From the Exosphere
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From the Exosphere

Much ado about recycling

Consultant Amy Thomson discusses the challenges faced by communities, industry and government in Aotearoa in trying to recycle more, and the innovative solutions helping us overcome some of those challenges.

I recently watched a video of divers off Lembeh, Indonesia coaxing a baby octopus into moving houses. It had made its home in a plastic cup — the transparent kind, which left it visible to predators — and the divers successfully moved the octopus to a much safer shell.

The story highlights the devastating impact on our ecosystems of the massive amount of waste we humans produce. There’s no doubt a lot of us worry about it: research indicates that most New Zealanders (76%) are worried about the effect waste has on the environment and that almost all of us (97%) want to recycle.

Effective recycling systems are one part of the answer, through helping to realise a ‘circular’ economy — one where, once goods are used, they’re returned to the economy through being reused, repaired, remade or recycled. As Andy Horwood discussed in the last article in this series on waste, recycling is vastly preferable to sending waste to landfill (although not as good as other actions higher up the waste hierarchy, like reusing).

An optimal recycling system needs to be underpinned by efficient mechanisms for collecting and sorting, and by the right type of recycling infrastructure. The output of the system needs to be uncontaminated materials sold by economically viable processing businesses to an enthusiastic market of manufacturers, preferably in New Zealand.

How recycling happens in Aotearoa

We’re not nearly there yet: too much waste is ending up in landfills or being exported that we should be able to recycle here in New Zealand. We’re not achieving anywhere near the rates of recycling you would expect given 97% of us want to recycle. According to MfE, we recover only 35% of our waste, compared to about 58% for Australia.

New Zealand’s recycling commodities sector manages around 1.295 million tonnes of material annually, of which roughly a quarter (343,500 tonnes) is collected from households. Most household recycling in New Zealand comes from kerbside collection. Around 97% of the population has access to kerbside collection or can drop off recycling at a transfer station or similar site.

Once recyclable material is collected it’s taken either to ‘bulking facilities’, which take in pre-sorted recycling and bulk it all into separate piles, or to ‘material recovery facilities’ (MRFs), which receive unsorted material and sort it and prepare it for sale.

Plastic recycling in New Zealand: The current process
Source: Rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand

Responsibility for collecting, managing and minimising waste rests with New Zealand’s 67 territorial authorities. The approach each authority takes to waste collection and recycling reflects the needs of its community, its waste infrastructure (including its MRFs), and its contractual arrangements.

Local councils will often contract private operators to collect and sort waste. From there, what happens to the recyclable material depends on market conditions, both in New Zealand and globally. Bundles of recyclable material become a commodity to be sold on national or international markets to manufacturers who can use the material.

The ability to on-sell the recovered material depends mainly on how pure it is after sorting. Contaminated bundles of material attract a lower price or are simply unsellable.

Some recyclable material is on-sold within New Zealand, including:

· clear PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) — this is plastic type 1, for example water and softdrink bottles and jam/peanut butter containers

· opaque and white HDPE plastic (high-density polyethylene) — this is plastic type 2, for example milk bottles and shampoo bottles

· glass

· paper and cardboard.

However, New Zealand also exports large quantities of plastic waste — over 41,000 tonnes of it in 2017, mainly to China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The hurdles to recycling in New Zealand

There are two main challenges to New Zealand establishing an effective domestic recycling system. The first is preventing recyclable materials being contaminated. The second is achieving an economically viable domestic recycling market — including both viable processing facilities and viable businesses making new products out of old ones.

Resolving these challenges is going to be critical, especially given many countries are now restricting the type and quantity of waste they import for recycling (for example, China’s National Sword Policy).

Contamination can ruin a recycling stream

Recycling gets contaminated when the wrong materials are placed in the recycling stream, or when items aren’t clean. The contamination ruins a recycling stream either by preventing it being sold, or by clogging the processing machinery.

In severe cases of contamination, the recycling may need to be sent to landfill. One European study — which looked at many different recovery scenarios based on different sorting schemes, different MRF configurations and so on — found that because of contamination at best only 55% of the generated plastic was suitable for recycling.

According to Auckland Council:

“Contaminated recycling cost Aucklanders $420,000 last financial year. If Aucklanders reduced kerbside recycling contamination by just one per cent, we would save $116,000. These are the extra costs involved in having to handle, sort, and dispose of materials that households wrongly put in their recycling bin. When contamination exceeds 12 per cent (last FY it was 12.4 per cent), we pay a penalty to the processors for the additional work involved in disposing of this rubbish.”

