In light of increasing public concern over the harmful effects of plastic pollution, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard, is presenting the Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report to the Prime Minister on Sunday 8th December.
The report highlights that New Zealand is in a position to rethink how we use plastics, but the evidence base to guide this change in a system-wide way was lacking, and so has collected the evidence in a comprehensive report and website (https://www.pmcsa.ac.nz/our-projects/plastics/).
“We convened a panel of experts from within and beyond academia earlier in the year and set out with a bold and broad scope – to find ways to reduce the size of the plastic shadow that is cast by modern life. Plastic is everywhere and tackling the problem of plastic waste needs a systems change, a collection of adjustments – some large, some small – across all aspects of society,” Juliet said.
The long, detailed piece of work can actually be summed up quite simply, says Juliet. “Most of our recommendations can be captured in a single phrase ‘make best practice, standard practice’.”
The project, led by Dr Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke from the Office of the PMCSA, involved wide consultation and analysis of evidence and innovations from here and overseas to chart a pathway forward for plastic in New Zealand.
“An issue met early on was the need for a clear strategy to guide the use and disposal of plastic in Aotearoa. But there’s also an urgent need for action, so our overarching recommendation is to implement a National Plastics Action Plan. We have recommended a basis for this plan in our report and hope it can be built on and continue to grow and guide this systems change,” Rachel says.
The panel determined that an evidence-based plan would help guide the many groups, such as businesses, sectors, community groups and councils, who are looking to use plastics more sustainably or shift away from plastic altogether.
“There are many great innovations and ideas already out there that can help mitigate the harms related to plastic while retaining its many benefits. Some are innovative new business models that help reusing materials become the new norm. Others are simple ideas such as an easy-to-understand labelling system so people know whether a product can be recycled. And then there are all of the new materials and new recycling technologies that are here or on the horizon. These need to be adopted, localised and scaled,” Juliet says.
“Everything we use has an impact on our environment, so we don’t want to just go out and replace plastics with a different material that may result in worse outcomes. That being said, the growing body of evidence related to plastics in the environment makes the case for changes to certain products. That might mean shifting away from plastics for certain applications or it might mean redesigning a plastic product so that, for example, a lid can no longer detach and end up in the ocean. It will depend on the product and application,” Juliet says.
Further research is required to better understand the impacts of plastic on the environment and health, and there is a lack of data on plastic in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“We need better data on plastic and further research is needed on the impacts of plastics, particularly microplastics and even smaller particles called nanoplastics. There is a lot we don’t know, but what we do know so far highlights the need to develop better systems to prevent plastic from entering our environment,” Rachel says.
Key recommendations from Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand:
- Implement a National Plastics Action Plan
An overarching recommendation to guide Aotearoa New Zealand’s transition to a circular economy for plastics.
- Improve plastics data collection
A series of recommendations to fill known knowledge gaps and develop measures to coordinate and standardise data collection on plastics to guide decision-making.
- Embed rethinking plastics in the government agenda
A series of recommendations that address opportunities for government to demonstrate best practice, ensure efforts to mitigate issues related to plastics are enduring, and collaborate internationally on these issues.
- Create and enable consistency in design, use and disposal
A series of recommendations to keep plastics in circulation through improved recycling systems and sector-specific approaches to rethinking plastics.
- Innovate and amplify
A series of recommendations related to research and innovation for plastics.
- Mitigate environmental and health impacts of plastics
A series of recommendations to fill knowledge gaps and support ongoing research on the impacts of plastics.
What’s covered in Rethinking Plastics?
- Motivation for rethinking plastics:
The current state of play for plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand, highlighting key work that we build upon, and describing the guiding frameworks for the Rethinking Plastics project.
- Changing our relationship with plastics:
Evidence and examples of ways that we can change our relationship with plastics, presented as possible actions that central government, local government, sectors, businesses, communities, the education system and individuals can take, as part of a global community.
- Ideas for a more sustainable future – embracing innovation:
Innovative ideas that can help us shift to a more sustainable use of plastics. These are framed as actions that align to the 6Rs – rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and replace – plus options for disposal as we move towards zero plastic waste.
- Plastics and the environment – life-cycle assessment and beyond:
Demonstrating the importance of thinking about the environmental impacts of a product through its whole life cycle – not just disposal – and a summary of the growing body of evidence around the environmental impacts of plastic and what this means for Aotearoa New Zealand.
- To what extent can we quantify Aotearoa’s plastic? New Zealand’s data challenge:
Drawing on publicly accessible data, we attempt to quantify plastic flows through Aotearoa New Zealand, highlighting knowledge gaps and what data are needed to inform plastics action across the country.
Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor
Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia, has a broad role centred around advising the Prime Minister on how science in its very broadest sense can inform good decision making in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Juliet has a vision for the role around four principles: rigorous, inclusive, transparent and accessible. She aims to create a trusted bridge between science, society and government.
Report available here:
At a glance