Life in plastic (not so fantastic)

Find out some of the weird ways plastics can make their way into the environment, and how the EPA is involved in the global fight against plastic pollution.

By Ham Davidson - Research Assistant, Science

31 July 2020

Read the author's biography

Plastic Free July – Be part of the solution

Plastic Free July is a global movement to encourage people and businesses to ditch single-use plastics. The challenge is not to generate any plastic waste destined for landfill for the month of July. Ideally, this will enable people to find resources and life-hacks to eliminate plastic from their waste streams in the longer term, and establish new habits.

Undeniably, it’s a tricky one. But with some good old kiwi ingenuity and some great resources and peer support, we can all do our bit to be part of the solution.

Visit the Plastic Free July 2020 website

Plastics 101

Chemically speaking, a plastic is a kind of polymer – a material made of lots of repeating units (like a beaded necklace, or a messy bunch of necklaces all squished up together). There are lots of different units that can be used to make up polymers with different properties. For example, you might want a flexible, transparent material for packaging food in, or you might want something rigid to use as a takeaway container. You can get quite fancy with how the units fit together to create materials with different properties.

Currently, most of the building blocks for making plastics are made from oil; about 6 percent of the world’s annual oil resource goes into making plastics. Furthermore, most plastics produced (such as polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET)) cause big problems when they reach the end of their life as a useful material, because they don’t break down readily.

Even if they do make it to a suitable recycling facility (a 2017 study estimated that a staggering 91 percent of plastics globally don’t), this requires energy and the product you get out at the end is always of a lesser quality that the plastic that went into it.

Read the 2017 paper published in Science Advances on the production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made - ScienceMag website

Read the 2016 report from the World Economic Forum on Rethinking the future of plastics (PDF, 1.4 MB)

Regulating plastic waste

One of the first things you will notice when trying to go plastic free is that it is everywhere. That is no hyperbole. Studies have found evidence of plastic pollution almost everywhere they have looked – from remote mountaintops, to the Sahara desert and the depths of the ocean. It is popping up in food we grow, woven into the clothes we wear, in the bones of our houses and transportation structures, our electronics, and as a result, it is in the environment.

Read more about the ubiquity of plastics here:

This leaves regulators in a bit of a pickle. There is no single agency (in New Zealand, nor abroad) that is equipped to deal with all the ways plastic can end up in the environment, nor culture of stewardship that puts the onus on the companies producing them.

Regulators all around the world are currently grappling, often in the face of uncertainty, to keep up with emerging information and policies about microplastics, recycling and plastic waste streams.

A large pile of rubbish washed up onto the shore from the Fox River landfill. Snowy mountains can be seen in the background.

Rubbish washed out into the environment from the Fox River landfill erosion in 2019. Photo credit: Department of Conservation.

A recent step taken to minimise plastics entering the environment was the 2019 amendment of the Basel Convention – a United Nations convention controlling the transboundary movements and disposal of hazardous waste. Last year, at a Conference of the Parties to the Convention attended by two EPA representatives, about 180 countries (including New Zealand) agreed to the amendment.

This means that countries can no longer ship their contaminated or low-value plastic to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia without first proving that the plastic can be dealt with in an environmentally sound manner, and that permission has been granted by the importing country. These countries were previously receiving mountains of plastic waste that was not easily recycled, much of which was ending up in the ocean.

The amendment helps to protect disadvantaged countries from the inequitable outcomes of the world’s plastic addiction.

EPA and the Basel Convention

The EPA is responsible for issuing the permits that allow the import and export of hazardous and other wastes to and from New Zealand under the Basel Convention.

Last year we issued 33 export permits and 29 import permits for various types of waste being shipped for environmentally sound recycling or disposal. You can read more about how we process these applications on our website and see the wide range of wastes imported and exported on the current permit holders page.

Read more about the process for importing and exporting hazardous waste

Image of three people sitting at a desk facing the camera with a New Zealand sign in front of them. There are also two people standing behind them facing the camera.

New Zealand representatives at the 2019 Conference of the Parties from the EPA and the Ministry for the Environment (MfE). From left to right: Hannah Singer (MfE), Rio Yoon (previously EPA), Glenn Wigley (MfE), Mariska Wouters (MfE), Dr. Peter Dawson (EPA).

How you can make a difference

The best approach when it comes to reducing the impact plastics have on our environment, is to avoid buying them wherever possible.

An upside down pyramid. From top to bottom: Whakanau - refuse, whakaiti - reduce, whakamahi ano - refuse, whakapopo - rot.

The waste hierarchy pyramid.

Where you can’t completely avoid plastic waste, the next best solution is to reduce it and reuse it. Only then does recycling come into the picture, as a last resort before landfill.

Last year, the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (OPMSCA) released a thorough and informative report to help kiwis to drive change in this area, aptly named Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Painting a vision for the future, this report provided some evidence-based drivers and solutions for system-wide change of plastic use in New Zealand. Packed with case studies and in-depth discussion, this is a great read if you want to deepen your understanding of the problems with plastics, the current knowledge gaps, and the roles everyone can play to reduce harm to our communities and the environment.

OPMSCA report: Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand (full report) (pdf, 27.4 MB)

Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report cover.

Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report cover.

There are a ton of other excellent resources out there that offer ideas, life-hacks and solutions for almost every aspect of transitioning to a zero-waste life. For example, waste reduction heroes The Rubbish Trip have compiled zero-waste shopping guides for every region in Aotearoa (amongst other handy tips and resources), the Plastic Free July Aotearoa Facebook Page has resources on simple swaps and Māori-led zero waste organisation Para Kore has resources for dealing with waste from organisations (set up to reduce waste from marae).

You don’t need to Marie Kondo all of the plastics in your house go out and buy all of the zero-waste swag - just think about how you can repurpose what you already have and go from there.

Ham Davidson's biography

Hannah hails from Otago/Southland, where she completed a Master of Science in Chemistry at the University of Otago, focussed on the topic of improving alternative plastic processes. Hannah joined the EPA in 2019 as Science Research assistant, bringing a passion for science communication and its role in environmental protection.