the efficacy of recycling streams by reducing contamination of recycling streams with non-recyclable plastics (sometimes due to ‘wish cycling’ – where people place non-recyclable products in the recycling bin in the hope that they will be recycled), and reducing the amount of recyclable plastics ending up in landfill. There is also need for better public understanding about how to recycle correctly and the life cycle impacts of various packaging choices. Using standard nomenclature and having clear labelling that is easy to find and read is key to facilitating best practice, particularly in the household setting for kerbside recycling and refuse. Wide adoption and public understanding is critical for success, and implementation of labelling schemes should be done in conjunction with public education initiatives. In the table below, we highlight ideas and innovations that may be useful to help improve public understanding about plastics and help people dispose of waste correctly.

Ideas and innovations to improve recycling efficacy through improved public understanding

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Public educationGovernmentImprove the quality of the materials entering the recycling streamCurrent fragmentation between systems at different councilsStandardise recycling systems among NZ Councils
Physical labellingBrand owners to apply (voluntary or regulated by Government)Australasian Recycling Label (read the case study 'The Australasian Recycling Label')

UK on-pack recycling label (OPRL)

Thumbs Up New Zealand proposed system
Ready to go

Can be applied to all products

Doesn’t rely on resin ID which is widely misunderstood

If consistent with international practice may be better understood by some tourists
Regional variation in kerbside recycling

Use of adhesives and different plastics for the label may contaminate recycling stream
Standardise national collection

Have a standard recycling label

Compliance costs may be prohibitive for small brands
Digital labelling for online shoppingRetailersCrunch and Flourish digital packaging starEasily adaptable to different contexts

Easy to update

Can build on physical labelling schemes such as the ARL
More accessible via online stores, can be delivered in-store via technology and loyalty programmes

Small-scale consumer testing of Packaging Star to date
Upgrade to digital price labels in store

Online trial with a retailer to assess shopper behaviour


How waste is collected impacts the rates of recycling.[4] Currently in Aotearoa New Zealand, plastic is collected for recycling through household kerbside collection, public space bins, drop-off points (common in rural areas) – these are typically rate-payer funded. Other plastic is collected for recycled through commercial collections. For household kerbside recycling, public space bins and drop-off points, plastic is sent to a material recovery facility (MRF) where it is sorted prior to being shipped offshore for recycling or sent to one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s few onshore recycling facilities (read the case study ‘Developing onshore closed-loop mechanical recycling solutions’). Commercial plastic material is sometimes sent directly offshore for recycling, without need for sorting at a MRF, or is reprocessed in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The current process for plastic recycling in Aotearoa New Zealand. Figure adapted from Eunomia Consulting.

The current process for plastic recycling in Aotearoa New Zealand. Figure adapted from Eunomia Consulting.

The specific types and presentation of plastic that are accepted through kerbside collection differ by council – for example, some councils request bottle lids left on while others want them removed. Improving, standardising and expanding collection systems is necessary to increase rates of recycling. Collection points need to be easily accessible nationwide and facilitate the highest quality recycling streams. Consistency should be balanced against the needs of different regions. In the table below, we highlight ideas and innovations that may be useful to help improve collection systems to improve recycling.

Ideas and innovations to improve recycling efficacy in Aotearoa New Zealand through improved collection

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Standardise nationwide collection and methods for household kerbside recycling (highlighted in NRRT)Central and local governmentWRAP UK developed a framework for greater consistency in household recyclingReduces confusion around recycling practices

Allows national education campaign with shared messaging
Cost barriers to align different systems falls on local government

NZ’s different regions may require different systems

Restrictions from existing contracts and infrastructure
Support from central government to standardise

Have 2-3 variations on a common system
Separate organic and inorganic wasteLocal governmentStewart Island, Timaru District Council, Christchurch City Council

Recology (San Francisco)
Keep plastics less contaminated

Opportunities to compost food waste
Councils tied into existing contracts

Carbon footprint of separate collection system may outweigh benefits

Availability of green waste
Undertake an analysis to compare carbon footprint of organic waste collection vs methane collection from landfill to guide decisions
Container deposit scheme (CDS)Central and local governmentWork underway to design a scheme for NZ

Various states in Australia, US, and jurisdictions in EU

Norwegian system (read the case study 'A 97% recycling rate through a container deposit scheme')
Packaging recognised as a valuable resource

Drives higher rates of recycling and generates higher quality recyclate

Options for deposit exchange (cash, co-benefits e.g. transport tickets, digital tokens)

Litter reduction

Potential social and community benefits through fundraising, enterprise etc.
Upfront costs to implement

Accessibility in regions and remote areas

Adequate transition time
Implement tax for industry to support this

Engage with government counterparts in places with experience in CDS (e.g. states in Australia) to understand the process to implementation and lessons learned

Clearly signal implementation date well in advance to business to allow adequate transition and enable effective implementation
Product stewardship schemes (PSS) (can be voluntary, accredited or mandatory)GovernmentWork underway to regulate product stewardship for some materials/ products



Car bumpers
Public place recycling scheme

Child car seats
PVC (#3) pipes, e.g. SULO and Marley
Strong support for this
Places value on material to be returned to system

Improves quality of recycling stream

Prevents hazardous streams being disposed of inappropriately

Cost incorporated into upfront purchase so no extra cost at end-of-life to manage/ recover materials correctly
Difficulty designing an effective scheme that can be equitably accessed in different regionsMake mandatory or accredit

Co-design scheme with industry, with variations to meet local needs

Learn from international examples
Store drop-off programme for plastics not collected in kerbside collectionIndustrySoft Plastic Recycling SchemePrevents plastics going to landfill

Provides source-separation
Schemes that rely on customers to return packaging to a separate destination may not match other collection methods

End markets required

Need a coordinated approach across stores

Providing soft plastic and compostable packaging collections at the same collection points may result in contamination
Stores who sell products offer to collect back

