If recycling is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question

Recycling is a basic foundation of our clean green brand, which so many of our businesses depend on.  If we stopped recycling in New Zealand, you can bet that within a week our “clean green” brand would be exposed as a sham. What’s more, each New Zealander would be throwing out 286 kg of packaging waste and paper every year.

All good reasons to recycle, but as our boss Sue Coutts at Wanaka Wastebusters is fond of saying, “if recycling is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.”  That might sound a bit weird, coming from the head of a community enterprise set up to do the recycling in Wanaka, but it sums up the limitations of recycling. Yes, recycling is worth doing. But it takes a lot of resources to collect recycling, clean it, sort it, transport it (often across the world) to a reprocessor, melt it down or pulp it and make it into a new product.

What could be better than recycling? Let’s get back to basics with the waste hierarchy  – reduce, reuse, recycle. Why does reduce come first? Well, right away you’re saving resources. Most of our recycling is packaging, plus office paper and newsprint. When it comes to packaging, the best thing for the environment is to use the least amount of packaging to do the job.

Why do we need packaging at all? If the product spoils (whether it’s food or a computer), then it’s thrown out and becomes waste. Smart packaging prevents waste, but often too much packaging is used. Even if the unnecessary packaging can be recycled, it would be better for the environment not to use it. How much packaging is enough is like asking how long is a piece of string. It depends on the product, its composition, expected shelf life, transport requirements and many more variables. Each company has to make its own assessments and trade-offs.

Reuse comes next in the waste hierarchy. It’s pretty much impossible to sell a coffee without a cup. But a cup that’s reused will create a lot less waste than a cup which is used once and thrown out. In New Zealand, we use 100 million disposable coffee cups a year.  100 million crushed cups would build a tower as high as the Sky Tower. A reusable cup like the Ideal Cup or the Keep Cup will save a lot of resources being wasted.

Throwing packaging into landfill is harmful not only because it puts rubbish into the ground, but also because we are throwing away resources which could be recovered. That’s where recycling comes in.  It’s like the workhorse of the waste hierarchy, it turns up week after week to reclaim the resources back into the system. We’re also seeing more and more packaging (especially food and coffee packaging) which can be composted.

Wanaka Wastebusters has been doing recycling  in Wanaka for 10 years, and the most obvious thing to us is that quality recycling is about keeping the products clean and separated ie clean stream recycling. If materials are broken and crushed into each other, then it is very hard to separate them back out into different materials, no matter what technology is used. The cleaner the stream, the easier it is to recover high quality materials. Breaking glass and squashing the fragments into cardboard or paper is bad. Separating clean recycling into separate streams (including different grades of plastic) is good.

Lots of the packaging on our shelves is ridiculously over-packaged and non-recyclable. In many cases, no-one has ever thought about what will happen to it once it leaves the shelf. That’s why we set up the Unpackit Packaging Awards, to move back up the supply chain and improve the packaging before it gets to us. By finding the Best and Worst packaging in New Zealand, we encourage companies to do better, and give some public recognition to the companies who are doing it well.

If you haven’t already voted in this year’s Awards, it would really help us out if you could vote for your pick of this year’s eight “best” and “worst” finalists. We’re aiming for 10,000 votes this year, so like us on Facebook and tell your friends too!

The Unpackit team will also be running Smartpackaging business workshops in May. If you have a business and are keen to add value to your brand and protect NZ’s clean green reputation, then come to a Smartpackaging business workshop in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. Dates up soon on www.smartpackaging.org.nz

So what happens to your recycling once it gets picked up from outside your place? It’s not easy to find out, even if you work in the industry and most recyclers seem to be reluctant to talk about it. The Unpackit team is releasing a report in mid-May on recycling and packaging waste (come back to our website then). Here’s some of what we found out:

Glass:  – 66% of glass used in NZ is recycled. Some is recycled back into new bottles, that’s an onshore closed loop recycling system – thumbs up!  To be recycled back into bottles, glass is ideally collected in a gentle way (ie not compacted in a truck, which means being broken and squashed into other materials like cardboard) and sorted into three colours, then sent to the O-I factory in Auckland. Glass which is collected in a co-mingled (all recycling put out together) system and then compacted is not suitable for bottle-to-bottle recycling. The rest is combined with gravel and put into roads – down-cycling but better than going to landfill.

Aluminium – 48% of aluminium used in NZ is recycled. Aluminium can easily be recycled back into cans or new aluminium products, although all of NZ’s aluminium is shipped offshore for recycling so it’s hard to know exactly what it will be made into. Making a can from recycled aluminium uses only 10% of energy that making a new can uses – saving enough energy to run your TV for three hours.

