Motivation for rethinking plastics
Aotearoa New Zealand is at a pivotal point where we must rethink our relationship with plastics. Increasing public concern over the harmful effects of plastic pollution on our environment and health, and a growing appreciation of what we can learn from te ao Māori values such as kaitiakitanga, make it an opportune time to initiate changes to mitigate the negative impacts of plastic while retaining its many benefits. We are in a unique position where we can weave our understanding of science, society and economics with mātauranga Māori to establish new practices that make a difference by reducing plastic pollution. Acting now is critical to preserve our natural environment for generations to come.
Aotearoa New Zealand is at a pivotal point where we must rethink our relationship with plastic
Global plastic production by industry. Mt: million metric tonnes.
Source: Geyer et al. 2017.
The reason plastic has become so pervasive throughout our society is because it is a durable, flexible, inexpensive and lightweight material that meets the needs of a wide variety of applications. Rethinking plastics requires us to challenge the current ways we use and dispose of plastic to make these more sustainable and responsible. The most pressing challenges are to reduce the amount of virgin (new) plastic used, improve the effectiveness of approaches to keep the plastics used in circulation, and take national responsibility for our own plastic waste.
Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced globally and the majority of that (79%) has gone to landfill or been discarded into the environment. It is difficult to comprehend the scale – but that’s the same weight as 800,000 Eiffel Towers or over 1 billion elephants. Approximately 36% of that production has been for short-term or single-use plastics used for packaging that was most likely landfilled or incinerated, or leaked into the environment.
The current way we source and use plastics is unsustainable. Global plastic production is projected to grow exponentially which will compound plastic pollution and our use of non-renewable resources. Increasing plastic usage will also increase the global carbon footprint, with projections indicating that plastics will be responsible for up to 15% of the total ‘carbon budget’ by 2050 – more than air travel (currently around 2% of emissions). Using less plastic and using renewable sources to make plastic will be important to prevent this projected increase in carbon footprint from plastics.
Plastic production is projected to be responsible for up to 15% of the total ‘carbon budget’ by 2050
New Zealanders are contributing significantly to this global issue. According to the World Bank’s 2018 global review of solid waste management, Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the most wasteful nations in the developed world, disposing of an estimated 159 grams of plastic waste per person each day, and ranked number 10 globally for municipal waste generation per capita. Our waste per capita is well above the OECD average and is projected to remain so for the foreseeable future, unless significant changes are implemented. Our small, dispersed population may contribute to these high rates of waste because it makes it more difficult to achieve economic onshore reprocessing, highlighting that localised solutions to rethinking plastics will be critical.
With increased knowledge and coverage of plastic polluting the environment, public concern about how we use and dispose of plastic has escalated. This has been accompanied by a willingness to take action to use plastics more sustainably and apply pressure to industry and government for change. Mounting public pressure has driven bans of single-use plastic items in many countries, which aims to decrease the overall amount of plastic use and pollution. Consumer pressure has also prompted innovative businesses to evolve through product redesign, new materials and new business models. But people are limited by what’s available to them. We urgently need new and improved systems to support people to use plastics more sustainably and responsibly. Establishing onshore reprocessing capabilities and a national recycling framework that is simple to use for individuals, communities and businesses is a critical early step. Rethinking plastics will be an ongoing process that requires continuous innovation and improvement with the expectation that best practice becomes standard practice. Rethinking plastics will be an ongoing process that requires continuous innovation and improvement with the expectation that best practice becomes standard practice.
Forecasts of plastic use to 2050 if current consumption rates continue. Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Mai i ngā maunga ki ngā moana
Mai i uta ki tai
Ahakoa ki hea i te taiao
He kirihou, he kirihou, he kirihou!
- The current state of plastics in Aotearoa
- Guiding frameworks
The current state of plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand
The level of public concern around plastic use and leakage into the environment is high. People are driving change through voicing concerns to business and government. In recent years, over 100,000 New Zealanders have signed petitions to the government to ban single-use plastic bags. According to the 2018 Colmar Brunton Better Futures report published in February 2019, plastic is the number one concern for New Zealanders when it comes to sustainability, social and environmental issues.
