What happened to recycling in New Zealand?

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ANALYSIS: New Zealand’s recycling goalposts have shifted throughout the year, but we appear to be no closer to victory.

At the start of 2020, mainly in response to China’s decision to stop taking most plastics in 2018, local authorities had varying rules for recycling depending on whether they still had markets for the materials.

Materials were being stockpiled at facilities across New Zealand while companies tried to find other markets to sell waste to, at greatly reduced prices.

It also meant New Zealanders could only recycle plastics 1, 2 and 5, with the rest having to go to landfill.

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Plastic milk bottles and PET drink bottles make up much of our plastic waste. (File photo)

MARTIN DE RUYTER/Stuff

Plastic milk bottles and PET drink bottles make up much of our plastic waste. (File photo)

It threw up confusion around the country as authorities scrambled to educate residents about what material was meant to go in each bin, but at least we could still recycle coloured plastic (with the approved number), paper and cardboard.

But 12 months on, things are even more confused.

We can no longer tell whether an item is recyclable by looking at the packaging, and have to check on an almost daily basis with our local council to make sure it hasn’t changed the rules – just because something should be recyclable does not mean it will be accepted.

Most of us can accept that sorting machines get clogged up with small plastics like milk bottle lids, and we can also put up with rinsing our recyclables before putting them out for collection.

But when councils like Kaikōura – a region long-associated with clean, green waste initiatives – say it is giving upon recycling, it’s actually quite sad.

Auckland Council’s Visy recycling facility has been upgraded, which will allow the region to process 35 per cent of its own plastic.

RYAN ANDERSON/Stuff

Auckland Council’s Visy recycling facility has been upgraded, which will allow the region to process 35 per cent of its own plastic.

The council reviewed its waste services this year, and told residents its preferred option would be to offer “few, if any” recycling services so it could save some money.

Ralph and Ali Hogan moved to the seaside town from Wellington after being wooed by the district’s zero waste goal.

Even they gave up on the recycling dream in 2020, concluding they “cannot recycle our way out of the mess we are in”, and choosing instead to refuse plastics altogether.

Waste educator Lesley Ottey, of Eco Educate, agrees with the Hogans’ approach, and wishes more people would get on board.

“It’s just so simple, it’s not rocket science,” she said.

“Why do we keep buying stuff then complain about the rubbish?”

Eco Educate owner Lesley Ottey teaches environmental education to students across the world. She says we need to do more to reduce the amount of waste and recycling we produce.

Supplied

Eco Educate owner Lesley Ottey teaches environmental education to students across the world. She says we need to do more to reduce the amount of waste and recycling we produce.

Authorities needed to push for tighter controls on product stewardship (where a producer or retailer accepted responsibility for reducing a product’s environmental impact), but individuals also had to take some responsibility, she said.

“If you are creating too much rubbish, look at what you’re buying, reduce, look for reusable options.

“Don’t get creative with recycling, just check what your council can actually process and therefore wants in your bin.”

In November, the Buller District Council announced it would rather not accept paper and cardboard as it was too costly to ship to India for recycling.

With 80 per cent of Buller’s recycling comprising paper and cardboard, the council’s waste coordinator said the change would need to be phased out slowly.

JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF

Recycling or rubbish – what goes in which bins in Greater Christchurch? And what happens to those plastic lids that seem to be recyclable? (Video first published November 2020)

The roll-out of kerbside bins checks has increased costs for Canterbury councils, and has been met with varying degrees of criticism from residents, some of whom even consider it a privacy breach.

But in Christchurch, people’s habits have been starting to improve since bin inspections began at the start of the year.

More than $1.5 million had been spent sending about 1500 truckloads of contaminated recycling (about 40 per cent of all yellow bins) to landfill between May and November.

In November, 74 per cent of recycling truckloads could be recycled, and just 26 per cent to landfill, while figures for the first half of December were above 80 per cent.

The situation across New Zealand raises questions about what price we should put on our environment, and at what price does recycling become prohibitive.

Last year​, then-Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage said China’s rejection of plastics had been a wake-up call for the need to deal with waste at home.

The Government announced earlier this year​ it would invest $124m on waste reduction, including $36.7m to upgrade seven recycling plants from Northland to Canterbury.

High-tech optical sorters would be installed to speed up the sorting process to separate different materials.

Environment Minister David Parker​ said the funding would help New Zealand lift its recycling game.

“There is no consistent or co-ordinated system around the country and this makes it hard for New Zealanders to have confidence about how to recycle.

“We have a way to go to catch up with those countries that do it well, but this [funding] is a good start.’’



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