NZ now leads the world in understanding plastic recycling habits

A world-first research project shows that New Zealand households dispose of 1.76 billion plastic containers in their kerbside recycling and rubbish bins each year.

This surpasses the combined annual number of containers, collected in kerbside rubbish and recycling bins, which are made from metal (767 million per annum) and glass (854 million per annum).

These numbers are significant – especially when it is estimated that of the 1.76 billion plastic containers 39 per cent end up in landfill. This is not all due to consumer behaviour, however. Packaging design plays a large part in determining the recyclability of a package. Findings from WasteMINZ’ audit of 867 New Zealand households show that there are real opportunities for packaging designers and manufacturers to make changes that would greatly enhance the amount of materials currently recovered for recycling nationwide.

A chance to turn the tide

 

The majority of plastic bottles in New Zealand are made from highly recyclable plastics 1 and 2, which can be turned back into new plastic bottles or other plastic items. Despite this, 36 of the 188 single-use plastic bottles that the average New Zealand household disposes of each year go straight to landfill rather than being recycled, simply because they are put in the wrong bin.

Even more plastic bottles are placed in public place litter bins when people are out and about. When they’re not put in bins, single-use plastic bottles become a common item found littering our environment – and litter doesn’t generally end up being recycled. Recently, a young albatross was found dead on a NZ beach with an intact plastic bottle inside.  There’s an opportunity to turn the tide on the staggering 67.6 million single use bottles that currently head straight to landfill each year around Aotearoa.

Opportunity:  Product manufacturers can be part of the solution by taking action and rethinking the packaging designs and materials used for their products, making it easier for Kiwis to recycle correctly and optimising the recovery of valuable recyclable plastic materials.

Not all plastics are created equal

 

Plastics 1 and 2 are the most common plastics used for grocery packaging, which is good news.  These plastics are very recyclable with high market values and can be recycled both in New Zealand and offshore. Plastic drink bottles can be recycled back into plastic drink bottles over and over again.

When it comes to plastics 3-7 the story is not quite so positive. Not all councils accept them, generally because there is low demand for them in international commodity markets and they therefore have a very low market value. The problem is compounded by the New Zealand’s distance from overseas markets and the low tonnage of packaging made up of these plastics. In smaller towns and cities, this has led to a situation where it has become financially and logistically unviable to separate plastics 3-7 out for recycling. Some materials recovery facilities still sell plastics 3 to 7 in mixed plastic bales, but demand for these bales has fallen significantly since China and other countries have restricted the types of plastic they are prepared to accept for recycling. 

The exception to this is plastic 5, often used for ice cream and other chilled goods. It is now able to be recycled in New Zealand, if councils have the means to separate it out.

Opportunity: Where possible make the switch to plastics 1, 2 and 5 so that your packaging can be recycled onshore in Aotearoa.

Unidentified plastic objects

The WasteMINZ audits show that an estimated 181 million containers do not have an easily identifiable plastic identification code on them.

In the absence of a national recycling label standard for consumers, plastic identification codes can help householders to determine which plastic bottles and containers they can put in their kerbside recycling. All New Zealand councils accept plastic 1 and all except the Chatham Islands accept plastic 2, but other plastic types (3 to7) are accepted in only some council kerbside collections (see below for the reason for this).

The minimum level of labelling required for sorting recycling is clearly visible plastic identification codes. Many businesses are now going further and implementing recycling labels such the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) which enables householders to easily identify which type of plastic can go in their recycling bin and which in their refuse bin. These types of labels provide detail on the recyclability of a bottle and its other component parts, such as the lid. This results in reduced contamination of recyclable materials and increased recovery levels for recyclable materials.

It is important that any recycling labels are evidence-based and take into account how many householders are able to put the packaging material used in their household recycling bin. For example, under the ARL packaging 

made from plastic 1 would be labelled “Recyclable” in New Zealand since all councils accept it, whereas a container made from plastic 3 would be labelled “Conditionally Recyclable”, meaning consumers need to check whether their council accepts it.

Opportunity: To give your packaging a better chance at being recycled ensure there is a visible plastic identification code as a minimum but look to include a recycling label such as the ARL.

Innovative new packaging design solutions are needed

Coloured plastics and shrink-wrapped sleeves, while making products stand out at point of sale, lessen the likelihood of plastics being recycled and can reduce the amount of times they can be recycled. Each year, New Zealand households dispose of approximately 258 million plastic 1 and 2 containers made from coloured plastic.  There are two problems with coloured plastic. Firstly, the darker the colour, the more problematic it is for the materials sorting facility. Secondly, when coloured plastics are recycled, the plastic pellets created are typically grey-coloured, which limits the range of materials it can be turned into.  An industry shift away from coloured plastics would greatly enhance the recyclability of plastics.

Shrink-wrapped plastic sleeves disguise the underlying plastic material and make it difficult for both optical and manual sorters, used at the material recovery facilities to determine the type of plastic which lies underneath. Some shrink-wrapped bottles have a zip-type perforation strip on the sleeve and instructions to remove the label before recycling. However, around 25 million of these bottles are put in recycling bins still wearing their shrink-wrapped sleeves; they will end up either being bundled in a lower-value mixed plastic bale (with an offshore market) or going to landfill if a council has no market for mixed plastics.

Opportunity: Work with packaging and design experts to make your product stand out in a way that doesn’t compromise the recycling potential of its packaging.

Conclusion:

This research has signalled clearly the pathway for change, both in consumer habits and the opportunities for businesses to redesign their packaging to improve its recyclability. New Zealand is the first country in the world to have such an in-depth understanding of its kerbside recycling of plastic; together let’s make our country the first to change those numbers for the better.

Click here for more details on The Truth about Plastic Recycling