Public confusion and ‘wishcycling’

A common cause of contamination is public confusion and the resulting ‘wishcycling’ — that is, putting something in the recycling bin hoping it will be recycled.

Commonly wishcycled items in Wellington include meat trays, polystyrene, soft plastics, tin foil, Tetra Paks, and glass in forms other than bottle and jars, like mirrors and light bulbs.

Products made of mixed materials are also often wishcycled. For example, single-use coffee cups and thermal till receipts are often placed in paper recycling bins, but both are lined with plastic that can contaminate a fibre (paper-cardboard) recycling stream.

We do things a little differently around here

A significant source of the public confusion about recyclability is local councils’ different practices. Councils can differ in the type of material they will collect or accept, particularly plastic types, but they also differ on whether they’ll collect pizza boxes, lids (milk bottle lids for example), Tetra Paks, aerosol cans, and soft plastics.

Another difference between councils is often the purity level they require — for instance whether the lid should be on or off the milk bottle, or how clean the bottle has to be.

If you move between council areas, either permanently or just while on holiday, you need to re-learn the local protocols for recycling. It’s easy when you’re new to an area to get it wrong.

The importance of labelling

Unclear product labelling is also a barrier to easy and uncontaminated recycling.

The public often mistake the plastic resin codes (‘Plastic identification codes’) printed on plastic products as a sign that the item is recyclable, thinking that whatever the plastic type number (1 to 7) printed inside the little recycling triangle (the mobius loop), the item can go in the recycling bin.

In fact, types 3, 6 and 7 are extremely hard to recycle and have negative market value, while types 4 and 5 are recyclable in only some parts of New Zealand.

Inaccurate sorting of plastics — for example, putting some #3 plastic in a bundle of PET/#1 for example — can contaminate bundles of otherwise recyclable plastic that are intended to be on-sold.

Contamination from co-mingling

‘Co-mingling’ can also create contamination, with recyclables contaminating batches of other recyclables if it’s too hard to separate and sort the different types.

Gina Dempster from Wanaka Wastebusters best explains the impact of co-mingling on glass recycling:

“Imagine taking a bin of glass, smashing it up with a hammer, mixing in bits of plastic, paper, cardboard and bottle caps, and then jumping up and down on top of it. That’s what recycling looks like after it’s all been picked up from the same bin. Now imagine spreading that mess out and trying to separate the broken glass from all the other (often sticky and smelly) materials.”

Our domestic market needs help to increase its capacity

Businesses here face substantial risks when making large, long-term investments in manufacturing new products from recycled materials, as they face significant competition from imported recycled products.

These risks and the low rates of recycling here limit the size of the New Zealand market for new products made from recycled goods and the ability of our onshore processing facilities to sell recycled materials to New Zealand manufacturers. Consequently, there are insufficient onshore recycling facilities to process the available material, even when it’s high-grade and uncontaminated.

Recyclable materials that can’t be recycled onshore, whether for technical or commercial reasons, are exported offshore (meaning more costs), or ‘downcycled’ (recycled in a way that produces a lower-value product — for example, transforming glass into roading material), or simply stockpiled in the hope that prices improve or another solution comes along.

There is just one glass recycling plant in New Zealand

An example of this problem is New Zealand’s one glass recycling plant, based in Auckland and run by Owens-Illinois (O-I). This is the only place in the country where glass can be turned back into glass bottles.

The plant’s location in the north and the low price that O-I offers for the recyclable glass means it’s financially unsustainable for some South Island councils to send glass to the plant and so they instead stockpile it.

Other councils downcycle the glass into roading, sandblasting or landscaping materials. This may avoid other costs — like the cost of quarrying for roading aggregates — but it also removes the glass from the circular economy. This creates a need for new raw material to make tomorrow’s jars and bottles, which in turn requires energy and so increases carbon emissions. Producing new glass is particularly energy-intensive, more so than producing new plastic.

There is better domestic infrastructure for some types of plastics than others

Plastic recycling is complicated. The mechanical processing technology available today in New Zealand limits the type of plastic that can be recycled effectively over many cycles. As the plastic degrades it becomes progressively harder to recycle, so most of the time plastic is downcycled.

Of the seven different types of commonly recycled plastics, only clear PET (#1), HDPE (#2) and PP (polypropylene — #5) can be used by manufacturers. The good news is that New Zealand currently has enough processing capacity to take in all the PET (#1) that New Zealanders want to recycle.

