No time to waste

By Ron Murray

These are incredibly interesting - not to say challenging and worrying - times for anyone who cares about what we do with all our rubbish. The poor old plastic bag, such a convenient and useful device for carrying and wrapping almost anything for many decades, is now the villain.   An out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality meant most of us didn't lose much sleep over our use of single-use plastic wrapping - out it went with the rest of the trash.

Everything has changed.  A seismic jolt came when China, for so long the dutiful recipient of mountains of the world's supposedly recyclable waste, said "no more." And the lid was well and truly lifted on the trillions of tonnes of plastic swilling around the world's oceans by authoritative observers and chroniclers of the globe's plastics plight like National Geographic.

The continents of plastic debris swilling around the Pacific and elsewhere beggar belief. And a steady flow of stories about the damage being done to marine life by this pernicious flotsam continues to pervade the media.

Our plastics party has reached a tipping point - more than 8 million tonnes slip into the ocean a year - and it's hangover time.  Time to sober up.

On land in this country, there are elements of a response to the problem created by huge amounts of single-use plastic. A lot of solemn words and promises and a few actual initiatives such as the move by supermarkets to remove the bags used for groceries from the checkout aisles.  But the shelves still showcase a myriad items whose plastic wrapping has to go somewhere - and that's generally landfill via the family wheelie bin.

There are some admirable attempts to create packaging which can be recycled or composted, but the originators of this are substantially ahead of the game.  Facilities to receive that compostable coffee cup lid and fulfil the promise are generally non-existent or not close at hand - by default, it ends up in a bin-to-landfill, or erroneously into a recycling channel, polluting it.

The level of recycling taking place across the country still looks patchy.  Pockets of great work do exist, however, and the hard work of Wayne Grieve and the team at Croxley Recycling in Auckland bears a look at.  Recycling an entire outdated printer has to be a challenge; Wayne's team disassembles each printer, minces up the metal and plastic components and sells those bits and the circuit boards to buyers here and overseas to recycle.  Croxley's operation is Environmental Choice New Zealand licensed for end-of-life disposal of such equipment (and toner cartridges too), while the printer suppliers - Ricoh, Canon and Brother - fulfil their end-of-life obligations for disposal of the kit, also under their ECNZ licence.  An admirable solution.

Another operation flying the recycling flag vigorously and well is Hawkes' Bay-based 3R Group which helps businesses and their customers responsibly dispose of used products and packaging. 3R has developed a number of excellent product stewardship schemes like the Paintwise programme enabling consumers to return old paint tins and buckets (empty or not) to Resene stores (Dulux has a similar scheme). They've also been beavering away for some time to find a disposal solution for the mountains of used tyres accumulating around New Zealand, among a host of other admirable initiatives.

Theirs isn't a simple nag to recycle, but a fresher approach which is around Reimagining (looking for a creative approach to product disposal) and applying the solution with Rigour, to get Results (hence the 3Rs).

But there is still enormous work to be done to arrive at a national waste management platform - and national consciousness - for the right and best way to deal with our plastics (and not just the single-use bags). It's certainly not an overnight fix.  Small steps are better than no steps at all, but it would be great to see some high-level vision for how we will get to a situation where we as consumers have viable recycling and composting solutions readily and conveniently available.  And more of a movement among manufacturers to ease into more sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging solutions.

With the Green Party having one (relatively) firm hand on the wheel of Government, we'd look for that vision from Wellington. But we should all be urging change, and doing our individual best to make changes in our homes and workplaces.

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