Ensure wide and accessible distribution
Store drop-off for compostable plasticsIndustryWe Compost are trying to do thisMono-material streams of high quality and reduced risk of contamination of recycling streams

Waste stream goes to correct infrastructure
Lack of commercial composters willing to take compostable plastics

Schemes that rely on customers to return packaging to a separate destination may not match other collection methods

Providing soft plastic and compostable packaging collections at the same collection points may result in contamination
Encourage brands to only use industrial compostable plastics if they have an end market for composting these

Ensure wide and accessible distribution
Blockchain to support action through PSS, extended producer responsibility, community recyclingIndustry/ communityEmpower

The Plastic Bank
Enhances business model innovation

Recycling for digital payment
Lack of a coordinated approach Policy and strategy to support new business models and community initiatives


Sorting can happen at source and/or at the MRF, where plastic is separated out from other materials that are collected (glass, paper, cardboard) and also separated into different types of plastic. The technology at the MRF determines which types of plastic can be separated out. Some MRFs have manual sorting by pepople and others have fully automated systems. In general, plastics are separated into bales of clear PET (#1), natural HDPE (#2) and mixed bales of plastics #3-7 and coloured PET (#1) and HDPE (#2). Contaminated plastics and plastics that are not accepted at the particular MRF are removed and sent to landfill.

Systems that are more effective at sorting plastics into individual material streams will improve the recycling system by increasing the quality (and therefore the value) of the recycled content. The ultimate goal for a circular economy is that the quality of the recycled plastic means it can be used for the same product to close the materials loop. A study assessing the potential for different recovery systems in Europe to close the materials loops confirmed that higher source‐separation and MRF efficiencies lead to higher recovery.[5] With current technology and raw material demands, less than 42% of the plastic loop can be closed. The potential to recycle materials is high, but factoring in the quality threshold to recover to the same quality of plastic, at best 55% of the generated plastic was suitable for recycling due to contamination. The study concluded that source‐separation, a high number of different materials streams, and efficient MRF recovery were critical to close the materials loop. A study of the Dutch recycling system also identified a clear quantity-quality trade off, with a rise in the amount of plastic packaging collected for recycling leading to a larger amount of waste at sorting facilities.[6] The study highlighted the need to focus on the quality of materials received for recycling, not just increasing volumes, to close the loop on plastics.

The study concluded that source‐separation, a high number of different materials streams, and efficient MRF recovery were critical to close the materials loop

In the table below, we highlight ideas and innovations that may be useful to help improve sorting processes to close the materials loop.

Ideas and innovations to improve recycling efficacy through improved sorting processes

IdeaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Kerbside sort (rather than comingled)Local governmentChristchurch, Great Barrier IslandKeep plastics less contaminated

May require less upfront investment

H&S implications

Cost to councils and existing contracts

Environmental leakages
Public education to maximise sorting at source

Best H&S practices from overseas sorting at source collection
Manual sorting at MRFLocal government/ industryZero Waste RaglanRequires less upfront investmentInefficient

Finding market for sorted material, particularly smaller volumes
Resourcing issue

Coordinate with other councils for economies of scale
Optical sortingIndustryUsed in some MRFs e.g. VISY in AucklandEfficiency

Cost-prohibitive for smaller facilities because of upfront investment

Cost-prohibitive for larger facilities because of requirements for processing higher volumes

Can’t detect all plastics, e.g. black pigment
Support to meet upfront costs for regions

Strategically invest in infrastructure around the country

Design downscaled systems for smaller throughput so sorting can be done locally in regional areas

Advanced tech, e.g. Unilever developed detectable black pigment so black plastics can be recycled
Secondary MRF (i.e. a second MRF for sorting into mono-material streams)Industry (supported by government)Titus MRF in the US is piloting this approachCan achieve more mono-material streams

Helps overcome NZ’s issue of economies of scale for plastics in mixed plastic stream
Logistics needed to transport mixed plastics to another location (plus associated emissions from transport)

Small population size may still limit economics of recycling the plastics in the mixed plastics stream
Undertake feasibility studies to determine viability of secondary MRF approach

Establish plant(s) in strategic locations to be most cost-effective and minimise transport-related emissions
Marker technology/ methods for traceability of plasticsManufacturers/ brands/ MRFsUV tracked digital watermarksRequires fewer changes to packaging materials and labelling for brandsRequires wide acceptance across industry to be effective

Develop international standards for new recycling methods
Use of AI and robotics for improved sortingMRFs/ consumersAlchemy SureSort
Liam the apple recycling robot
Zen Robotics

Faster, more accurate and cost-efficient sorting

Potential to connect to plastic recycling value chain

Small-scale operations possible
Government investment in R&D is limited

Cost to implement in public infrastructure
Create an R&D investment/science challenge investment strategy around AI/Robotics and plastic waste management
Laser-assisted sortingMRFsLaser-induced breakdown spectroscopyEfficient

May allow for bioplastics to be collected in kerbside recycling because of ability to discriminate[7]
Cost to implement in public infrastructure

Cost-prohibitive for smaller commercial operations
Strategic investment in infrastructure across country

Mechanical recycling

Mechanical reprocessing is an effective recycling method for certain types of plastic where the chemistry allows melting and reforming into new products, but it faces challenges in the current context due to there being different sources of plastic of varying quality, different types of plastic (not always identifiable) and high levels of contamination. Having higher-quality mono-material streams will naturally improve recycling markets.

Pre-consumer or industrial plastic waste tends to be more recyclable than post-consumer plastic waste (e.g. kerbside collections) because it is cleaner and not mixed up with other types. Specific types of plastic that are widely used in a particular industry (e.g. construction) may benefit from coordinated approaches to recycling and more accessible information about which recyclers will take certain plastic streams. These already exist for some waste streams, such as for expanded polystyrene (EPS). In contrast, household waste faces greater hurdles to getting quality streams of plastic that can be mechanically recycled. For example, a commercial closed-loop system may be feasible for LDPE (#4) due to businesses having high volumes of a clean mono-material stream from secondary and tertiary packaging. In contrast, it may be less feasible to establish a closed-loop system for post-consumer LDPE (#4) (e.g. from kerbside collection) because there is not a large enough volume of clean, high-quality LDPE (#4) from this collection stream to make it economic.

