New Zealand against plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is a significant threat to our environment. This worldwide issue is so big that we don't even know the exact amount of plastic contaminating our natural environment. We are destroying nature, our oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, mountains, forests, meadows; we can find plastic and trash everywhere. Over time, plastic in the environment will decay because of the water, wind, and the sun's impacts. It usually results in chemicals leaking into the atmosphere and breaking the plastic into smaller and smaller particles. Plastic has long ago entered our food chain in the form of microplastics.

The sad truth is, we, the New Zealanders are responsible for a big part of this issue. Abroad, we have a reputation of a clean and green country. Still, it is only accurate when talking about the green colors of nature in our beautiful country. According to the minister of the environment David Parker, we discard approximately 160 grams of plastic waste per person per day, making us some of the highest waste generators in the world! (1)

We have made substantial environmental commitments in fossil fuel use and emissions. New Zealand is one of the few countries that put its 2050 zero net emissions goal into law (Zero Carbon Act). However, according to Climate Action Tracker (2), short-term policies will not be enough to ensure we reach the goal. We also need to commit to decreasing the waste generation rate to become a genuinely green country.

In 2019, we embarked on this journey by putting a plastic bag ban in place. Plastic bags are light and are the easiest to end up in freshwater and marine environments, converting to hazard for the wildlife. These bags were omnipresent because of the retail practices of offering them free of charge with any purchase. This practice has encouraged general linear resource thinking and behavior and a so-called "throw-away culture."

This law has already banned most plastic bags. The government forbade any plastic bag less than 70 microns in thickness that was new or unused, had handles, served for carrying sold products. Even if they were made of bio-based materials like starch. This prohibition meant more than one billion plastic bags less.

Just like that, everyone (consumers and retailers) had to switch to quality reusable bags, like the bags we provide. You can repeatedly use our thick and sturdy bags, and there is no reason for them to end up in landfills or nature. Our recyclable and compostable bags both exceed the 70-micron requirement for the bag thickness. Moreover, the compostable bags are suitable for both commercial and home composting. The bags should decompose in 90-180 days, depending on the composting environment.

Now, New Zealand is banning most hard-to-recycle and single-use items. Most prohibited items are made of plastic, such as cutlery, bags, cotton buds, drinking straws, produce packaging. Others are made of polystyrene, such as takeaway containers. New Zealand will be phasing them out in three stages starting later this year. By mid-2025, we should completely implement the program. This policy should remove more than two billion single-use plastic items each year. Before implementing the program, the government consulted the public and received more than 8000 replies. Most citizens, environmental and community groups, and affected businesses supported the proposals. The Ministry for the Environment must draft specific and detailed regulations for the Waste Minimisation Act of 2022.

As expected, there was some pushback from the industry. They claim that the ban "will have negative environmental consequences because plastic is a lightweight material with a lower carbon footprint than alternatives like glass, paper, and metal (3)." These claims don't consider amounting volumes of plastic in the environment, evidence of plastic pollution's negative environmental and health impacts, and the part plastics play in the global climate crisis.

To balance the public pressure for swift action and the difficulty of preparing for such a change, the government came up with a 3 phase plan. The easier to substitute items will be banned sooner than those that are more challenging to replace.

The timeline for the phase-out is as follows (4):

Late 2022:

  • PVC meat trays
  • Polystyrene takeaway packaging
  • EPS grocery packaging
  • Degradable plastic products
  • Plastic drink stirrers
  • Plastic-stemmed cotton buds

Mid 2023:

  • Single-use plastic produce bags
  • Plastic tableware
  • Plastic straws
  • Non-compostable produce labels

Mid 2025:

  • All other PVC and polystyrene food and beverage packaging

Some critics are unhappy that the ban left coffee cups and wet wipes out. The government argues that it is because of the lack of suitable alternatives at this point. They promise to discuss and include these items soon. Terri-Ann Berry, the director of Environmental Solutions Research Centre at Unitec, pointed out one critical weakness of the law. It is mainly focused on consumer behavior and consumer goods. It left out all the industrial plastic waste. At the same time, debris from construction and demolition accounts for almost 50 percent of the waste sent to landfills in New Zealand every year.

As it is not as easy as just banning these items, the government will establish a $50 million Plastics Innovation Fund to help find alternatives. This will help innovate in any phase of the product's lifecycle, from production to disposal. The researchers should focus on finding ways to use less plastic, designing out the waste from the whole lifecycle, including packaging. The beneficiaries of the funding should develop new recycling solutions and promote reusables. The added benefit is that the fund will boost jobs and support economic recovery.

We hope to see positive results of this phase-out soon. Minimizing our waste will help New Zealand transition from a linear economy to a more sustainable circular economy. Let's contribute to preserving the Earth for future generations!