However, some current challenges limit capacity for recycling HDPE (#2) and PP (#5). For instance, although some milk bottle recycling and recycling of HDPE and PP is available in New Zealand, these ventures don’t yet have the capacity to recycle at the scale required to meet New Zealand’s HDPE and PP recycling needs.

WILL&ABLE for example, a New Zealand manufacturer of eco cleaning products, uses milk bottles to create product packaging, and a range of other businesses provide durable plastic products from HDPE. However, together all these businesses can’t yet meet all of New Zealand’s milk bottle recycling needs.

The challenges are even bigger when businesses make recycled products with additional requirements, like food-safety standards, or the higher environmental stress crack resistance for detergent-grade HDPE (#2), which needs to be higher because the bottles are used for longer. In these cases, New Zealand simply does not yet have the infrastructure that is needed for closed-loop recycling of these types of products.

Making Changes

New Zealand needs innovative solutions to increase our capacity to turn a range of recyclable materials into new products, and government and business will need to work in partnership.

Industry are exploring a range of approaches to solve different parts of the problem. However, government regulation and incentives will be crucial for strengthening the consumer market for recycled goods and providing the industry with confidence to develop solutions and increase their capacity.

Innovative solutions to issues relating to contamination and degraded plastics

New technology is opening the door to a range of ways to manage contamination of plastic recycling without exhorting residents to reduce their wishcycling.

New ideas that New Zealand industry is exploring include chemical recycling — reducing waste plastics down into their chemical building blocks to be rebuilt as new. Chemical recycling is an effective solution to ensure plastic that would otherwise degrade in mechanical recycling or be wasted through contamination can continue to be recycled. Oji Fibre Solutions is looking seriously into this technology, but roll-out on an industrial scale isn’t expected until at least 2025.

Another new approach is use of mixed-use plastics in creating new products. For instance, roading surfaces in New Plymouth now incorporate mixed-use plastics, as does the aggregate substitute Plazrok created by Enviroplaz International, which uses plastic waste feedstock from all seven plastic types. Another application of this is combining soft plastics with HDPE (#2) to make fence posts, potentially providing them with a longer life than through other forms of recycling.

There is value in these types of products, as they divert waste from landfill. However, they are imperfect solutions with some downsides. For instance, they can create additional demand for new plastic, and their ongoing viability relies on the continuing production of plastic waste. There are also environmental concerns about, for example, possible leaching.

These new options are therefore great examples of why recycling is near the bottom of the waste hierarchy and ‘refuse’ is near the top.

The waste hierarchy, as presented in Rethinking Plastics
Source: Rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand

Innovative solutions to capacity issues

Chemical recycling, as well as solving problems around degradation and contamination of plastic, could also increase profits and shorten the payback time for a facility. A study in Scotland, referred to in Rethinking Plastics, found that combining both material and chemical reprocessing capabilities could increase a facility’s revenue by 25% and decrease the payback time by 11%.

There is also now a pathway to enough PET recycling capacity for a closed-loop cycle — thanks to Flight Plastics, who have established onshore processing of PET (mainly water-bottles) to make food-grade recycled PET trays and containers. This directly reduces the volume of virgin PET that needs to be imported. Flight Plastics is now recycling almost all the clear post-consumer PET that’s currently collected and available in the market, and has spare capacity to recycle at least 50% more.

Government activity is also increasing

In 2020, the Government said it will invest $124 million in recycling infrastructure through the Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund. This is a significant amount — about as much as has been invested through the Waste Minimisation Fund in the last decade.

Indications are this investment will include plastic recycling and processing plants, weighbridges for better data about waste collection, and better community resource recovery facilities for people to drop off their recyclables.

The funding approved so far includes projects to upgrade material recovery facilities (the ones that include sorting) to move from manual to optical sorting, which will increase the safety, speed and accuracy of the process. Some of this funding is already proving effective, with the Auckland recycling facility now able to recycle 2,000 extra tonnes of plastic a year due to their new optical sorting systems.

The work to standardise kerbside recycling should also make it easier to produce uncontaminated bundles of recyclable material. The Government is also considering proposals to phase out hard-to-recycle plastics. Proposals like these should help reduce waste going to landfill and concentrate recycling efforts in areas with the most potential.

There’s hope if action flourishes

If this kind of government investment continues and expands, alongside other activities from government and the private sector, we can hope that recycling will begin to play a much more effective role in managing our waste.

So what would that look like? One of my own personal ‘KPIs’ is seeing fewer videos and stories of our waste killing animals and choking our environment. In 10 years’ time, the octopi videos I want to be watching are the ones showing off their intelligence, uncovering their mysteries, and demonstrating their magical predictive abilities.

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