Sunday Star-Times

Caught in a vicious recycle Our piles of plastic are becoming Asia’s problem

Madison Reidy finds there are no easy solutions to New Zealand’s escalating recycling problem.

- by Madison Reidy

‘‘We want more onshore processing, but whether penalising people that are exporting it is the way to do it, I do not know that it is.’’

Eugenie Sage

China’s import ban on dirty plastic has thrown the spotlight on our reliance on Asia’s recycling plants, proving a need for facilities here,

But the Government has indicated it is unlikely to be throwing more money into getting recycling plants off the ground here, meaning Kiwi recycling will continue to be shipped overseas.

From this month onwards, China will no longer accept many different types of waste, including all plastics, because of contaminat­ion problems.

The move has sent recycling companies around the world into a tailspin as they barter for space at south-east Asia processing facilities.

Last year New Zealand recycling companies sent 41 million kilograms of plastic waste to other countries to be processed, Statistics New Zealand export data revealed.

More than 7 million kilograms of New Zealands plastic waste was shipped to China last year. Hong Kong, a separate import jurisdicti­on, received 13.5 million kg, and another 19 million kg was sent to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Eugenie Sage, the associate Environmen­t Minister responsibl­e for waste, said China’s ban had created significan­t challenges for recycling companies here, and more waste would go to Indonesia in the interim.

She agreed that millions of kilograms of recyclable rubbish being sent to Asia was ‘‘probably not’’ common knowledge to New Zealanders.

‘‘The problem of waste we are sending to China is small compared to other countries. I’m not going to use a strong word like ashamed … [But] yes, we need to do more to process it in New Zealand.’’

Reducing the amount of waste going to landfill is a goal in the confidence and supply agreement between the Green Party and the Labour Party, but reducing the amount of waste being shipped offshore is not.

Sage would not say whether she would introduce a target around it. She was still working on how the Government would best incentivis­e waste being processed here.

‘‘We want more onshore processing, but whether penalising people that are exporting it is the way to do it, I do not know that it is.’’

What Sage is considerin­g is applying the landfill levy to all landfills to boost the Waste Minimisati­on Fund.

Using Ministry for the Environmen­t funds to build a recycling processing facility here to turn waste into new products was not an option, she said.

She would rather give funding grants to companies that decide to do that instead, like Astron Plastics Group and Flight Plastics had.

The problem is, recycling is a low margin business built on the economies of scale.

Reclaim chief executive John Gibson said New Zealand completely relied on offshore recycling facilities.

If there was money to be made from an onshore processing facility, more companies would have built them.

‘‘The fact they have not [been built] says a lot. It is more economic to send it overseas.’’

All up, the plastic waste we shipped overseas last year was worth $13.2 million, every kilogram of plastic earning an average of just 25 cents.

Australia-based Visy Recycling, Reclaim, Green Gorilla, EnviroWast­e and Waste Management are the major operators that collect and sort New Zealanders’ waste.

None of them process it for re-use as new products. Rather, they clean it and organise it into waste groups to send elsewhere. Sometimes that elsewhere is a landfill.

Green Gorilla chief operating officer Elaine Morgan said China’s decision had skyrockete­d the price to send plastic to recycling sorting facilities here.

It was now cheaper to send plastic to landfill than give it to companies who shipped it offshore, she said.

Such companies are believed have brokers on the ground in Asia, sniffing out the best deal they can find at local processing facilities to send recyclable waste to.

Plastics New Zealand environmen­tal projects manager Simon Wilkinson said China was the cheapest destinatio­n to ship plastic to.

China notified the World Trade Organisati­on of its new standards in July last year, so New Zealand’s recycling brokers had already organised alternativ­e locations but those places were more expensive.

Morgan said companies that sorted mostly plastic, like Visys, were feeling the heat of skyrocketi­ng prices following the China ban.

Visy’s sorting facility is next door to Green Gorilla in the south Auckland suburb of Onehunga.

Visy New Zealand general manager Nick Baker was barred from speaking to the Sunday StarTimes because his employer’s code of conduct did not allow him to talk with media.

The company refused to answer questions about how China’s plastic waste ban had affected its New Zealand operations, or say if it would now send plastic to alternativ­e locations or the landfill.

But Wilkinson quashed Morgan’s concern that the ban would result in more recyclable rubbish being dumped at landfills.

He said he did not expect that to happen, not even in the interim.

However, he did expect to see Indonesia and Malaysia quickly build extra recycling facilities to process more of the world’s waste.

The problem was that no watchdog was keeping an eye on internatio­nal facilities to ensure they were safe or sensible, he said.

‘‘There is a responsibi­lity for recycling companies and councils to audit or get some sort of verificati­on from those facilities.’’

Low-paid workers working in dangerous conditions were ‘‘fairly well known’’ practices in the southeast Asia countries that New Zealand exported plastic to, he said.

As for recyclable paper and cardboard, almost all of it is sent to paper mills in Indonesia by Auckland-based company Reclaim.

At least $40m worth of paper waste was sent to Indonesia last year. Vietnam and China took $3m worth each.

The Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand Tantowi Yahya said recycling was big business in Indonesia with a lot of processing facilities, but its government had been fighting the big issues it created too .

Indonesia introduced a ban like China’s on contaminat­ed and nonrecycla­ble waste in 2009, but companies continued to export it there.

Containers filled with dirty and unrecyclab­le plastic had been caught in its ports. Some of those containers were from New Zealand, he said.

Yahya said he could not name the New Zealand culprits because he did not know the details of thecompani­es.

Indonesia remained open to receive clean, recyclable waste and needed it to make new products to export.

‘‘I have to admit there has been some illegal importatio­n as well. Overcoming that is number one.’’

Yahya called for New Zealand investment in the Indonesian facilities that recycle our rubbish.

He said New Zealand recycling companies had been in talks with facilities there, but would not say if investing in his country was a better option than building our own facilities.

‘‘I am not going to interfere with the policy of your country.’’

Wilkinson said New Zealand would always be somewhat dependent on other countries to recycle our rubbish, yet we still needed more onshore recycling infrastruc­ture here.

Having a recycling industry dominated by a few major players made that difficult, he said.

‘‘It can almost be a closed shop. We are a little bit limited.’’

Sage said New Zealanders should be grateful for recycling companies who divert waste from landfill and not criticise them.

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 ??  ?? Reclaim sends waste paper to Indonesia
Reclaim sends waste paper to Indonesia
 ??  ?? Visy’s Auckland base sorts plastic.
Visy’s Auckland base sorts plastic.
 ??  ?? Green Gorilla says it’s now cheaper to send plastic to the landfill.
Green Gorilla says it’s now cheaper to send plastic to the landfill.

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