Though in theory some pure plastics such as HDPE (#2) and PET (#1) are infinitely mechanically recyclable, in practice these will degrade over time.[8]  However, intermixing recycled plastics with newer materials during each recycle keeps a viable pool of recycled plastic and in some markets PET (#1) has successfully been maintained in circulation for many years. In addition, additives have been developed to reduce degradation. Conversations between the panel and a variety of stakeholders suggest that with the current amounts of waste plastic and the available technology, it is only feasible to consider mechanical recycling as an option for post-consumer plastic waste for PET (#1), HDPE (#2) and PP (#5), and that infrastructure to be able to recycle these onshore is necessary. We already have more than enough capacity for closed-loop PET (#1) recycling (read the case study ‘Developing onshore closed-loop mechanical recycling solutions’). PET (#1) actually only accounts for around 7% of the virgin resin imported into the country. Other plastics with good recycling potential due to their chemical composition and end market are HDPE (#2) and PP (#5), which make up 26% and 18% of imported resin respectively. The focus should now be on investing in infrastructure, including sorting, to develop onshore closed-loop or durable solutions for HDPE (#2) and PP (#5).

The recycling process at Flight Plastics in Wellington. Credit: Flight Plastics.

We already have more than enough capacity for closed-loop PET (#1) recycling. The focus should therefore be on investing in infrastructure, including sorting, for closed-loop or durable solutions for HDPE (#2) and PP (#5)

Plastics NZ is working with local recyclers to develop an onshore solution for PP (#5) recycling. There are examples of closed-loop recycling for HDPE (#2), such as WILL&ABLE recycling New Zealand milk bottles into cleaning product packaging, but these require scaling. There are also a number of recyclers who currently recycle HDPE (#2) into durable products, but current infrastructure does not allow for closed-loop recycling for food grade materials or detergent grade materials. HDPE (#2) that is used in packaging for food and drinks has different requirements to HDPE (#2) used in cosmetics and detergents. For example, food-grade recycled content has to meet food-safety standards and the environmental stress crack resistance needed for detergent-grade HDPE (#2) is higher because of the longer use of the packaging. Keeping these streams separate may lead to higher yield closed-loop solutions for respective streams and should be considered when estimating material flows.

At present, there are some mechanical recycling solutions for soft plastics collected in the Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme that mix these materials with HDPE (#2) to form new products, such as fence posts. The soft plastics are the filler for these new materials – it is not a circular solution, but it could be argued this reprocessing gives these materials a longer life than through recycling as they are incorporated into durable products. Soft plastics require further onshore solutions, which may go beyond mechanical recycling. For example, there may be some applications where it is better to use compostable soft plastic packaging rather than relying on packaging being recycled.

Innovative approaches are needed to improve the quality of the materials that are mechanically recycled onshore. In the table below we outline technologies that may be able to improve the efficacy of mechanical reprocessing. Government can work with industry to establish new infrastructure onshore to process plastics, based on a shared action plan. Scion’s New Plastics Economy Roadmap project will develop this further.

Ideas and innovations to improve recycling rates through mechanical recycling

Technology/ideaWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Wash-off adhesiveBrand ownersRW85C for PET (#1) containers Can undergo common PET (#1) recycling processes without contaminating the recycling streamCost

Practicality of wash-off adhesive in humid and chilled environments where condensate is common
Financial incentives or regulation for all to use
New applications for mixed plastic recyclingIndustryPlazrok (read the case study 'Using mixed plastics in new materials')



Building blocks (ByBlocks by ByFusion)

Uses otherwise non-recyclable plastics, and reducing waste to landfillPossible safety issues with potential leach or out-gas toxic additives, or leaching microplastics, depending on application and feedstock

Not a closed material loop

Requires a system or scheme for products to be recovered at end-of-life
Rigorous environmental testing and ongoing monitoring before application

Expert peer review of technology before it can be used
Textile recyclingRecyclersEconyl – Regenerated nylon from waste for fashion and interior industries

Worn Again Technologies
Reduces landfill waste

Provides economic opportunities for commercial and not-for-profit organisations

Quality – aesthetics and functionality may be reduced through mechanical processing, difficult to reprocesses mixed fibre textiles
Financial incentives to develop infrastructure onshore


Design for remanufacture initiatives

Chemical recycling

Several new chemical recycling technologies, some drawing on the principles of green chemistry, are emerging that address limitations in materials composition and mechanical recycling processes. Chemical recycling techniques may be able to keep previously unrecyclable plastics and lower-quality recyclable plastics in circulation. Some techniques can process mixed plastics and others can generate high-value recyclate from a material that would only generate low-value recyclate through mechanical recycling.

Chemical recycling techniques may be able to keep previously unrecyclable plastics and lower-quality recyclable plastics in circulation

Chemical recycling usually uses some combination of high temperatures, pressures, solvents and reagents to transform plastics into simple organic compounds, including the constituent monomers from which the polymers were made, small-chain hydrocarbons, and/or petrochemical feedstocks. Remaking the original polymer from the constituent monomers obtained this way is generally seen as a particularly circular method because it enables the same grade and type of polymer as the original to be formed from the waste plastic material, albeit with less than 100% yield. The new polymers formed this way are usually indistinguishable from the virgin polymers and can be used for food applications, which could help to address some of the food-safety concerns associated with using recycled plastic from mechanical recycling. The related process of conversion converts plastics into fuels or petrochemical feedstock that can be fed into refineries or chemical plants, respectively.

