Speech at launch of Rethinking Plastics Report

  • Hon Eugenie Sage

Thank you Professor Juliet Gerrard and your team for the comprehensive and extremely helpful report and recommendations. Thank you too to all the stakeholders and interested parties who have contributed ideas and thinking to it.

“Making best practice, standard practice” is a great framework for change and the action plan in the report will help achieve the systems change that is needed.

Like the Prime Minister I also receive a lot of correspondence on plastics.

Recently a group has turned to sending plastic rubbish to MPs to highlight the need for more and faster action on plastics. We’ve received so enough envelopes of plastic that the creative staff in my office team decided to upcycle them and make them into a Christmas tree with a strong waste-free message; so no tinsel in our office.

As the Prime Minister has highlighted, kids get it.  Recently, I received a letter from nine-year-old Hugh in Te Puke which resonated and highlights why this work is so important. Here’s what Hugh said:

... I am worried about all the rubbish on our wonderful planet. I am worried that all the animals both on land and sea and birds that fly are dying because there is a lot of plastic around where they live and they think it is food and eat it. When they eat the plastic it can cause them to choke and die, or get very sick.

 I do not want to see all animals die. Our family loves animals and except for pests we want to be able to enjoy animals.

… One weekend when I went to the beach to collect driftwood we saw a lot of rubbish on the beach. I picked up the rubbish and took it home.

The beach and the ocean are not places for rubbish.”

Hugh is right. There is too much plastic in our streams and oceans, washing up on our beaches, and lasting for decades in landfills when it may have been used once, for mere minutes.

It is letters like Hugh’s and the vivid images of plastic and other rubbish spread over kilometres of riverbed and coast after floodwaters eroded the closed Fox River landfill earlier this year that confirm there is no magic place called “away” for rubbish when we put things in the bin.   

It’s an issue that past governments neglected for far too long. In the two years since we’ve been in Government, we’ve been getting to work tackling New Zealand’s mounting waste problem.

We’ve already banned single-use plastic shopping bags and microbeads and today’s announcement reaffirms and extends our ambitious plan to reduce waste to landfill. That plan includes:

  • Designing a container return scheme for beverage bottles and cans. This will increase the recovery of drink bottles and cans so that the materials they are made of, such as aluminium and plastic can be re-cycled, reducing litter and waste.
  • It includes regulated product stewardship schemes for products such as e-waste, tyres and batteries to designing waste out of the system from the get-go and ensure these products are dealt with appropriately at the end of their life, materials recovered and reprocessed rather than ending up at the landfill.
  • A National Resource Recovery work programme is underway in response to China and other countries’ bans on importing waste and recyclables. 
  • The plan includes improving waste data so we have a better picture of where waste is coming from and where it’s going. Sustainable Coastlines has been doing great work here, enabling those involved in beach clean-ups to contribute statistically robust information on litter pollution on beaches.
  • A major initiative is expanding and improving the landfill levy to help fund more facilities here in Aotearoa and more ways to recover, re-use and reprocess materials including construction and demolition materials, glass and cardboard and paper; creating jobs in the process.
  • And there the $40 million Provincial Growth Fund investment to turn plastic and other waste into useful material for businesses and consumers.

A lot of plastic waste doesn’t need to be created in the first place. And signalling moving away from the hard to recycle materials drives innovation.

Our goal must be to make Aotearoa an economy where plastic rarely becomes waste or pollution. As Prof. Gerrard says there is no silver bullet and we need a systems change. The recommendations in this report and the information behind them will help us to achieve this.

As the Prime Minister has said, as a government we’re taking on board the recommendations in Professor Gerrard’s report to build on our ambitious plan by:

  • Setting goals to shift away from low-value and hard-to-recycle plastic.
  • Our first target will be to move away from single-use packaging and beverage containers made of hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene. Examples include polystyrene meat trays, styrofoam cups and takeaway food containers. We will work towards ensuring that these are made of high-value alternatives like PET, HDPE and polypropylene, which can be recycled and reprocessed.
  • We will phase out some single-use plastic items such as plastic cutlery, cotton buds, fruit stickers and plastic stirrers – replacing them with sustainable alternatives.
  • We will stimulate innovation and development of solutions to the soft plastic problem.
  • We will accelerate work underway with local government and industry to achieve a more integrated and consistent kerbside collection of recyclables and more reprocessing infrastructure.
  • With industry, we will continue work to develop a labelling scheme for packaging, including plastic packaging

Today’s announcement is about signalling the direction we’re heading in response to Prof Gerrard’s Rethinking Plastics report.  I have asked the energetic and hard-working team in the Ministry for the Environment to prepare a full and considered government response to the report with a view to having that plan decided by Cabinet within six months.

Now I know some people may want more action faster and wonder why we can’t just ban problem plastics overnight. But what I’ve found in this job is that by signalling our direction of travel, innovative businesses will often take action while the regulations catch up.

We saw that with plastic shopping bags where New Zealanders responded by taking their own re-useable bags and supermarkets phased them out before the ban coming into force.

And one of the pleasures of my job is getting to visit innovative businesses and community groups around the country who are already designing the solutions we need.

For example, Flight Plastics in Lower Hutt has been making food packaging from recycled plastic PET bottles for a number of years thanks to the assistance from the landfill levy revenue via the waste minimisation fund.

And a company here in Auckland, Alto Packaging (Pact Group) are already making cleverly designed trays for meat made of recyclable PET to help rid supermarkets of expanded polystyrene meat trays and the plastic liner.  As litter and waste polystyrene breaks into pieces - it’s some of the worst material to end up in the ocean as marine life mistake the pieces for food.

Many solutions already exist and as we set our minds as a country to solving what remains we’ll stimulate innovation, create well-paid jobs, and be able to export that kiwi ingenuity to the world.