Aotearoa New Zealand has been slow to implement controls and is increasingly confronted with the consequences of other countries’ actions. In 2017, this came into the spotlight when China – who had imported a cumulative 45% of the world’s plastic waste since 1992 – instituted a new policy (China’s National Sword) that significantly reduced their intake of plastic for recycling. The effects of China’s policy changes were felt more strongly in 2018, when restrictions were tightened further.
In response to the estimated 111 million tonnes of plastic waste that will be displaced by China’s policy by 2030, lower-income countries are becoming the dumping grounds for low-quality contaminated waste from higher-income countries such as Aotearoa New Zealand. Legislation to ban imports of plastic waste and a consensus to amend the Basel Convention to place (further) controls on exports of difficult-to-recycle plastic waste (by requiring consent from Governments of receiving countries before shipping and to better regulate global trade) will limit this practice, so the model of sending our plastic waste overseas is not sustainable. In the short-term this is causing issues around how we deal with plastic waste. Overall it has stimulated much-needed discussion around rethinking our use of plastic.
The New Zealand Government has recently taken steps to specifically address plastic pollution. The first was to prohibit the sale and m.nz/anufacture of plastic microbeads in wash-off products such as cosmetics and cleaning products because of the known harms to human health and the environment. The regulation took effect on 7 June 2018. The second was to ban single-use plastic shopping bags with plastic handles, announced by the Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage, in August 2018, and implemented from 1 July 2019. More recently, the government announced consultation on product stewardship and plans to investigate the implementation of a beverage container return scheme (CRS).
Aotearoa New Zealand has commitments to the global community
Plastic pollution is a global challenge that is being addressed at all levels – from local initiatives through to international agreements. Some countries and municipalities around the world are leading the way in developing local legislation and systems to transform plastic use, including the European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK). It is imperative we learn from those at the leading edge of the global shift in plastic use and disposal, so that we can adopt and adapt best practice models to Aotearoa New Zealand.
We are already engaged in a number of international organisations and initiatives that relate to rethinking plastics to support a global solution. Being part of international institutions tackling plastic use and pollution gives us the opportunity to share knowledge and combine efforts, particularly with regard to ocean plastics which are not bound by national borders – which is significant given we are an island nation. There are other multilateral coalitions to address plastics that Aotearoa New Zealand has not engaged in, such as a collaboration between the EU and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations to address issues around plastics. In the table below, we highlight some of the key international organisations and initiatives related to plastics. The list is not exhaustive, but gives an idea of the breadth and scope of the global appetite to challenge the way we currently use and dispose of plastic and shift to a more sustainable use of this material.
As well as drawing on international best practice and knowledge, we can share our learnings with the global community. Our responsibility to ensure the socio-environmental health of all our communities, including our Māori communities, means that we rely on the synergies of western and indigenous knowledge to inform practice. This basis for rethinking plastics can help guide international collaborative efforts, including prioritising learnings from other indigenous communities. We also have a responsibility to support nations in the South Pacific to manage plastics better. Pacific leaders describe plastics pollution as an environmental threat second only to climate change, and say they cannot mitigate its effects without mutual collaboration and help from developed countries. As a major supplier of imports by these countries, Aotearoa New Zealand can transfer improvements in the way we manage plastics and other waste onshore to these more vulnerable countries. This demonstration of partnership can include reducing the plastics content of goods and their packaging, but also supporting systems and consumption patterns that either demand less plastic or factor in its recovery or responsible disposal, as part of a more circular economy. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT)’s Strategic Intentions includes reference to marine plastics in its aim to have better international stewardship of oceans, especially the Pacific and Southern Oceans.