Because chemical recycling can create high-quality recycled plastic and maintain value for the material that may be lost if mechanically recycled, it will be necessary to increase overall rates of recycling and fill the strong demand for recycled resin, which cannot currently be met with existing mechanical infrastructure and technology (read the case study ‘A model to sort a whole country’s plastic waste’). This strong demand is illustrated by Loop, a Canadian PET (#1) chemical recycling start-up, and Indorama, the world’s largest PET (#1) manufacturer, roughly doubling the capacity of their first PET (#1) chemical recycling facility because capacity was fully subscribed by customers, who include Danone, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.

There are currently no chemical recycling facilities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Oji Fibre Solutions has publicly stated they are working with iQ Renew and Licella to investigate an onshore chemical recycling solution using the Cat-HTR™ technology, which they cite is ready to move from the pilot phase to commercial roll-out. This catalytic hydrothermal reactor technology uses water at near super-critical temperatures to reverse chemical bonds not possible at lower temperatures. Additional investigations into onshore chemical recycling options are underway but not public. In the table below, we highlight the chemical recycling technologies that may be applicable to close the loop on materials.

Zero Waste Europe recently published a report outlining the state-of-play and policy challenges related to chemical recycling. The report describes pilot plants for different techniques and highlights that only limited information about the environmental performance of chemical recycling technologies as a whole is available and further research is required, especially for techniques that use organic solvents. Chemical recycling is an active area of research. For example, the US National Science Foundation has ‘Engineering the Elimination of End-of-Life Plastics’ as a topic for their Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program for 2020.

The conclusions drawn in the Zero Waste Europe report that are also valid for the Aotearoa New Zealand context are:

  • If closing the materials loop is the focus of Aotearoa New Zealand’s future plastic system, regulation will be required to ensure that chemical recycling technologies are used to do this rather than create energy or fuel
  • Excessive emphasis on chemical recycling as a solution to the current issues with the plastics economy risks encouraging the status quo with plastic use and could undermine efforts to shift approaches to plastic use up the waste hierarchy
  • Chemical recycling is not a ‘now’ solution at an industrial scale. Most plants are only in pilot stage and industrial-scale roll-out is not expected until 2025 or later. Therefore, decisions around which technologies have a place in Aotearoa New Zealand’s future plastics system need to factor in the drive to reduce use of non-recyclable plastics by 2025
  • If chemical recycling technologies are landed on as a solution, we need to ensure that these are aligned to the quantities and types of plastic that we expect from 2025 onwards. For example, coloured PET (#1) has low value as recycled plastic because it turns grey when different colours are mixed. Some chemical recycling techniques may be able to address this by removing the colour and creating virgin-quality, clear PET (#1), which has strong demand. But the need for technology to address coloured PET (#1) may be displaced by brands shifting to clear PET (#1), which is more likely to be recycled in the local content, prior to commercial-scale facilities being established
  • Chemical recycling should be used to deal with degraded, coloured and contaminated plastics and never with high-quality plastics coming from separate collection.

Chemical recycling is not a ‘now’ solution at an industrial scale. Most plants are only in pilot stage and industrial-scale roll-out is not expected until 2025 or later

Ideas and innovations that use chemical recycling technologies

TechnologyExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Controlled thermal depolymerisation (pyrolysis)

Processing back to monomers using high temperatures
Cat-HTR™ technology (catalytic hydrothermal reactors): Oji Fibre Solutions and iQ Renew looking at this for NZ

Diagen (Solray Systems): Continuous hydrothermal conversion of biomass into liquid hydrocarbon fuels

COMY Environmental NZ Ltd: Start-up with exclusive right to patent and technology from parent company in China (Zhejiang COMY Energy Tech). System can take plastic types 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7[9]

Eneform in Christchurch plan to process tyres into oil and gas fuels from 2020, adding plastics later

Renewology uses a pyrolysis technology to convert low-grade plastics into fuel and petrochemical feedstocks

Enval (UK) has a process than can recycle plastic aluminium laminates
Most suitable for easily mechanically recycled plastics PET (#1) and PP (#5) and better with mono-material streams, but can take mixed plastics and plastics that are not easily mechanically recycled

Decontaminates polymers

Doesn’t face degradation issues

Can be reprocessed to form new plastics if conditions are right, but more likely fuels and other hydrocarbon feedstocks
Needs sustained and consistent amount of feedstock

May not be economically viable due to small population and large geographical distances with poor rail connectivity – requires scale but is costly

Not 100% yield

Requires regular maintenance

Downtime is expensive

May still require sorting and cleaning

Plastic to fuel technology may not close materials loop

Energy intensive process
Undertake economic analysis to determine viability for NZ

Technological developments enabling effective small scale distributed approaches

Regulate to ensure technology used to close materials loop

Use for specific materials e.g. LDPE (#4) film

Processing back to syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen)
Sekisui Chemicals (Japan)Can take mixed plastics and other wasteMay not close materials loop

Energy intensive
Local studies and trials to determine if suitable
Chemical depolymerisation

Processing back to monomers or intermediates using chemicals
Existing pilot plants for PET (#1), PU, PA
BP developing pilot plant in the US in 2020 for lower-value PET (#1) scrap
Decontaminates plastic and removes additives and colours

Plastic can be processed infinitely and produces virgin-quality plastic

Fewer issues around varied quality of input plastics

Can be used for low quality and coloured plastics that are problematic for mechanical recycling
Cost – significantly more expensive than mechanical recycling

Only works with monostreams (PET (#1), PU, PA, PLA, PC, PHA, PEF) and need to remove as much contamination as possible

Don’t fully understand environmental and systemic impacts of this on yield, leftover by-products and chemical safety of catalysers that are sometimes needed for reaction
Further research needed around safety

Local trials prior to scale-up
Solvent-based purification

Uses solvents to process plastic back to polymers
PureCycle technologiesResults in high yields of recovered polymer

Decontaminates plastic by removing additives and dyes and deals with residual contamination

New plastics can be used for food packaging

Can help recover polymer from multi-layer packaging
Cost – solvents can be expensive and costs more with more mixed materials, may require other infrastructure

Output quality depends on input quality and process parameters – better with mono-material streams (PVC (#3), PS (#6), PET (#1), PP (#5)) and cannot improve degraded plastics
Financial incentives; R&D support

Collection that supports mon-material streams

Incorporating recycled content into new products

One of the conceptually simplest ideas to improve the effectiveness of recycling systems is the use of recycled plastics to make new product that can then be recycled. This prevents use of landfill, and release of further carbon from fossil-fuel sources. As people have become more conscious of the damage done by plastics in the environment, companies have begun to incorporate the use of recycled products as part of their branding.

