“One of my jobs is to sort through each recycle bag and remove the ‘other’ plastics numbered 3 and above,” the email read.
“I put these into our rubbish skips for disposal to our closest landfill.”
“It bothers me that such a huge proportion of the ‘bad plastics’ I remove from amongst the ‘recyclable plastics 1s and 2s’ are from packaging of dairy products.
Icecream, yoghurt (small and large tubs), butter, margarine, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese pottles were all going to landfill.
RECYCLABLE VS RECYCLED
Fonterra has committed to having 100 per cent of its packaging being recyclable by 2025, and has conducted an internal recycling audit to assess how much of its packaging was actually being recycled.
“We’re going for 100 recyclable, and recycled in practice. It’s not just recyclable,” Fonterra head of environment Trish Kirkland-Smith said.
The dairy cooperative has completed a global audit of what happened to the 150 tonnes of packaging it bought in each year, including products sold overseas.
Kirkland-Smith said about 60 per cent was recyclable and recycled. Another 20 to 25 per cent was recyclable, but was not always recycled, including its “light-proof” Anchor milk bottles, which were made of layers of number 2 plastics, and were not as easy to recycle as clear milk containers.
Then there was the packaging that was “problematic” either because it could not be recycled easily – such as snap-off yoghurt pottles that contained polystyrene – or because it was generally thrown into people’s rubbish bins, including foil caps from drinks, tetra pak packaging for drinks and drinking straws.
Fonterra brands managing director Brett Henshaw said about 85 per cent of its consumer packaging for products sold in New Zealand-sold was “technically recyclable”.
But there was “massive variability” about what got recycled around the country because each council arranged its own recycling schemes, he said.
Fonterra did not know what proportion of its light-proof recyclable bottles were recycled.
It found 14 local councils separated and recycled it, and a further six definitely sent them to landfill.
Another 42 councils collected the Anchor bottle and sorted it into the mixed grade plastic collection of shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, with plastics ranging from numbers 3 to 7.
Fonterra did not know whether what happened next to
PROBLEMS WITH PLASTIC EXPORT
It used to be easy to sell plastics 3 to 7 overseas for recycling, but in 2017 China made its “sword” announcement that it would no longer take so much plastic waste from the West, and would only take higher-value plastics, those labelled 1 and 2 on the bottom of consumer packaging.
Overnight, the value dropped out of plastics 3 to 7, Kirkland-Smith said.
“It’s cheaper to send it to the landfill, which is awful,” she said.
FUTURE COST AND RISK
People buying many of Fonterra’s products could suddenly no longer be so confident the containers would be recycled.
Then the Green Party entered government in coalition with Labour, and plastic waste became a political priority.
The Government wanted businesses responsible for putting packaging into stores to be responsible for what happened to that packaging after it was sold to consumers.
It planned to introduce “product stewardship” laws covering “priority” products like single-use plastic bottles. Industries would have to co-design schemes with the Government to ensure collection of priority products, followed by recycling or reuse.
Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said at the time said that the costs to collect and manage consumer packaging were borne by councils and the wider community, rather than the people who made and used the products.
These costs were exacerbated by packaging design and lower cost recycling system which often reduced the value of the material, she said.
The Product Stewardship Council estimated just 30 to 40 per cent of beverage containers were recycled and reused.
Plastic drinks bottles, bottle caps and lids, and glass bottles made up about 20 per cent of all litter items, and were three of the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups.
FONTERRA, PRODUCT STEWARD
One of the examples the Government used of good product stewardship was Fonterra’s milk in schools programme.
Milk was delivered to schools in Tetra Paks, made of paper, plastic and foil. Children drank it, folded the packaging, which was then collected by Fonterra, bundled up, and shipped to Thailand to be recycled, Kirkland-Smith said.
“Then it’s getting made into lots of different things, making school books, roof tiles, things like that,” Kirkland-Smith said.
Fonterra’s franchise operation delivering milk to schools and businesses also had a high recycling rate, with the light-proof bottles going to a company making plastic fenceposts for farms.
Fonterra told the government it did not favour a bottle return system involving a return to glass milk bottles.
“For glass to be a more sustainable alternative to plastic, bottles must be re-used several times before recycling. Moving heavy glass around the country and back-and-forth to Auckland for cleaning and re-using would use a lot of emissions,” Fonterra told the Government in its submission on product stewardship.
“We’ve certainly looked into it, but without a well-developed nationwide system to sterilise and fill bottles for re-use at scale, it’s unfortunately not viable for us at this time.”
Dairy entrepreneur Glen Herud has been capital-raising to expand his Happy Cow Milk Company to put milk dispensers in primary schools where people could fill their own glass bottles.
Supermarkets and big dairy producers weren’t interested in such systems, he said.
“The reason supermarkets don’t want to do it is they think someone will get sick from not washing their bottle. It’s really a reputation issue for them. Their legal departments aren’t willing to take the risk.
“The milk processors, the people in charge of the factories, won’t even think about it.”
Herud was using Fonterra’s recycling challenge as a clarion-call to investors in his PledgeMe capital-raising telling investors that 78 per cent of all plastic bottles were not recycles, and that 250,000 tonnes of plastic waste went into landfills every year.
Sage said regulated product stewardship schemes must go hand-in-hand with improved recycling infrastructure, an expanded waste disposal levy, improved waste data, improved controls on the burning of farm waste, and proactive government procurement.
And it would come at a higher cost to industry and consumers, Sage said in her consultation paper.
Kirkland-Smith said Fonterra now believed the long-term future was product stewardship, which consumers were demanding.
“Waste is tangible for people,” Kirkland-Smith said.
“Consumers are so much more aware. They are making more informed choices, which is sending messages back to business, which is great.”
And, ultimately, New Zealand could no longer expect to ship all its plastic waste to other countries to deal with, she said.
“There’s no such thing as ‘away’ anymore,” said Kirkland-Smith. “We have to be responsible for where it ends up.”