Rethinking plastics: International organisations and initiatives
|Organisation/initiative||How it relates to plastic|
|Alliance to End Plastic Waste||Pledge of US$1.5 billion by 30 multinational companies to ‘get ahead of the curve’ with plastics, anticipating that corporate social responsibility is hardwired into future notions of performance and success – and that customers will increasingly demand this and hold them accountable|
|Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)||Has developed marine debris management guidelines and other relevant working groups|
|Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)||At their June 2019 Summit, the Leaders of the ASEAN issued the Bangkok Declaration on Combatting Marine Debris and the ASEAN Framework of Action on Marine Debris, which included considering establishing an ASEAN Center on Combatting Marine Debris|
|Basel Convention||Recent amendments to the Basel Convention place (further) controls on exports of difficult-to-recycle plastic waste. The measures are due to commence in 2021|
|Cooperation agreements||Depending on the country, can include plastic products and plastic waste in free trade agreements (FTA). Examples include references to plastics in trade agreements with China and the EU|
|Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance||Action group of the Commonwealth Blue Charter to tackle marine plastic pollution, with a NZ representative|
|East Asia Summit (EAS)||In November 2018, the East Asia Summit Leaders’ Statement on Combating Marine Plastic Debris was announced, including NZ as a signatory|
|Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)||A UK-based organisation to accelerate the transformation to a circular economy, with an initial focus on plastics. They work with business, academia and governments to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design|
|European Commission||Published a European strategy for plastics in a circular economy in 2017 that laid out a series of actions the EU could take to reduce plastic waste. This has contributed to the EU leading the way in rethinking plastics|
|G20 Summit||Reduction of marine plastic trash was one of the major issues at the G20 summit of environment ministers in Japan in 2019. Ministers agreed to a deal to tackle marine plastic|
|Global Ghost Gear Initiative||A cross-stakeholder alliance of fishing industry, private sector, corporates, NGOs, academia and governments focused on solving the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear worldwide. NZ signed up to the Statement of Support in 2017|
|Global Model for Near-Zero Ocean Plastic||A joint initiative between SYSTEMIQ, Common Seas and Pew Charitable Trusts to develop a global roadmap that identifies the steps needed to catalyse the necessary action and investment to reduce plastics entering the world’s oceans. Common Seas are responsible for the policy analysis and SYSTEMIQ for the economic analysis|
|Global Partnership on Marine Litter||A multi-stakeholder partnership that provides a unique mechanism to bring together all actors working on marine litter to share knowledge and experience and to advance solutions to this pressing global issue. It is in response to the need to meet SDG 14.1 and is connected to the UNEP|
|Global Plastics Alliance (part of the Global Business Alliance for the Environment)||Plastics associations around the world signed the Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter in 2011. Plastics NZ is a signatory to this commitment and are the local stewards of Operation Clean Sweep®|
|High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy||An initiative of serving heads of government that aims to produce a report and suite of bold but pragmatic recommendations that are a roadmap for aligning robust economic development with protecting the natural capital of the ocean. NZ is not a member of the panel but has engaged through an Australian representative|
|International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee||Committee of the IMO that discusses what the appropriate measures are for some key classes of plastic pollution, in particular lost fishing gear, and who developed an action plan to address marine plastic litter from ships. NZ is a member|
|Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)||Collates data to compare OECD nations, including municipal waste data, and publishes reports such as ‘Improving Plastics Management: Trends, policy responses, and the role of international co-operation and trade’|
|Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP)||Focuses on ocean ecosystems, waste management and pollution control|
|United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)||Responsible for the publication of several key reports, including ‘Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability’ and 'Mapping of global plastics value chain and plastics losses to the environment, with a particular focus on the marine environment’
Established the Clean Seas campaign, which aims to engage governments, the general public and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic pollution. Started in 2017 for 5 years
Initiated a resolution on marine plastic litter and microplastics that includes recommendations for member states related to marine plastic pollution
|United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)||Several goals are pertinent to the issue of tackling plastic waste in NZ and connect our work with a broader effort to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. NZ has committed to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achievement of the 17 SDGs. In 2019, MFAT undertook NZ’s first voluntary SDG review (see here for targets related to plastics and NZ’s review against these)|
|World Economic Forum||Running a Global Plastic Action Partnership which aims to translate political commitments to address plastic pollution into action by fast-tracking circular economy solutions in coastal countries battling plastic waste|
|WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme)||UK organisation that works with governments, businesses and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency. Responsible for the UK Plastics Pact, including a roadmap to 2025. WRAP has a global division set up to support other countries|
A coordinated approach is needed
The need for urgent action on plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand has led to several industry, community and academic groups undertaking work to address specific aspects of plastics. Some of the deeper dives into the issue are available through our plastics resource page and include:
- The Sustainable Business Network – New Zealand’s plastic packaging system: an initial circular economy diagnosis (2018): A report that outlined the priorities and actions needed to make Aotearoa New Zealand’s plastic packaging system more sustainable, highlighting the need to think more broadly than recycling and consider product redesign and new business models, with the need for incentives and infrastructure development.
