In this article, we take a deep dive into the issues around single-use plastic packaging. What are the main culprits, and how are consumers and businesses responding?
72% of New Zealanders are concerned about the build-up of plastic in the environment. (Source: Colmar Brunton)
The top five culprits on our coastlines include: plastics of an unknown origin, food wrappers and containers, caps and lids, plastic bags and other single-use plastic products. (Source: Sustainable Coastlines)
It will be interesting to see how quickly the New Zealand Plastic Bag Ban impacts on these figures – with plastic bags currently making up 8.2% of our marine pollution.
There is a growing discomfort associated with buying products in plastic packaging as research reveals deeper and deeper levels of plastic pollution in the environment and in our food chain.
You don’t need to go far to see media coverage of graphic posts showing bird and sea life dying from consuming this ever-growing sea of plastic items, which break down into small pieces in our environment, entangling and choking wildlife.
Both consumers and businesses are responding – albeit slowly. For
Auckland University of Technology senior lecturer of marketing Sommer Kapitan says things are coming to a head with the same “moral disgust” appearing that changed how we regarded smoking, now happening with plastic.
Earlier this week I took my own container for lunch at Hello Mister, who do delicious Vietnamese street food [try the tofu Aunty Bun for a low carbon lunch option]. Their always smiling staff will happily fill up your reusable container. But I noted I was the only person with a reusable container in a large queue and the pile of cardboard bowls and plastic lids others were getting were stacked above the kitchen area almost to the ceiling. Our throw away culture for takeaway food remains dominant in spite of our growing concern.
New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration
A New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration launched last year saw 12 international and several local businesses commit to using 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their New Zealand operations by 2025 or earlier. The commitment is voluntary and there has not been a significant uptake by other New Zealand businesses. The declaration is a little light on substance with no clear definitions provided on just what constitutes recyclable or compostable in New Zealand. When I contacted the Ministry for the Environment asking for these definitions I was advised that there were none.
Signatories include multinationals Amcor, Danone, L’Oréal, Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Nestlé who reiterated commitments they had already made as participants in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global New Plastics Economy initiative. These are significant players though and an essential part of solving these issues. Coca-Cola revealed for the first time last month that it uses three million tonnes of plastic packaging in one year.
Only a depressing 9% of the more than 400 million tons of plastic waste produced globally each year is recycled. Leaving much of that not still not in use, languishing in our landfills or escaping into our environment.
Hope is emerging though. The Plastic Packaging Declaration has been followed with the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment Spring 2019 Report launched in March which sees businesses committing to some more substantial measures. Highlights include:
- Consumer goods companies and retailers committing to increase recycled content in their packaging to an average of 25% by 2025, compared with the current global average of just 2%.
- Leading businesses and governments ending the use of problematic and unnecessary plastic – including PVC and single-use plastic straws and carrier bags – many of them by the end of 2019 and
- 40 brands and retailers piloting or expanding reuse and refill schemes.
Earlier this year another group of global heavy hitters announced that they would be trialling refillable containers. Think Haagen Daz ice cream in a metal container. The project is called Loop and will be rolled out in New York and Paris in May this year and Toronto, Tokyo and San Francisco in 2020. Could this be signalling a return to the days of the glass milk bottle? It is in London where more millennials are ordering glass milk bottles, something one milkman is putting down to David Attenboruogh’s Blue Planet II. Closer to home Again Again have successfully piloted a returnable stainless steel coffee cup system in Wellington cafes with an Auckland pilot to follow.
Mixed Plastic Recycling Still in Crisis
With the Chinese ban on plastic recycling, prices for mixed grade plastics (3-7) have plummeted forcing many in the recycling sector to rethink collecting these. This week Hasting District Council announced that it had made a decision to change the types of plastics collected for recycling in Hastings.
From May 1 2019 the only plastics that will be collected within the Hastings district will be bottles stamped with the number 1 or 2 – with lids off, washed and squashed. Leaving any other plastic packaging consumed there on a one way trip to the landfill.