The key issues that need to be addressed to increase incorporation of recycled content into new products are:

  • Ensuring that use of recycled plastics in food packaging does not cause food safety risks (via chemicals or contaminants)
  • The unstable recycled plastic market
  • The drop in strength and appearance through cycles: though in theory certain plastics are infinitely recyclable, in practice materials will reach their end-of-life, particularly with mechanical recycling, and require disposal at some point
  • Using lower quality, i.e. not 100% pure, recycling streams requires innovations in processing methods to account for the different properties and variations in the plastic raw material (e.g. chemical recycling technology).

Innovations and ideas to improve incorporation of recycled content into new products are outlined in the table below.

Ecostore made a line of bottles from 100% recycled ocean waste plastics. Photo credit: Ecostore.

Ideas to increase the use of recycled content in new products

TechnologyWhoExamples/early adoptersStrengthsLimitations for implementationPossible solutions
Boost demand through government procurement and targetsGovernmentNew government procurement rules (rule 20)Strengthens market for recycled plasticsInfrastructure for quality recycled plastics

Difficulty identifying products that have recycled content
Create a resource that identifies local products with recycled content
Labelling to promote recycled contentBrandsARL to include this in phase 2 (read the case study 'The Australasian Recycling Label')

Consumer appealEcolabel doesn’t include single-use plasticsImplement ARL
Mandate use of recycled plasticGovernment
California bill (stalled)

UK (Wales and Scotland) – Taxing products with <30% recycled products and bringing in CDS
Strengthens market for recycled plastics

Evens the playing field so early adopters not disadvantaged
Requires importing recycled resin with current limited infrastructure

Slower to implement

Need to factor in food safety issues which may require virgin layer
Could be achieved in product stewardship schemes for packaging

Send signal to business of date when implemented for transition period

Phase in targets with development of onshore processing and market creation
Implement targetsGovernment/ IndustryNZ Plastics Packaging Declaration and New Plastics Economy Global Commitment

APCO and UK Plastics Pact targets of 30% average recycled content for packaging by 2025
Hard to control imports

Uptake may be limited unless mandated
International agreements

Explore international product stewardship as part of trade agreements e.g. CPTPP
Industry working groups to establish market for recycled plasticIndustryPost-consumer recycling of PP (#5)
NEMO (new end market opportunities) US initiative

Recycling Demand Champions (read the case study 'Incentivising use of recycled plastic')
Quick to implement

Continue to signal strong demand for recycled material
When recycled resin has a higher price than virgin it may limit voluntary uptakeEstablish a pact or industry working group to support issues of market pull through by connecting groups (could connect to existing pledges)
Blockchain/ big dataIndustry/ GovernmentEnevoTransforming waste management into a data driven and demand-based model

Utilisation of predictive analytics, performance analysis, accuracy of measurement

Transparency of the plastic waste value chain, enhances business model innovation
Fragmented regional collection policies

Cost to public infrastructure
National plastic waste management system
Innovations to recycle ocean plasticsBusinessClothing, e.g. Girlfriend and Adidas

Ecostore ocean plastics range

Coca-Cola developed proof-of-concept bottle with 25% ocean plastics

Formway designs chair
Potential for sustainability label to add consumer appealMarket size

Potential contamination issues may limit use in food and drinks packaging
Partner with international initiatives

Assess risks of using these in food packaging and pending results, limit to certain applications if necessary


Plastics are so widely used because they are cheap, light, durable and waterproof, and can be impermeable to air. This mixture of properties was not found in the natural materials available before the development of plastic and led to their rapid uptake by manufacturers and consumers. The major drawbacks of plastics are the toxic compounds that are sometimes added during their formulation, their persistence in the environment – an unintended consequence of their durability – and the fact they are sourced from fossil fuels.

While we can return to the use of pre-plastic era materials such as glass, paper, wood and steel, they have disadvantages. For example, glass is durable and air-tight, but heavy and manufacture has a high energy intensity; paper is light and cheap, but mostly not waterproof. Materials science offers the promise of new polymeric materials that can solve these problems, which are also fit for purpose and more sustainable.

The long-term goal is to develop and use a suite of new materials that are bio-based, biodegradable, sustainably produced and able to fulfil a wide range roles including packaging application. In the short-term, there are priority areas for innovation to replace particularly problematic materials. These include:

  • Foils/laminates
  • Synthetic fabrics that shed microfibres
  • Difficult-to-recycle plastics used in packaging (PVC (#3), PS (#6) and various resins that fall into the ‘other’ category).

Any introduction of new plastics or alternative materials needs to be guided from a system perspective.[11] There are several particularly important considerations when introducing new materials to replace the problematic plastics we currently use:

  • Is it safe? All new materials or new applications of existing materials need to have their safety profile tested. This is particularly true of new materials made from recycled plastic, as chemical additives may be carried into a new product depending on the quality or method of recycling (e.g. mechanical or chemical).
  • Is this a better alternative for the environment? The environmental impacts from the whole life cycle of the product should be considered, including any reductions in preservation of the product, to assess how these differ and whether the new material is better than the plastic being replaced. Environmental impacts may be further reduced if the material can be reused multiple times before being recycled.
  • What might the unintended consequences be? Lessons can be learned from the example of bisphenol-A (BPA) – an industrial chemical that is a common component of and additive to plastics and resins. Of roughly 30 chemicals that have been used to replace BPA, almost none are demonstrably safe.
  • How does it fit into the current and future system of circular materials? We need to consider compatibilities with the current and future recycling infrastructure and practices to make sure that when new materials are introduced there are systems in place to keep these materials in circulation or recycled multiple times.

