Our vision for rethinking plastics

Our panel imagined plastic use in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2030, which set the stage to #RethinkPlastics.

Aotearoa in 2030 – imagining a different future

Bits of plastic still wash up on the beach – but they are fewer now, and no longer coming from our own drains and rivers. This isn’t just an optimistic feeling we have, but a significant trend that we can clearly demonstrate using the rigorous methodology and the longitudinal citizen science data that started to be collected around all our shores in 2020. The data vacuum of the early 21st century started to fill at this point, and we began to see the difference we were making with our new policies and new habits. We also know what the plastics bits are made of, and there is more good news there too – more of the debris is able to be recycled, because there is infrastructure onshore to recycle it, so far less goes to landfill. We are using data collection methods that are compatible with those overseas, so we can tell that most places in Aotearoa have far less plastic than equivalent sites internationally. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Award in 2026 for implementing our National Plastics Action Plan led to a boom in ecotourism at our cleanest beaches – and despite the spike in visitor numbers, they are still clean, with easy-to-use container deposit machines and recycling bins at hand. People are used to these bins, as the same ones are used all over the country and they have simple pictorial instructions enabling international visitors to quickly join in.

Ghost fishing has all but stopped in our waters, since the fisheries adopted new materials and new methods, inspired by commercial fisheries that shared their early innovations across the sector. Entangled gear is no longer discarded, and the ubiquitous blue rope that defined the age of plastic is still plentiful in the water, but the pieces are generally old and frayed, and there are fewer every year. Most of the debris on the shore is quickly collected and used for recycled ‘beach plastic’ containers, which are increasingly common as they offer a marketing advantage.

Plastic debris floating on the surface of the ocean

Pretty much everyone has their own keep-cups these days, and teenagers look at you funny if you don’t have your own meal containers handy too. Aotearoa New Zealand was quick to see the market for stylish, non-leaking, all day kits that let you go about your day and enjoy take-away food without single-use plastic, and new businesses quickly grew up around this opportunity. We export these kits all over the world, with styles to suit all budgets. WINZ are a major customer and provide them for everyone on a benefit, with tips on how to use them to maximise healthy eating. The supermarkets expect customers to bring their bags and containers to collect fresh goods and refillery produce, and have their own brand versions available in store. Capitalising on the renewed interest in the ‘Clean, Green New Zealand’ brand, export earnings from these and similar products are booming.

Parcels now travel in reusable pods, a trend started by NZ Post in the early 2020s for domestic parcels. Consumers quickly embraced these handy pods, which keep mailed goods safe and don’t create waste, and they swiftly became part of daily Kiwi life. Electric scooters and bikes have places to clip them for easy transport in urban settings. Led by innovative trade negotiations through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which examined international product stewardship schemes ahead of most countries, many of our trading partners accept our reusable pods too, so long as we take theirs in return. This was one of the ideas that inspired the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to find a new lease of life as the WSTO (World Sustainable Trade Organisation), ensuring that competitive advantages are not at the cost of environmental wellbeing.

Not everything can be reused yet of course, and landfills are still an important part of disposing of contaminated and dangerous waste. Following the landfill audit in 2020, the last of the old-style dumps closed three years ago, and all facilities are sealed, with leachate treated, microplastics trapped, and waste-to-energy schemes embedded in the infrastructure. The international award for the most environmentally friendly landfill received in Aotearoa in 2028 raised the profile of these facilities, which now have a small ecotourism component as people visit the regenerated native bush that grows around the methane pipes on closed landfills. The methane comes from food waste and composting bioplastics and fuels hundreds of thousands of homes, while preventing this potent greenhouse gas escaping to the atmosphere.

Essential single-use wrapping is partly replaced by fully compostable plastic made from waste biological sources. Following the early introduction of the compostable ‘spife’, more and more materials have been designed that provide closed-loop use of plastic type materials, fully tested for both environmental and human health. The applications are still quite niche so far, and have yet to break into the medical space, but opportunities are growing as material scientists, engineers and cutting-edge businesses get more adept at and designing packaging that uses these cool new materials.

There is still some plastic waste, but the move to restrict to plastic types 1, 2 and 5 for clearly labelled packaging, restrict toxic additives, encourage use of one type of material not several, sort out the sorting, and stimulate entrepreneurial recyclers, has severely restricted the volume. Because companies are familiar with the waste hierarchy and often do a life cycle assessment (LCA) ahead of choosing packaging, it is unusual to find an item made solely of virgin fossil-fuel-based plastic. The container deposit scheme kicked this off back in 2020 – no clean, sorted bottle, no refund. Compact, efficient container deposit booths at the entrance of every supermarket are as busy as trolley bays, and issue customers with vouchers for their in-store purchases. This led to some new recycled material streams that regularly go into roads and building materials, following pioneering innovation in the late 2010s and some strict environmental testing. So effective are these processes, that some landfills are now being systematically mined for plastics to provide feedstock, strengthening the increasingly circular economy. The demand for electric vehicles is being matched by a steady increase in their reusable content. This is consistent with product stewardship requirements for not just plastics, but also batteries and tyres.

The plastic-eating enzymes and microbes are still being researched and the technology is at pilot scale, but still some way from commercial reality. The early work on enzymes that could degrade PET became less useful once all PET was being multiply recycled, but the work pivoted to focus on digesting the microplastics generated from car tyres and PVC – neither of which had been solved with redesign or engineering methods. The patent for one of these is held in Aotearoa New Zealand and there is some excitement that it may lead to major revenue streams soon. Updates from this research group have become one of the major highlights of the Biennial National Plastics Expo, which since its modest beginning in 2021 now attracts increasing international interest, with researchers, entrepreneurs and businesses attending from offshore by high-speed video-link, and sharing ideas globally. These and other plastic-substituting innovations, including our new generations of versatile sustainable bioplastic materials, drew widespread international interest at Aotearoa’s Dubai 2020 Expo Pavilion, catalysing a world reputation for innovative materials and design, much as it did for merino wool clothing around the turn of the century.

Capturing momentum from the 2019 school strikes for climate, young people continue to push us to come up with better solutions. Our teachers are well supplied with resources to teach young people about plastics, thanks to universities offering sustainability courses in all degrees. School canteens are free of single-use plastics and universities have adopted best practice in their food outlets – with discounts when students bring their own containers, and only approved compostable containers for the forgetful. These are managed on site by commercial-scale composters. University students also started the ‘say no to microfibre producing clothes’ campaign in 2025, leading many manufacturers to change their materials and branding.

Aotearoa New Zealand has maintained and enhanced its global image as a set of beautiful islands with a pristine environment, enhanced by the blend of stewardship principles of kaitiakitanga and systems and design thinking. We have a goal to be the first country to declare that it is no longer in the plastic age with a target date of 2050 – having reversed the environmental damage a century after the introduction of plastic as a revolutionary new material.

Te Arai