Tackling plastic waste

Chief Science Advisor calls for more data and standardisation.

Plastic waste is a huge issue in New Zealand and globally. Professor Juliet Gerrard gave the issue top priority after being appointed the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and last December, she and her team delivered Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand. The report says updated systems, new materials and information technology can enable us to make the future use of plastics far more sustainable and to radically reduce disposal in landfills. SCAN spoke with Juliet about the report and the importance of collecting and sharing data on all forms of plastic.

Juliet is a biochemist and academic with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, England. Her fields of expertise include protein nanotechnology and lysine biosynthesis. She moved to New Zealand’s Crop and Food, a Crown research institute, in 1997, and has since held full professorships at the Universities of Canterbury and Auckland. At the latter, Juliet continues to be a Callaghan Innovation Industry and Outreach Fellow. She became Chief Science Advisor on 1 July 2018.

The report is extraordinary in its scope and depth. Where did it all start?
I was determined not to come into this role with a personal wheelbarrow full of issues but, instead, to find out what was on everyone’s mind. I did a tiki tour around New Zealand and asked the researchers I met in various forums, ‘where is there a gap in the evidence base that is really needed for policy making … a gap that could be filled relatively simply?’. China had changed its policy on taking waste from other countries, us included. After that, a Colmar Brunton Better Futures report came out and when Kiwis were asked about environmental issues, plastic waste came out on top. Various things came together.

The other thing I am trying to do in the Chief Advisor’s role is to open it up so we’re never advising into a vacuum. There’s no point slapping a report on the table if there’s no political appetite to act … I want topics that many people can engage with. On plastics, there’s huge frustration with failures in recycling systems. I guess it’s also a nice topic for me personally as someone trained in chemistry.

We asked for interest and were overwhelmed with responses. We picked a broad panel, with expertise from different disciplines and all people who could work as a team. First, we scoped the project using the full range of expertise on the panel. And the scope got broader and broader over the first meetings despite me hoping, initially that we could narrow it down. I kept thinking ‘we’ll never get this done’ but it became clear that our scope had to be wide because plastics is a huge systems problem … the moment you leave something out, there’s the question, ‘what about that bit in the corner you haven’t included?’ Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke who led the project from our team was great at thinking through systems problems and we had a fantastic reference group who contributed knowledge about different parts of the system. In the end, if we had tried to make the report narrower some people would be left focusing on issues that were left to one side.

What has the feedback been like?
Pretty good. When we first announced the project, the plastics industry said, ‘fine but you can’t do this from inside a university, you need to talk to stakeholders’. We invited everyone in to present their views and help us understand the situation. It was quickly apparent that everyone in the room agreed there was a problem that needed solving. Obviously people came from different angles and had different solutions but all agreed on the need to work together on addressing the issues. It was a fun project in the end.

What does a ‘circular economy’ start to look like in New Zealand?
Actually we came to think more in terms of a spiral than a circle. The circular economy is a dream goal and we’re not going to get there in a hurry. Better to encourage people to stop using or picking material that can’t be reused or recycled within classic waste hierarchy principles. The first goal is a spiral where less and less plastic is going to landfill because of changes in choices throughout supply chains and among consumers, and because of more effective re-use and recycling. So, reducing plastics waste in a spiral fashion is our concept and the measure is a decline in volumes going to landfill, especially the old-style types.

In reality, we are going to have to put plastic waste somewhere for a long time yet, so modern landfills will definitely be part of the solution. We were very impressed with one the panel visited. A modern landfill is built at a certain point in a valley where it can be lined and runoff water can be collected and treated. If there’s food waste, the resulting methane is captured for energy use.

What about burning plastic waste to produce energy as the Europeans do?
We had a massive debate about that. Yes, it’s a good solution in high-density places with not a lot of land, a large number of people and a guaranteed supply of waste. Waste conversion to energy requires huge infrastructure investment. In New Zealand, we would face big transport costs and carbon emissions just to get the waste to one central place … none of it looks good even on ‘back-of-the-envelope’ analysis. Also, you create a perverse incentive for more waste to feed the scale of investment in the infrastructure. For a country of our size, it doesn’t work as a national solution although niche applications might work where small plants can be set up without major new infrastructure. We’ve had push back from some local authorities who want to see waste in their areas go into energy production … we advise people with all sorts of ideas to take them to the Ministry for the Environment who are working through specific policy options.