Hutt City, Gisborne, Horowhenua and Far North District Councils are also among the other councils that have also made this decision.
What do those little numbers stand for?
The plastics identification code indicates the type of plastic material used for the product or packaging. The two materials most commonly used are PET (1) and HDPE (2). These are higher in volume and gain much higher prices in a shrinking international market for recycled plastics. PET and HDPE packaging is mainly made up of milk, soft drink, water and laundry, kitchen and bathroom cleaning product bottles.
Accepted by most Councils:
- 1 – PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) – soft drink, water and juice bottles
- 2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) – Milk bottles, juice containers, shampoo and cleaning product bottles
Many Councils still collect 3-7 grades – but only rigid packaging and PS (6) is often excluded:
- 3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) – biscuit trays, clear food wraps and packaging, blister packs
- 4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) – bread and produce bags, other soft plastics
- 5 – PP (Polypropylene) – containers for yoghurt, soft cheese, deli foods and take away meals
- 6 – PS (Polystyrene) – disposable styrofoam cups and plates, some meat trays and take away containers
- 7 – Other – other plastics or combined materials such as Tetra Pak and milk cartons, foil packaging.
The codes do not indicate recyclability – with variable access to this across New Zealand. Some Councils accept types 1&2 while the majority will still take 1-7.
Many thermoformed containers, like sushi boxes and sandwich packs can be PET (1) but are often also PVC (3) – recyclable in some areas, not in others. Ideally products of a similar nature would all use the same material, and one of greater value. Something price competitive businesses have been reluctant to do. Consistency creates volume, good market access and viable recycling streams. Greater variation erodes this.
Rigid compostable plastic packaging has added a further stream of potential recycling contamination that can be hard to avoid. Compostable plastic shopping bags have been included in the New Zealand ban as research has shown their impacts on wildlife are also significant when littered.
In the end it comes down to cold hard economics. Recycled PET (1) and HDPE (2) will make about $350 a tonne on the recycled commodity market versus only $50 a tonne for mixed grade plastics (3-7). Making the mixed grade collections hard to maintain and the continued use of plastics (3-7) as the rigid packaging materials of choice harder to justify.
Back in Hastings District
In Hastings District there is a four-week phase-in period to allow time for the message to be spread. Not long enough for businesses to switch their material choice but perhaps the writing is on the wall for products still using plastics 3-7 as their material of choice for rigid packaging solutions. There needs to be either an investment in recycling solutions for these materials or a switch to those that are more viable.
Packaging Guidelines Needed
I’ve spent time this month auditing packaging sustainability for one of New Zealand’s largest retailers. Packaging performance for some products is critical – preventing damage in transport and guaranteeing a longer shelf life significantly reduces the amount of product waste we generate. For other products it is just unnecessary. Packaging design, material selection, identification and end of life instructions form an important part of sustainable packaging design. Getting this right when you deal with both New Zealand and international suppliers can be challenging. Creating sustainable packaging guidelines and specifications to adopt across supply chains seems to be the ideal solution. Having approved national and international guidelines for these would be even better. Reaching global agreement on the nature of these will be incredibly challenging but is necessary to overcome the environmental challenges of plastic pollution.
Top Plastic Packaging Mistakes
Across our New Zealand retailers shelves the top packaging mistakes I’m consistently seeing are:
- Material choices which don’t reflect New Zealand’s viable recycling streams
- Compostable packaging used in locations without access to a viable commercial composting service
- Brands switching from one single use product to another with little or no obvious environmental gain when there are reusable options that could be considered
- Brands choosing to stick with lower value plastic materials (3-7)
- Complex multilayer materials
- Designers continuing to combine incompatible materials in one package
- No information on materials
- No or confusing information on end of life options and
- My pet hate – packaging that is nearly impossible to open safely
Ensuring that businesses adopt sustainable packaging guidelines that avoid these pitfalls, will support greater levels of recycling in New Zealand and improve the commercially viability for local authorities and recyclers.
Contact Carolyn Cox for advice on sustainable packaging options for your business [email protected]