- The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment – Biodegradable and compostable plastics in the environment: a comprehensive resource developed in response to the confusion surrounding degradable plastic, presented as Q&As.
- The Aotearoa Circle: A voluntary initiative that brings leaders from the public and private sectors together to amplify existing efforts and focus on priority areas related to sustainability and responsibility for our natural resources.
- The National Resource Recovery Taskforce (2019): In response to changes in recycling markets due to China’s National Sword policy, a taskforce was established to provide a situational analysis of Aotearoa New Zealand’s resource recovery industry and provide recommendations for government on ways to support and stabilise the industry.
- The Royal Society Te Apārangi – Plastics in the Environment: Te Ao Hurihuri – The Changing World (2019): A report summarising how plastics enter the environment and the risks plastics pose to wildlife and humans.
- The Government Procurement Rules: The fourth edition of the New Zealand Government Procurement, which came into force on 1 October 2019. Rule 20 is ‘supporting the transition to a low emissions economy and designing waste out of the system’.
- Roadmap for New Zealand’s New Plastics Economy: Scion is partnering with Plastics NZ, Packaging NZ and the Sustainable Business Network to develop a roadmap for New Zealand’s Plastics Economy (currently underway).
Rethinking Plastics builds on and integrates these key bodies of work as part of a system-wide overview. With the growing need for action in this space, it is important that different workstreams are shared and coordinated where appropriate. This will help harness shared ambition and accelerate the transition to a more circular economy for plastics.
With challenges come opportunities
Our most significant risks associated with plastic, including climate change, environmental consequences, health impacts and economic implications are shared globally. These are discussed throughout the report. We also face unique challenges and responsibilities when it comes to plastic use and waste, each presenting both barriers and opportunities.
Because we are a geographically isolated nation, international solutions to deal with waste may not always be easily translatable to our situation. On the other hand, isolation enables us to control our borders in ways that could assist a genuinely circular approach to managing our own waste. Such an approach would be in line with our responsibility to act as guardians of the environment through kaitiakitanga.
Our economy is heavily reliant on our primary products export industry, which itself relies on packaging that is hygienic, resilient and lightweight to transport perishable food, beverages and their ingredients around the world. Plastic meets all three criteria and is favoured by our export industry, so as a nation we are responsible and rely on sending thousands of tonnes of plastic overseas every year. Our economy is also strong enough that locally we have the opportunity to buy discerningly, incentivise selectively to achieve targeted outcomes, and to invest in infrastructure and research into new, more sustainable packaging materials.
Lastly, our population size and spread also creates challenges and opportunities around plastic. Relative to the global market, we are small – so it may be more challenging to demand changes to plastic used by multinational companies. However, we can create local solutions. We have adequate infrastructure, social and economic connectivity to be able to design systems that work for us, and inspire others. New Zealanders are agile and adaptable with a mind-set that enables us to be innovative in the face of new challenges. In particular, having Māori scientists and innovators who draw on traditional wisdoms and values that embody te ao Māori to solve local and global challenges gives us an edge.