You have made some recommendations, starting with a national integrated recycling standard
I think that’s a real no-brainer. The fact that you can take your empty tetrapak from Auckland to Hamilton and the recycling rules change from city to the next is just silly. You’re never going to get the right scale in waste streams or mixed recycling facilities up and running if you have so many different rules. A national framework and standardisation is obviously needed, although that will need to be flexible enough to meet specific needs in different locations. Personally I live in an apartment and I have a bach on Great Barrier Island (Hauraki Gulf) ...both located in Auckland Council territory but with totally different situations for waste handling, disposal and recycling. So you can’t have a one size fits all but you absolutely need some clear national standards.

What other practical steps are you recommending? Giving the consumer a standardised view on what plastics are what so they can make informed choices on what to buy and how to dispose of it seems to be important.
That is a huge one. But consumer information on plastics must be relevant to the situations that people are actually living, shopping and working in. There’s scope to go backwards here! The classic example is allegedly compostable coffee cup lids made of plant-based materials but really these are only compostable in industrial composts and end up contaminating the rest of the plastic stream going into recycling if you’re not careful. If you have PET, a type of plastic that can actually be recycled into more bottles and other things in New Zealand and put PLA in there too, and you are challenging the whole process. We really do need clear labelling and public education. It’s really complicated at the moment … often labels don’t match the instructions on your bin. People want to do the right thing but they’re not empowered to do so.

Just how important is knowledge and its sharing?
Very important and we’ve got to be working at all levels. Local manufacturers can learn to use less plastic and better packaging but the challenge is also global given that New Zealand imports so much, and this includes huge amounts of plastic packaging. All moves towards product stewardship are important and really people who manufacture goods have a certain responsibility to steward those products and packaging through to end of life… and that will make it easier for other businesses and consumers to take the actions.

My panel had a conceptual breakthrough when we realised that international trade agreements could include some tangible requirements in this area. I got invited to talk to the country’s CPTTP3 specialists who were really interested in plastics … the Prime Minister, in particular, is really keen to see if we can broker better use of materials across jurisdictions. I think that with imagination and goodwill we can start to make inroads. But we need to know what everyone is using, how much and what happens after use if we’re really going to make progress.

The data can take all sorts of forms. My favourite anecdote is about Sustainable Coastlines who are people passionate about cleaning up beaches – and they 3 The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership realised that in order for their work to influence formal policies, they needed to collect standardised data. They worked with government agencies on a set of indicators that could be applied to all clean-up work and then be recognised in the policy context. Suddenly they could say things like, ‘straws are the most common thing found on Wellington beaches and we can show people how they’re contributing to the problem’. Sharing that with restaurants on the Wellington waterfront was enough to motivate them to stop serving straws. So access to the right information becomes the basis of effective action.

The report recommends open, centralised data on products. Do you see GS1 Standards playing a big role here?
Definitely. We had a catch cry, ‘let’s make best practice standard practice’, knowing that there are lots of solutions are out there already. The National Product Catalogue is one of them. It’s a great example of people having the data needed for particular purposes exactly where it can be accessed … the challenge for us is how to integrate what the GS1 National Product Catalogue (NPC) has to offer into a bigger eco system for plastic waste reduction. There are issues for GS1 and its stakeholders to work through, like ensuring the relevant data can be collected at the source.

Across the board, many of the solutions for New Zealand will be based on international practices. If there are suitable standards out there, let’s grab them.

The political environment is receptive to the report. How confident are you that the key elements will be actioned in policy?
It’s happening, I have seen a draft of policy advice to the Government. As mentioned, I was looking for a topic where the policy people were hungry for evidence. Plastics are not particularly political, and Ministers said in December that there’d be a full response to the report within six months. I am optimistic about what we can achieve.