Eliminating plastic waste “doable but difficult” says Scion report

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Scion recently released a report on how New Zealand might reach the objective of zero plastic waste.

“It’s doable, but difficult, and will require aligned efforts by science, industry, government and the public,” says Marc Gaugler report author and leader of Scion’s Distributed and Circular Manufacturing portfolio.

“Our research shows there is already extremely high commitment by industry, but they need support from central and local government in the form of clear and coordinated policy, regulation, incentives, and much better nationwide recycling systems. Consumers will have to do their bit. Without their demand and participation, it cannot succeed.

“We must also make sure that the strategy fits with other initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and pollution.”

The focus of the report is on re-using and recycling the plastics we mostly use now and stopping them from escaping into the environment. It comes as the Ministry for the Environment is seeking views on proposals to significantly transform recycling in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The report’s authors worked with industry partners to identify the challenges, barriers and opportunities to understand how global plastic supply chains are part of New Zealand’s transition to a new plastics economy.

Scion’s report follows the 2019 report on the New Zealand plastics problem by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, which lamented the lack of data on which to base a strategy.

She says, “It’s great to see this report aiming to fill some of the information gaps we identified in ‘Rethinking Plastics’ using a very practical, evidence-based approach.”

Earlier in March, the United Nations passed a landmark agreement to stop plastic pollution, and the New Zealand government announced a consultation process on separating household and commercial food waste, standardising recycling collection across the country, and a drink container return scheme.

“Plastic is an incredibly important material that, though carbon emission-intensive to produce, allows all sorts of efficiency gains,” Gaugler says.

“For example, plastics mean lighter planes and cars, requiring less fuel to run, and affordable, vital healthcare products. Recycling a metric tonne of plastic packaging into new products conserves almost 1.4 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions.

“Furthermore,” says Gaugler, “plastics are deeply embedded in so many industrial processes, we simply could not do without them. We have to turn the public away from the overly simplistic idea of elimination, and channel their goodwill into sensible reduction and re-use, conscientious recycling, and replacement where that is possible, without compromising food safety and protection, for example.

“ There’s a lot of education that has to happen, but we have a New Zealand public willing to learn and keen to do the right thing.”

Scion’s work on New Zealand’s New Plastic Economy was funded by the Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund. Scion is working on a number of projects to replace fossil fuel-based plastics, chemicals and other products with wood, bark and other plant materials.

The Scion report, titled Making zero the hero was launched at a webinar on Wednesday 23 March.

A summary of the report is available here – Making Zero The Hero Summary Report

The full version of the report will be available on Scion’s website.

Related: Scion celebrates 75 years of forest science impact

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