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  • We all know that New Zealand – and the world – has a plastic pollution problem. It’s estimated that 4.8–12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year – that’s roughly one rubbish truck carrying around 15 metric tonnes worth of plastic being tipped into the ocean nearly every minute! Some science commentators are predicting that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Fancy going for a swim in a sea of plastic or fishing up a fish meal full of plastic?

    Mai i ngā maunga ki ngā moana mai i uta ki tai ahakoa ki hea i te taiao he kirihou, he kirihou, hi kirihou!

    From the mountains to the oceans, from the land to the sea, everywhere in the environment, plastic can be found!

    Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand – Key Messages

    The problem

    Plastics are useful materials that have many positive aspects. Unfortunately, they also have some significant impacts on the environment in which we live.

    • They do not biodegrade. Plastic can take up to 400 years to break down in a landfill – and even then it will not completely break down. Rather, it forms very tiny fragments called microplastics.
    • Microplastics are now found in our water, in our soils, in many foods that we eat and in the air that we breathe. Microplastic research is looking at the possible health effects of this on animals and humans.
    • Many plastics are made from fossil fuels and by processes and machinery powered by fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels is a significant driver of climate change through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

    Many New Zealanders are very concerned about plastic use and pollution in our environment. In 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that many of the letters she receives from children and rangatahi are around their concerns about plastic and their desire to see New Zealand do better in regards to the use and disposal of plastics.

    The concern of people about plastics has been an important driver in positive initiatives like the ban of single-use plastic shopping bags.

    As customers and consumers, people have been able to prompt businesses to rethink their use of plastics and how products are packaged and delivered. Can you think of an example of something that your family buys at the grocery shop that is no longer packaged in plastic or is made from a more environmentally friendly or biodegradable material?

    However, solving the plastic problem is not as easy as swapping a plastic bag for a fabric one or replacing cling film with a wax wrap – though of course all these little steps help. Solving the plastic problem requires a big rethink around how we consume, what we consume, how we recycle and what we can use as alternatives to plastic. All this also means a big rethink for manufacturing and recycling infrastructure too – and we need to make sure that what we replace it with doesn’t cause new problems.

    Plastic pollution is a wicked problem, and like all wicked problems, it can be hard to think even where to begin.

    How do we solve a wicked problem like plastic pollution?

    Aotearoa New Zealand can rethink how we use plastic, but the evidence base to support these decisions in a system-wide way is lacking.

    Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand – Key Messages

    To solve a problem, often a good place to start is to clearly define the problem. Scientists do this by collecting evidence – and this is exactly what the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (OPMCSA) did.

    A panel of people was brought together by the OPMCSA. The panel of experts included kaitiaki and environmentalists, people from sustainable business and scientists from different disciplines including chemistry, materials engineering, community psychology and marine biology. The panel defined the approach to the problem, collected data and information and then came up with recommendations for tackling the issues. All of this was shared in the report Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand in December 2019.

    A system-wide approach

    The panel determined that a system-wide approach was required to tackle the plastic problem. In this case, ‘system-wide’ means looking at the big picture, so not just looking at microplastic pollution or single-use plastics, but looking to the whole system in which plastic is present/involved. The panel worked to include evidence around plastic manufacturing, the users and uses of plastics, current plastic disposal methods and recycling practice, sustainable alternatives and current research to create sustainable alternatives amongst other things.

    When you think about it, a system-wide approach makes sense because you cannot solve a wicked problem without finding alternatives. For example, you can pass a law that makes recycling of all plastic in New Zealand compulsory, but at the moment, we do not have the recycling plants to be able to process the volumes of plastic disposed of – and some plastics cannot be recycled at all! So really, you have not solved the problem, you’ve moved it.

    The report was divided into sections that the panel called workstreams. One workstream highlighted the need for a transformational change in the way in which we use plastic and how we think about it.

    Many choices we make about plastic in our daily lives are based on long-held assumptions about it being a cheap and disposable material. People need to start looking at plastic as a valuable resource that is to be reused and repaired rather than as a cheap resource that we can throw away. Imagine how this would change how we think about all that plastic wrapping on the goods that we buy!

    Ideas for a more sustainable future – embracing innovation

    There is no silver bullet. New materials and new machines, new recycling techniques, new uses for recycled materials, new business models, and perhaps most importantly, citizens who are ready to form a new relationship with plastics are all needed.

    Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand – Key Messages

    We can change how we use plastic and how we think about it, but this alone will not solve the problem. In an additional workstream, the panel reported on the need to develop innovative reuse systems to avoid single-use products, alternative materials to replace plastic and alternative systems to recycle plastic and deal with plastic waste. Ongoing innovation and new ideas are needed to better enable New Zealanders to use plastic more sustainably and to create alternative materials. Alternative materials – like bioplastics – require scientific research, and the technical know-how to then produce such materials on a large scale.

    Using the 6Rs – replace, rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle – the researchers gathered examples of current innovations in recycling and adapting existing materials and products and research into new materials and ways of operating. Some local examples of innovation were the refill stations developed by ecostore, the closed-loop recycling of Flight Plastics and compostable starch-based products by Earthpac.