The types of new materials (including textiles) we should consider include:

  • Bio-based plastics: The source material comes from biomass, decoupling the production of plastics from fossil fuels and supporting the transition to a circular economy. Provided the biomass is produced sustainably and the energy input (i.e. fossil-fuel input) involved in growing, fertilising, harvesting and processing the biomass is not greater than simply making plastic from crude oil, these may have reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Use of bio-based plastics is predicted to increase from around 4 million tonnes produced in 2016 to 6 million tonnes in 2021. Bioplastics currently comprise only 1% of total plastics production, so there is plenty of scope to increase the use of these plastics. As discussed in Section 1.2.4, ‘bio-based plastics’ and ‘biodegradable plastics’ mean different things and plastics can be either or both – the first relates to what it is made from and the other to how it breaks down.
  • Biodegradable and compostable plastics: These allow for simple disposal of plastic items at their end-of-life with the resulting materials being put to use as compost or degrading in the environment. Compostable plastics require new processing methods to fully meet market needs and are typically more expensive than fossil fuel- based plastics. More companies have been using compostable plastics in recent years, but studies in Aotearoa New Zealand have highlighted a lack of infrastructure to manage compostable plastic waste. Considerable research is being undertaken internationally and in Aotearoa New Zealand to solve current issues with compostable plastics. The disposal of compostable plastics is complicated by the fact that some materials, notably most forms of PLA, need industrial high temperature composting facilities to fully degrade.
  • Next-generation plastics: Less research is being done on wholly new materials to make plastics because of the challenges of manufacturing at sufficient scale and low enough price to replace existing plastics.
  • Non-plastic alternatives: A whole range of new materials is being developed from a wide variety of sources to replace plastics. Many of these are developed from renewable sources.

As well as new materials, new manufacturing processes designed to complement their properties are being designed. For example, new innovations include additive manufacturing (e.g. 3D and 4D printing). Materials innovations are occurring worldwide in industry and academia, and through collaborations between the two, but uptake at larger scale is limited, particularly locally (read the case study ‘What’s stopping the uptake of new materials?’). In Aotearoa New Zealand, there are several research institutes that are able to collaborate with businesses to develop customisable solutions and progress our transition to a more bio-based circular economy for plastic use. For example, Scion has collaborated with Zespri to develop the Biospife (read the case study ‘Staying at the leading edge of global sustainability trends’), with EPL to develop a biodegradable wine net clip, and with Imagin Plastics to develop a 3D printer filament.

There is great potential for Aotearoa New Zealand’s research institutes and universities to carve out a niche for our plastics manufacturing industry in the bio-based and biodegradable plastics markets and to connect with international research efforts for new materials (e.g. the NSF Centre for Sustainable Polymers). Ensuring we keep up with international best practice is a particularly important consideration for our export industry. As a country that relies heavily on our export industry, it is imperative that Aotearoa New Zealand factors in the potential implications of international regulations relating to circular economy and sustainable packaging initiatives. An example of where innovation allowed a large exporter to meet the sustainability demands of the countries they export to is the biospife developed by Zespri (read the case study ‘Staying at the leading edge of global sustainability trends’).

In the table below we present opportunities and limitations of new alternatives to replace traditional plastics. We discuss how these may or may not play a role in Aotearoa New Zealand’s transition to a circular economy.

Material innovations and their potential application in Aotearoa New Zealand

MaterialStrengthsLimitationsPossible solutionsExamples/ongoing research
Bio-PET (#1)

A partially bio-based plastic
Fully recyclable

Identical to fossil-PET (#1) so can be processed with it

Existing infrastructure is sufficient
Currently relies on some fossil-based feedstock and doesn’t reduce environmental impacts compared to standard PET (#1) (read the case study 'Plastics – Is plant-based really greener?')

Non-biodegradable if leaked into environment
R&D to make 100% bio-sourced – widely soughtCoca-Cola planning to make 100% bio-based PET (#1) bottles by 2020
Bio-HDPE (#2)

A bio-based plastic
Fully recyclable and can be reprocessed with standard HDPE (#2), so existing infrastructure is sufficient

Ethylene, the raw material, is readily bio-sourced
Non-biodegradable if leaked into environment

Cost is currently a barrier for companies
Develop onshore sourcing/ production

Incentives for brands to use bio-based plastics
Ecostore use a bio-HDPE (#2) product
Bio-sourced polyester

A bio-based plastic
Recyclable (in practice)Lacking system to recycle clothing

Most clothing imported, not manufactured in NZ
Retailers to demand bio-based options

A bio-based, compostable plastic
Circular potential because the compost produced can be used to grow plants to generate more PLA

Physical properties similar to PET (#1) so could be a substitute for these applications
Severe incompatibility with PET (#1) recycling, but easily mistaken for PET (#1) – high potential to contaminate[12]

Lack of technology in current sorting systems to recognise and remove PLA from PET (#1) stream

Lack of available commercial composting infrastructure

Currently no local manufacture

In low oxygen environments, particularly landfill, degradation can produce methane

Not currently mechanically recyclable in NZ

Still persistent if leaked into environment
Sorting technology

Build commercial composting facilities

Build onshore manufacturing facility

Use modern landfill or capture methane from degradation
NZ companies providing PLA packaging, e.g. Earthpac, Ecoware, Grounded Packaging

Research to further develop underway at Otago[13] and Scion[14]
PHAs, including PHB

A bio-based compostable or biodegradable plastic (depending on conditions) produced by microbial fermentation of a wide variety of feedstocks
Varied potential applications and properties (e.g. soft and rigid plastics)

Circular potential because the compost produced can undergo microbial fermentation to produce more PHA

Microbially degraded (not compost) can be degraded in the environment to water and CO2 – hence circular as plants can reuse

Potential textile applications

PHB properties similar to PP (#5) so could replace this

PBAT evidence as fully biodegradable[15]

PHB can be made from methane gas feedstock so additional climate change benefits – can use gas produced from landfills etc.