To address these challenges and rise to the opportunities, we need to simultaneously remediate plastic pollution issues and establish sustainable practices for plastic use.
There is confusion around how plastics are made and classified
Plastic can be identified by the type of plastic (defined by its physical properties or chemical composition), the source of the material from which plastic is made (biological sources vs fossil fuels) and/or how the plastic can break down (degraded by microbes or not, and whether this is at a standard rate or faster due to chemical additives). Plastic can also be identified by whether it is made with new (virgin) or recycled content.
Plastics are either defined as thermoplastic or thermoset. The key difference between these classes is how the plastic responds to heat. Like chocolate, thermoplastic polymers can be reheated and moulded with no or minimal change to their chemical or physical properties. A level of degradation occurs with each cycle and depends on the type of thermoplastic. In contrast, thermoset plastics cannot be reshaped or recycled once they have been moulded or hardened – like an egg. This feature helps thermoset plastics withstand higher temperatures and chemical attack without loss of structural integrity. These different properties lend thermoplastics and thermosets to different applications.
When a type of plastic is referred to as a ‘thermoplastic’ or ‘thermoset’ we are defining it based on its physical properties.
Chemical composition or resin type
This tells you what the plastic is made from – i.e. the chemical substance used as the basis of a plastic product. Each resin type has different chemical properties that meet the requirements for specific types of packaging or products. It is standard practice to code plastic products by their resin type. The ASTM International standard ASTM D7611/D7611M is widely accepted as the global identification system. The resin identification tells people what the plastic is made from, but not whether it can or will be recycled. Whether a product is actually recycled can depend not just on the type of plastic, but also on the other materials, colour and additives included in the composition. These are not captured by the code. Sometimes multiple plastics are used in an item which makes it significantly more difficult, or impossible, to recycle those materials.
When a plastic is referred to as ‘PET (#1)’ or ‘HDPE (#2)’ we are defining it by its resin type (chemical make-up).
Plastic can be made from different raw materials known as feedstock. The vast majority of plastic raw material comes from fossil fuel. The remaining plastic is made from renewable biologically produced compounds such as corn starch and sugarcane.
- Fossil-fuel-based: Plastics derived from petroleum by-products or natural gas, a non-renewable source.
- Bio-based: Plastics derived from biomass sources, which are renewable. For a plastic to be classified as bio-based, the source material is not necessarily 100% biomass. Bioplastic (as used in this report) refers to bio-based plastics, but is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to biodegradable plastics. Not all plastic made from bio-based materials is biodegradable.
Some bio-based plastics are identical in chemical composition to their fossil-fuel-based counterparts, but not all are.
When a plastic is referred to as bio-based, we are defining it based on what it is made out of.
Both bio- and fossil-fuel-based plastics can have additives included in their composition. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has worked with industry to map out the range of over 400 functional additives or pigments currently used in plastic production. These are used to enhance product performance or aesthetics.
When a plastic is referred to as oxo-degradable, we are defining it based on certain chemical additives that have been added to the material.
All plastic will break down eventually, but it may take thousands of years. How it will break down and how long it will take depends on the chemical properties and disposal conditions. Fossil-fuel-based plastics were traditionally non-biodegradable – the polymers that make up the plastic cannot be degraded by living organisms (microbes), but they gradually break down due to the effects of sunlight, heat and friction. Non-biodegradable plastic fragments into microplastics and is likely to take centuries to break down completely.
Biodegradable plastics are an alternative type of plastic that can be degraded by microbes into simple chemical elements – ultimately CO₂, methane and water. Disposal conditions dictate whether biodegradable plastic actually breaks down into these elements. In the right environment (usually commercial composting facilities) the plastic can be biodegraded and fully break down. In the wrong environment (i.e. the ocean), biodegradable plastic acts like non-biodegradable plastic and breaks down to microplastics.
