Five councils around New Zealand have now stopping taking two thirds of plastic types for recycling as there is nowhere to send them.
Type 3 to 7 plastics cannot be recycled in New Zealand, but many other councils including Auckland and Wellington are still taking them.
At the end of 2017 China banned the import of 24 grades of waste including household plastics and mixed paper. Since then New Zealand has been sending plastic waste to South East Asia, but now Malaysia is also banning imports of non-recyclable plastics.
The Prime Minister's chief science advisor Juliet Gerard has released a report, Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa, which sets out ways to tackle New Zealand’s burgeoning plastic waste problem.
Plastic is categorised into seven groups, she says.
“It’s quite complicated, actually, more complicated than people think.
“They're categorised into seven different groups. Some of those are quite simple like number 1 is PET. It's that clear plastic that you get drink bottles made out of, and they're easy to recycle with. We’re set up to do that in New Zealand.”
The other six all vary and have different chemical properties, she says. Some being easier to recycle than others.
“Number 1 is the simple one, PET. Most of that will be recycled, if it's put into the right bin and if it's clean when it gets there.
“There’s some capacity onshore to recycle number 2, but a lot of it goes overseas - and then it gets hard.
“A tiny bit of number 5, there’s a good market for number 5, but it's hard to sort it from all the contaminants and then it gets harder.
“Number 4 is the soft plastics that you see in supermarkets and that’s been coming and going, and 3 and 6 are particularly difficult.”
It’s a mixed picture as to where these harder to recycle plastics end up, she says.
“Some of them will just go to landfill. Some of them might end up as really low value bundles that are being stockpiled somewhere in the hope that facilities will pop up or an overseas market will take them.
“But as you know China has stopped taking our waste. And Indonesia is purposely trying to restrict that. And Malaysia too. So, we've really need integrated recycling infrastructure on shore in New Zealand.”
Knowing what product is packaged in which plastic is difficult for people to get a handle on, she says.
“One of the things that people don't realise is that something like a bottle top is usually made out of something different to the bottle itself. You might have a shampoo bottle that's made out of number 2, but the lid might be made out of number 5, and they’re really hard to recycle. All lids are to difficult.
“Yogurt bottles are made out of number 5 - that's one of the ones that's been banned from being recycled in Nelson because there's nowhere to put it.
“And things like buckets are made out of number 5. And then if you think more broadly, PVC pipes, things like that if you think in the industrial arena, not just in the domestic arena. They’re number 3, they're going to be really difficult to recycle.”
Her report’s number one recommendation is for a national approach to recycling, she says.
“So that people know what the right thing to do is. And we have some infrastructure to start dealing with some of these plastics onshore.”
Clear labelling to reduce consumer confusion is also necessary, she says.
“We really need clear labelling in a put the blue label in the blue bin, and there are labelling schemes out there that we could adopt - that's one of the things that we are pushing for in our report.”
Meanwhile, she says the best thing consumers can do is use less plastic, and when buying a product check the category number.
“If you do use plastic, and if you've got good eyesight or you've got your glasses on, you can look at the label and make sure that you're using number 1, that's the one that we can recycle onshore. Number 2, there's a market for that, so likely your number 2 will get recycled, and avoid number 3 and 6 in particular.”
She is hoping the Ministry for the Environment will push for more onshore recycling.
"We've made big progress in that PET number 1 can now be recycled.
“We've got more than enough capacity for number 1, it will be great to do number 2 next. So it's a question of investing at a national level in a way that local government can use the facilities and making sure that the local government collection is able to be sorted sufficiently so that the people that are opening the recycling plants have the stream coming in at a suitable scale and that it's clean and not contaminated.”
Unfortunately, recycled plastic is up against cheap, virgin plastic, she says.
“New plastic resin is so cheap so whatever we do to create these recycled materials, we are competing with really cheap, imported plastic resin coming in and you have to find ways to disrupt that market.”
New Zealand currently imports 575,010 tonnes of plastic resin every year, she says.
There are good things already happening in the country which give cause for optimism, Prof Gerrard says.
“There's some really exciting companies out there today using recycled materials. For things like shampoo bottles. [There’s] community action, beach clean-ups, and people not just cleaning up the beach and sending the stuff to landfill, but really systematically recording data so that we know what's washing up, where it’s coming from and making sure it's recycled in the right place.
“There’s lots of solutions out there. There's people inventing new materials, inventing new ways of doing business, so we use less packaging.”
But a national strategy is needed to pull it all together, she says.
“So that we move to a new system in a coherent fashion.”