    A long-term goal is to replace problematic materials like synthetic fabrics that shed microfibres and plastics that are difficult to recycle with new materials that are made from sustainable sources instead of fossil fuels. Scion is one organisation in New Zealand that is working to create new materials using different biomass sources like the slash from the logging industry.

    The research found that there were already lots of innovations and ideas out there that were ready to be applied more widely and concluded that making best practice standard practice would make a big difference to our plastics problem.

    Taking action

    Taking action can promote a change of thinking, and the report suggests a number of possible actions that could be undertaken by a variety of government organisations through to the education sector, businesses, community groups and individuals.

    For schools looking to take action, engaging with local community groups is a good way to get started.

    Our Seas Our Future runs Plastic Free New Zealand and has groups around the country. There are also many citizen science opportunities for students to take action and participate in research. Citizen science projects well worth a look include the New Zealand-based Litter Intelligence and the global Litterati. To learn more about embedding a citizen science project into your classroom, take a look at this unit plan and case study where teacher Dianne Christenson incorporated an online citizen science project as part of a year 2–4 unit on sustainability.


    The report came up with a number of recommendations to get New Zealand working towards solutions to the plastic problem.

    Evidence and data are needed to make decisions about how New Zealand manages the use of plastics and where resources like people and money need to be directed to find solutions. In gathering data and evidence, the researchers were able to identify knowledge gaps – areas where further information is needed to make good recommendations. For example, there is still a lot of research to be done to fully understand the issues around microplastics and whether they pose a potential health threat to humans.

    The report highlighted a number of issues around recycling, stemming from a lack of consistent best-practice guidelines for industry and local government through to individuals. A number of recommendations were around creating a more cohesive system for recycling that was standardised across the country. This included working with waste disposal, plastic manufacturing and other industry and research organisations to develop consistent guidelines, standards and better infrastructure for current plastic disposal.

    Response to report

    In June 2021, the government announced a three-stage plan to phase out plastics that are hard to recycle in New Zealand. As part of this plan, a new Plastics Innovation Fund was launched to help support projects that reimagine how we make, use and dispose of plastics.

    The plan will roll out across a number of years. On 1 October 2022, PVC meat trays, polystyrene takeaway packaging, expanded polystyrene (EPS) grocery packaging, degradable plastic products (such as oxo-degradable products), plastic drink stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton-buds were banned. More plastics will be outlawed by the following dates:

    • Mid-2023: Single-use plastic produce bags, plastic tableware (plates/bowls/cutlery), plastic straws, non-compostable produce labels.
    • Mid-2025: All other PVC and polystyrene food and beverage packaging.

    The government estimates that this planned phase-out of some forms of problematic plastics will remove more than 2 billion single-use plastic items from our landfills or environment each year.

    The government is presently working with stakeholders and business groups to formulate a plan for the phase-out of types of expanded polystyrene, single-use cups and wet wipes. Full details on what can and cannot be made or used is on the Ministry for the Environment website.

    To learn more about the government response to the report, read Actions underway in response to the Rethinking plastics report on the Ministry for the Environment website.

    Related content

    Learn more about the positive and negative impacts of plastic in this timeline and the article The future of plastics: reusing the bad and encouraging the good.

    Wicked problems are problems that are incredibly complicated and difficult to solve. For an indepth definition of a wicked problem, read Climate change – a wicked problem for classroom inquiry.

    These resources support students in levels 1–4 with learning about waste and recycling.

    For a literacy angle and an understanding of what ‘taking action’ can mean, take a look at the level 2 Connected Journal article Down the drain.

    For an example of innovation, take a closer look at the work of Scion and Zespri to produce a biospife – a tool for eating kiwifruit made from bioplastic material that incorporates kiwifruit residues.

    What are fossil fuels? Learn about fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy source in this article.

    Useful links

    Research has now confirmed that microplastics are in the air in New Zealand. Further research is required to understand if they might be a health risk to people when breathed in.

    The Royal Society Te Apārangi evidence summary, Plastics in the Environment: Te Ao Hurihuri – The Changing World is available to download. The report infographics and other related resources are available here.

    The Para Kore programme works with marae to increase the reuse, recycling and composting of materials thereby helping to reduce the extraction of natural resources and raw materials from Papatūānuku. Para Kore has a number online resources, including posters and bilingual booklets.

    Take a closer look at local company ecostore and learn more about issues around recycling plastic bottles in the Spinoff article (paid for by ecostore) Closing the recycling loop, one plastic bottle at a time.


    This article is based on Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand – Key Messages. This short report captures key messages from the full report Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand, published by the Office for the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor at the end of 2019. The full report is long and detailed. It presents the evidence base, gaps in information and ideas to inspire change. All of the reports and associated infographics can be downloaded from here along with further links in a useful Resource Portal – Rethinking Plastics.

      Published 20 July 2021, Updated 6 October 2022 Referencing Hub articles
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