Steel – 68% of steel used in NZ is recycled. The average New Zealand family uses six steel cans per week. Recycling steel saves 75% of the energy used to make new steel. Some steel cans are recycled onshore into reinforcing iron and fencing iron, the rest are recycled offshore.

Paper/cardboard – 59% of paper and cardboard used in NZ is recycled. There is an established market for recycled paper and cardboard, and you often see cardboard and paper made with a percentage of recycled fibre. Paper and cardboard used in packaging can include plastic polymers, wax coatings, inks and labels, some of which affect the recyclability of the packaging at the end of its useful life. 200,000 tonnes of paper is recycled every year at Carter Holt’s Full Circle mills in Whakatane and Penrose. They choose clean paper and cardboard to recycle. The rest of the paper and cardboard collected for recycling goes to overseas mills, primarily in China.

Plastic – only 25% of plastic used in NZ is recycled, reflecting low rates of plastic recycling around the world. Plastic wrap and film is not widely accepted for recycling in New Zealand. Plastics cannot be recycled indefinitely without a loss in quality, therefore some virgin polymer must be used.  There is a small amount of onshore recycling of PET (eg Coke bottles) and HDPE (eg milk bottles) done in New Zealand – into products like buckets and drainage pipes. All other plastic recycling is done offshore, mostly in China.  It’s very difficult to find out exactly what happens offshore or what the plastic is made into, but a clean well-sorted stream of plastic (eg all PET, identified by the number 1 in the triangle on the bottom) is more valuable and more likely to be recycled into a higher quality product.

5 Responses to “If recycling is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question”

  1. Ann

    I always carry bags for purchases – no problems there. I also food shop with mesh bags for e.g. produce and bread rolls etc. – no problems there. I carry plastic tubs to purchase e.g. fish, or wet produce without the customary gladwrap and tray – much harder, this; I need to ring the previous day with my order, likewise with supermarket baked bread. These are doable, but they certainly aren’t encouraged by shops. Surely this is the direction we need to go. To eliminate plastic packaging, I have learned to make my own peanut butter and pesto, which the family now much prefer. Yet still, I have a supermarket bag-worth of plastic rubbish (i.e. non-recyclable) per six weeks to get rid of for the two (and in holidays, three) of us!

    • Gina

      Hi Ann, Thanks for your thoughts. Sounds like you have made a huge effort to keep packaging out of your house, and are leading the way in informing shops that people want alternatives to disposable packaging. You said you take plastic tubs for fish and wet produce – are you buying that from a supermarket or from a smaller shop? I make pesto at home and mayonnaise too (both so easy with a food processor) – but haven’t cracked the peanut butter. Any tips?

      • Ann

        Hi Gina,
        I buy fish both from a smaller fish shop, and also from the supermarket.
        Peanut butter: is just so easy! In my food processor I put a quantity of shelled roasted peanuts, a very little salt, and some olive oil (it can be any oil, but the choice will affect the flavour). Then I process it, adding oil as needed, until I have the right consistency. It’s really tasty, and the family will no longer accept the bought stuff, they prefer mine!! Once it’s made, I just keep it in a glass jar.
        I’d love to have your mayonnaise recipe – I’ve never tried that. It is possible to make small quantities? We like it, but don’t eat a lot of it. This summer I just didn’t buy any.
        Good luck with the peanuts…..

        • Gina

          Mayonnaise is super easy too – it does have a lot of oil in it (doesn’t work if you cut the oil down – I’ve tried!) and raw egg, but I get my eggs from a good supplier so has never been a problem. This makes just over a jar full, it lasts quite a long time in the fridge (at least a week, maybe more).

          2 egg yolks for a thick mayo (or 1 egg yolk and 1 egg for a runnier mayonnaise)
          1 clove chopped garlic
          About 1.5 T white wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
          2 t mustard
          1 C oil (I use 2/3rds rice bran oil, 1/3rd olive oil)

          Place all ingredients except oil in food processor and give it a whizz.

          Keep the whizz on and very very slowly (at first in drops) add the oil through the lid. The key is to add it very very slowly (in a tiny thin stream) and consistently. Keep adding the oil very very slowly, and by the time you’ve put in half to tho-thirds you should see the consistency changing and the liquid getting thicker. Slowly add in the final third of the oil while the whizz keeps going. Voila – should be lovely and thick and ready to use.
          Works every time for me, hope it works for you too….

  2. Ann

    Thanks Gina, I’ll try it.


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