Kaneka’s PHBH 90% marine biodegradable in 6 months

Manufacture doesn’t require large, centralised facilities –suits onshore manufacture
Processing issues due to variability in feedstock

Can be made from forestry waste so good economic opportunity for Aotearoa NZ

If compostable plastics go into low oxygen environments, particularly into landfill, their degradation can produce methane.

Not recyclable with current mechanical recycling infrastructure

Cost prohibitive for brands
Proper testing facilities so only certified materials used locally (e.g. Scion)

Use modern landfill to capture methane

Use of waste streams as biomass to bring price down
Available now

Bio-on develops numerous applications, including a cosmetic product line with Unilever

Danimer is developing a variety of applications, including snack bag material for PepsiCo

Research to improve underway at Scion and research to manufacture various types of PHA

Methane-derived PHB developed by Mango Materials – currently produce textiles and caps in pilot plant
Seaweed-based packaging

A non-plastic alternative
Can replace multi-layered plastic sachets

Competition for food source

May contaminate plastic recycling streams

Possible biosecurity issues
Use for niche applicationsEvoware
Fungal protein-based materials

A non-plastic alternative
Made from natural polymeric materials

Can replace EPS, which is a problematic plastic
Possible allergenics

Possible biosecurity issues when imported
Onshore manufactureNZ Biopolymer Network partnership with Meadow Mushrooms to make mushroom packaging

The US company Ecovative Design grows the structural component of fungi, mycelia, to replace plastics used in packaging

The SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast bound in cellulose) that ferments tea into kombucha has been used a textile by US company Kombucha Couture

A non-plastic alternative
Bio-based and biodegradable

Anti-bacterial, water-resistant and strong
ScaleLush has developed carbon-positive cork packaging to replace plastic

A next-generation plastic
Recyclable/ remoldable version of thermosets

Potential to replace lots of unrecyclable plastics that are discarded, especially thermosetting resins that are used in composite materials
Still in research and pilot phaseFurther R&D

Scale-up facilities
US company Mallinda developing new vitrimer composites
Recyclable thermosets

A next-generation plastic
Drop-in solution to standard epoxy resinsInfrastructure to recycleDevelop this onshoreConnora makes these
Starch-derived materials

A bio-based, compostable alternative to plastic
Compost produced can be used to grow plants to generate more starch to make their processing circularMaterial properties e.g. poor water resistance limits useNiche applicationsResearch at Scion

Earthpac manufacture certified compostable starch-based products in NZ
Cellulose-based materials (e.g. bamboo, cellophane)

A bio-based, compostable alternative to plastic
Made from natural materialsMaterial properties

No current manufacture
Can purchase from international producers, e.g. Celluforce, Oji Japan, Stora Enso, Weidmann Fiber Technology

Repurposing of current fibre mills (e.g. Oji in Japan)
Researchers at the University of Canterbury developing all-cellulose composites[16]

Transparent wood cellulose: a fibrous cellulose (HefCel); and a plastic type cellulose (MMCC) developed but not yet on market

Used for textiles substituting cotton and polyesters; coatings for paper and other product substitutes
Animal waste protein-based material

A non-plastic alternative
Made from natural polymeric materialsIn general these natural materials do not have the full range of desirable properties as plastics, particularly water and oxygen resistance, unless chemical additives are used, which may give the materials the same undesirable properties as plastic such as environmental toxicityNiche applications

Further R&D
Researchers from the University of Waikato have produced a plastic from meat rendering waste called Novastein that can be used as a biodegradable replacement for plastic in rigid items that do not require particular strength, such as seed trays and plant pots

Researchers at the University of Canterbury and AgResearch developing these
Milk protein-based materials

A non-plastic alternative
Made from natural polymeric materialsApplication likely to be limited to specific niche applications where their properties are sufficiently desirableBased on old methods but can be further developed
Novel natural polymers

A non-plastic alternative
Made from natural polymeric materialsApplication likely to be limited to specific niche applications where their properties are sufficiently desirableNZ company Humblebee is working on developing a material produced by a species of bee to waterproof their nests. The material is resistant to temperature, acids and bases, and solvents but, as mimicking a natural material, is likely to be biodegradable. Work is ongoing to develop a manufacturing method
New composites

A next-generation plastic
Wide-ranging potential applications, e.g. chair seats, automotive parts, shoe heels, garden pieces, lamps, 3D printing materials

Can couple new materials with range of plastics
RecyclabilityDesign for circular principles (e.g. for disassembly and repair) to keep in useResearch underway looking at using harakeke in with pre-consumer recycled PP (#5) to make a composite[17]

Scion has developed Woodforce, natural wood fibres replacing glass fibre in plastic composites

A non-plastic alternative
Renewable resources

Free of petrochemicals and formaldehyde

Water-based, non-toxic and compatible with existing adhesive and wood panel manufacturing equipment
Needs development for plastics applicationsFurther R&DScion has developed Ligate, a bioadhesive for wood panels


While the ultimate goal is to achieve zero plastic waste, realistically, for the foreseeable future there will be an amount of plastic waste that needs to be disposed of. To be an effective tool in helping to combat climate change, waste minimisation must focus on reducing the creation of waste as a primary objective. Once waste is produced, we need to consider the carbon footprint of the processes involved in managing that waste, including assessing the consumption and impacts of burning hydrocarbons (long cycle carbon impact) during the collection, separation, recovery and recycling processes. We can then benchmark the benefits (or otherwise) of these processes against the carbon footprint of alternative processes such as landfilling, which will include generation and potential beneficial reuse of methane produced by modern landfills (read the case study ‘Modern landfill – A waste-to-energy innovation’).