A subset of biodegradable plastics are compostable. The polymers that make up compostable plastic can be broken down by microbes in a composting environment and fully return to nature. Most compostable plastics won’t do this in a home composting bin, only in a commercial-standard compost with specific conditions. Like all biodegradable plastics, compostable plastics are not necessarily bio- based and the disposal conditions dictate how they actually break down. Another subset of biodegradable plastics are in development that will be able to degrade in the marine environment. This is significant as the marine environment is the ‘sink’ for a significant amount of plastic waste.
When a plastic is referred to as biodegradable, compostable or non-biodegradable, we are defining it based on how it will break down.
The Koru of Māori ethics developed by Manuka Henare in 1998. The core Māori values of Mana, Mauri, Tapu, Io and Hau are depicted in the centre of the koru as the founding values that inform the ethical concepts and practices of Kotahitanga, Wairuatanga, Whanaungatanga and Kaitiakitanga
Te ao Māori
Embracing the wisdom of te ao Māori, which addresses complex issues in a holistic way, we have used an overarching framework to guide our work on rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand. Reverend Māori Marsden (2003) described the Māori world view as a complex and interconnecting value system that honours the Māori relationship with the natural environment as a fundamental aspect of Māori cultural identity – linking lands, waters and peoples in a whole-of-landscape approach, encapsulated in the phrase ‘ki uta ki tai’ (from the mountains to the sea). A Māori worldview acknowledges the relationship between people, landscapes, waterways and oceans, which is pertinent in rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Te ao Māori emphasises the connection between people and the natural environment – a connection that has arisen from the strong sense of unity with, and enduring relationship within, defined territories, land and the natural world. These relationships are threatened by the plastic maunga (mountain) resulting from our reliance on and ill-considered use of plastics. The Māori worldview recognises the building of mauri (life and wellbeing sustaining capacity) within and between the natural environment and society.
Mātauranga Māori, or Māori epistemology, is at the heart of te ao Māori and is described as a complex system of knowledge created by Māori according to a set of key ideas that explain the human experience of the world. Representing a uniquely Māori understanding of the world around us, mātauranga provides insight into understanding the existence of, and relationship between, all animate and inanimate things. Such a dynamic and inter-connected perspective locates Māori knowledge and ways of knowing within the domain of ‘systems thinking’, which places greater emphasis on understanding the relationships between the components of a system. It is the pattern of these relationships that determines the characteristics and properties of system behaviour. In this way it aligns very well with modern Western thinking in sustainability. Through centuries of observation and interaction, Māori have developed a deep understanding of the natural environment. Māori knowledge and the systems thinking approach can help shape our response to the environmental impacts of plastic.
Through mātauranga Māori, cultural values such as kaitiakitanga (the responsibility to secure natural resources for the benefit of all – not just for present generations but for those to come), kotahitanga (the acknowledgement of unity and collective action), whanaungatanga (recognising the intergenerational nature of the relationships between people and the natural world) and wairuatanga (recognising spirituality) are enacted, ensuring ‘the mauri of both human and non-human people are more likely to be maintained and, in turn, the life-generating capacities of these entities ensured’. These values and connections can guide more responsible management of plastic throughout its life cycle.
The Māori world view acknowledges a natural order to the universe, a balance or equilibrium, and that when part of this system shifts, the entire system is put out of balance. The diversity of life is embellished in this world view through the interrelationship of all living things as dependent on each other, and Māori seek to understand the total system and not just parts of it.
Kaitiakitanga is a particularly significant value to guide how we rethink plastics. This traditional concept is about safeguarding the future by preserving intrinsic value (i.e. not being wasteful) and retaining options we might not yet know exist. The practice of kaitiakitanga allows Māori and non-Māori alike to reflect on the notion of kinship with nature, and how this idea might be useful in an environmentally threatened world. Kaitiakitanga is being discovered and explored by non-Māori, and its importance is increasingly recognised by New Zealanders as a guiding principle to safeguard our environment. It is our local embodiment of a global shift towards sustainability. When guided by a Māori world view and values, we are obliged to act as guardians of the environment in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Rethinking plastics presents an opportunity to embrace kaitiakitanga in a contemporary setting, as a guiding principle. We use kaitiakitanga as a tool and a process to inform our recommendations around protecting the environment. While short-term fixes are necessary to abate the current damage inflicted on the environment by plastic, we are also focused on our obligation under kaitiakitanga to sustain the environment’s capacity to support life for present and future generations – our mokopunas’ mokopuna (grandchildrens’ grandchildren). The concept of stewardship aligns well with circular economy solutions and inspires innovation.