Aotearoa New Zealand currently relies on landfill to dispose of most waste plastic (the exception being some medical and airline waste that may include plastics). Other jurisdictions, including those in Europe and the US, also use controlled incineration.

In Aotearoa New Zealand’s context there are a number of limiting factors that mean that controlled incineration is not an ideal disposal solution for our plastic waste. These include:

  • An incineration plant would require a certain amount of waste to be economic – this could have the perverse outcome of incentivising waste production (as argued in The Conversation)
  • Upfront costs of developing a single waste-to-energy incineration plant being prohibitive (estimated to be around $1 billion) – therefore, at a maximum only one plant may be feasible for the whole country

Example of waste headed for disposal.

  • Transporting waste throughout the country to one plant would have a high emissions footprint. Using a rail network to achieve this is unlikely to be feasible given the logistics of getting waste to the part of the network where it could be onboarded (e.g. all Auckland waste would need to be loaded at Penrose in the current scenario)
  • Technology and infrastructure for smaller plants, which may be better suited to our local context, are not available at scale
  • Landfill would still be required for residual waste that remains after controlled incineration
  • Depending on application, may be prohibited under the National Environmental Standard for Air Quality.

Instead, it may be more appropriate for Aotearoa New Zealand to continue to rely on modern landfill facilities that can only be developed and operated in accordance with strict consent conditions and quality assurance measures (further details in Appendix 4).

An incineration plant would require a certain amount of waste to be economic – this could have the perverse outcome of incentivising waste production

Summary and recommendations

There are multiple different new ideas and innovations that will all play an important role in rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand. There is no single solution, and creating a more sustainable future will require an environment that supports ongoing innovation and scaling up of good ideas. It is important that we don’t rush into implementing solutions without first testing their safety and effectiveness. New ideas or systems can be first implemented in communities or regions, assessed, tweaked, and scaled-up if successful. The safety of new materials or products made from recycled content also need to be stringently tested before being implemented to ensure that we are not creating further environmental risks with new products. It is important to be wary of unintended consequences. Actions that are necessary to support new ideas and innovations are addressed within recommendations 2, 4 and 5.

Key considerations for implementing these recommendations:


  • Material identification should be consistent with international standards and universally understood. This could be achieved by adopting or aligning to international standards:
    • For resin identification (e.g. ASTM D7611/ D7611M; China GB/T 16288-2008; EU 97/129/EC) and compostable packaging (e.g. home: AS 5810; AS 5810/ NF T 51-800; commercial: AS 4726; EN 13432; ASTM D 6400 or 6868).
    • For composting (drawing on WasteMINZ guide to compostable packaging).
  • The label’s material and how it is affixed may impact on the recyclability of a product – recyclers could help inform material choice for a new labelling system or this could follow best-practice demonstrated by Norway’s regulation around labelling materials (read the case study ‘A 97% recycling rate through a container deposit scheme’).


  • Waste incineration could lead to over-capitalisation and perverse incentives to increase waste.
  • As there is enough onshore capacity for PET (#1) recycling, the focus should shift to HDPE (#2) and PP (#5).
  • Material flow analyses to determine infrastructure requirements for onshore reprocessing should consider the different applications needed for recycled content (e.g. food grade vs detergent grade for HDPE (#2)) and the processes that may help maximise use for these applications (e.g. source separation through CDS or PSS, or chemical recycling to decontaminate).
  • If brands continue to use compostable plastics, commercial composting infrastructure and systems to support collection would be needed.



[1] Szaky, The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular (United States: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019)

[2] Song et al., “Industrial Symbiosis: Exploring Big-Data Approach for Waste Stream Discovery,” 24th Cirp Conference on Life Cycle Engineering 61 (2017)

[3] UNEP, “Global Chemicals Outlook Ii: From Legacies to Innovative Solutions: Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Synthesis Report”, 2019

[4] Eriksen et al., “Quality Assessment and Circularity Potential of Recovery Systems for Household Plastic Waste,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 23, no. 1 (2019)

[5] Eriksen et al., “Quality Assessment and Circularity Potential of Recovery Systems for Household Plastic Waste,”

[6] Brouwer et al., “The Impact of Collection Portfolio Expansion on Key Performance Indicators of the Dutch Recycling System for Post-Consumer Plastic Packaging Waste, a Comparison between 2014 and 2017,” Waste Management 100 (2019)

[7]Jull et al., “Classification of Recyclables Using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy for Waste Management,” Spectroscopy Letters 51, no. 6 (2018)

[8] Kealy, “Rheological Analysis of the Degradation of Hdpe During Consecutive Processing Steps and for Different Processing Conditions,” Journal of Applied Polymer Science 112, no. 2 (2009)

[9] Start-up in NZ with exclusive right to patent and technology from parent company in China (Zhejiang Comy Energy Tech). System can take plastics 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7

[10] For a review, see: Lopez et al., “Recent Advances in the Gasification of Waste Plastics. A Critical Overview,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 82 (2018)

[11] Alaerts et al., “Impact of Bio-Based Plastics on Current Recycling of Plastics,” Sustainability 10, no. 5 (2018)

[12] Alaerts et al., “Impact of Bio-Based Plastics on Current Recycling of Plastics,”

[13] Scientists at Otago University are developing new catalysts to make PLA and other lactide based plastics cheaper and more efficient.

[14] Scion are developing new ways of processing PLA so it can be used in a wider variety of applications, the incorporation of natural materials as strengthening in composite plastics and development of PHA sourced from bacterial fermentation of waste products.

[15] Zumstein et al., “Biodegradation of Synthetic Polymers in Soils: Tracking Carbon into Co2 and Microbial Biomass,” Science Advances 4, no. 7 (2018)

[16] Huber et al., “Solvent Infusion Processing of All-Cellulose Composite Materials,” Carbohydrate Polymers 90, no. 1 (2012)

[17] Stoof et al., “Sustainable Composite Fused Deposition Modelling Filament Using Recycled Pre-Consumer Polypropylene,” Composites Part B: Engineering 135 (2018)