Rethinking plastics presents an opportunity to embrace kaitiakitanga in a contemporary setting, as a guiding principle.
Plastic pollution is an environmental symptom of our ‘throw away’ society. Globally, there is an increasing call to use whole-of-life accounting – that is, to broaden how we cost and value resources so that we also account for costs that are usually overlooked such as environmental and social aspects (e.g. Kate Raworth’s concept of Doughnut Economics).
This thinking is particularly pertinent to plastics as currently the cost of plastic is modelled on the resource input and manufacturing costs, but ignores the costs of disposal and environmental leakage – which have proven to be significant. The costs associated with the full life cycle of a product are met elsewhere in the economy.
Fundamental to these changing values is recognising that virgin feedstock for fossil-fuel based plastic is a finite resource with competing uses, so we need to make smart choices about how we use this material and, more importantly, keep it in use. Internationally, countries ranging from the wealthiest in the OECD to some of the world’s least developed agree that a new relationship with plastic is urgently needed in order to retain its many benefits, yet incentivise responsible use and disposal. Some of this rethinking is being grouped under the loose label of ‘circular economy’ – in which the design, value-retention, reuse and consideration of alternatives to plastics are weighed in an integrated economic, social, cultural and environmental framework.
Reuse, repair, remaking and recycling can support the transition from a linear to circular economy for plastics.
The New Zealand Government has committed to ensuring 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled or composted by 2025. This report provides an evidence-base to guide this change
A circular economy is aspirational and may not be realised for some time. However, it does stimulate thinking and we might usefully plan for a spiral economy where products, components and materials devalue at end-of-life and some waste is generated, but an increasing fraction is recovered, in the medium term (see Figure 8). This requires short-term strategies that are phased out in the long-term as our societies adopt new habits. For example, we may need to employ new methods to deal with mixed plastic waste, while we establish scalable, economically and environmentally sound models to reuse a package. Striking a balance that can be sustained across society is a complex challenge. Indigenous knowledge can help to address this complex challenge, as illustrated by the speakers and storytellers at the first Ōhanga Āmiomio – Circular Economy Pacific Summit held in Rotorua on 3 April 2019. Aspiration to meet this challenge for plastics guides this report.
The current waste hierarchy can be updated to prioritise avoiding the use of the material if feasible.
Waste hierarchy and the 6Rs
The waste hierarchy and 6Rs (which vary, but here are referred to as rethink, refuse, replace, reduce, reuse and recycle) are helpful frameworks to guide rethinking plastics. Much of the discussion around how to remedy Aotearoa New Zealand’s current model of plastic use focuses on improving the recycling system. However, the most impactful step would be to use less plastic where feasible and where it wouldn’t cause worse net environmental impacts. This challenges us to innovate and create new materials and new ways of using them that are more sustainable than current practices.
These two frameworks guide our aspiration of shifting from disposal of plastic waste to keeping those resources in use. However, in some instances disposal remains the only available option, so in the short-term it will still be required. We need to develop policies, systems and a culture of practice that support a collective shift away from disposal of plastic waste to diversion, where plastic use is reduced and plastic that is used is reused and recycled, guided by the waste hierarchy and 6Rs.
 Hutchings, “Enhancing Māori Agribusiness through Kaitiakitanga Tools”, 2017
 Reid, “Indigenous Sustainability Indicators for Māori Farming and Fishing Enterprises. A Theoretical Framework.”, 2013