How to be a better ancestor

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1.76 billion containers. That’s how many plastic containers we Kiwis put in our rubbish and recycling every year. An audit of 867 household recycling and rubbish bins in 2019 by WasteMINZ has shown for the first time just how much of a problem plastic actually is in New Zealand.

There are nearly 5 million New Zealanders, and we go through 1.76 billion plastic containers per year collectively. That means individually we use about 200 plastic containers a year. That’s a lot of soft drink bottles, sushi containers and biscuit trays!

How much landfill is in your shopping trolley infographic

Another surprise finding is that even though beverage bottles (soft drinks, water and milk) are made from highly recyclable plastics 1 and 2, a massive 97 million of these are put straight into household rubbish bins, meaning they go straight to landfill rather than getting recycled.

Reading statistics like this can be a depressing experience. But if you want to make a difference, here are some ideas about the little choices we can make as individuals to make a big difference collectively.

Choose knowledge

Hands up if you know what this symbol means? PET 1 recycling symbol

It’s known as the plastic identification symbol and tells you what the product is made from.  In this case, it means the packaging is made from plastic 1 (PET Polyethylene terephthalate the plastic used to make soft drink bottles), but  this doesn’t tell you whether it can be recycled or not. Give yourself a gold star if you knew this.

How about this one? recycling symbol

Another gold star if you correctly guessed that it means the item it is on can be recycled.

The use of the three-arrowed loop in both symbols causes endless confusion. Just because a container has a plastic identification symbol on it doesn’t always mean it can be recycled everywhere in New Zealand. You need to check with your council to find out what types of plastic they accept and ensure that you only put this in your recycling bin. This is especially true at this time of year when many of us are holidaying around the country. Don’t assume that what you can recycle at home can also be recycled at your holiday location!

All councils in Aotearoa allow plastic soft drink bottles and water bottles in their recycling and all except the Chatham Islands take milk bottles. Despite this, the average NZ family puts 36 plastic drink bottles and 15 milk bottles per year in their rubbish bins. Don’t be average – choose to use the right bin!

Choose to reduce

Choosing the right bin is relatively easy. Reducing the amount of plastic to be recycled takes a bit more work but is worth the extra effort.

One way to reduce the amount of plastic in your life is by simply refusing it. Make your own biscuits and crackers instead of purchasing them. The Love Food Hate Waste website has some great recipes for crackers, wraps  and other food you can make plastic free.

Buying in bulk or taking your own bags or bottles to refill (where shops allow it) is another way of reducing the amount of plastic you bring into your home. Check out the Plastic Free July website for more ideas on how to reduce plastic containers at home and in your workplace.  

Choose to reuse

Another simple way to reduce your plastic is by reusing. Invest in a reusable coffee cup and water bottle – an array of gorgeous bottles and cups now exist so there is one to suit all personalities (and outfits!).

It takes just 30 days to form a new habit so set a goal to carry your reusable cup and bottle with you for the next month to make it part of your normal routine. Keep a cup and bottle in the car, in your bag, at the office. The cost of buying these will pay for itself as you reduce the amount of bottled drinks you buy on the go – which makes it easier to make healthier choices too! Many cafes even offer a discount on coffee if you bring your own cup and some cafes will now let you refill your water bottle free of charge. Check out the Refill NZ website for the list.

Choose plastics 1, 2 and 5 and recycled plastic

For most people,  it’s extremely difficult to avoid plastic packaging altogether. To make a real impact choose to avoid plastics that are less able to be recycled. Plastics 3 (biscuit and cracker trays) and plastic 4 (tomato sauce bottles and soft plastics like bread bags and frozen pea bags) are more challenging to turn into new products, so it makes sense to focus your efforts on avoiding those.

Where possible, try and choose packaging that is made from plastics 1, 2 and 5 because these are all highly recyclable and can be recycled here in Aotearoa as well as overseas. The good news is that these are the most common plastics for grocery items, making up 87% of all the plastics we use.  If one of your favourite foods comes in another type of plastic consider contacting the manufacturer and ask them if they are planning on switching to plastic 1, 2 or 5.  

87% of plastic containers are easily recycled inforgraphic

Another choice is buying products packaged in plastic that’s already recycled. Next time you buy some meat in a clear plastic tray you might notice it has ‘RPET’ above the plastic 1 identification code. This means it is made from recycled plastic 1 and it’s quite likely it was recycled in New Zealand.

What do the numbers mean infographic

Choose clear packaging and sleeveless bottles

Some packaging designs that are made to help a product stand out on the shelf have the effect of reducing the packaging’s recyclability. Coloured plastic (even if it is plastic 1 or 2) has less value in the recycled plastic market because it ends up grey when recycled – not exactly a sought-after colour for food and beverage packaging. Choose a can of L&P instead of the amber plastic bottle and you can guarantee the container will be recycled.

Increasingly drink bottles are covered in a shrink-wrapped sleeve. This is a soft plastic which wraps around the bottle. While these make the product look good on the shelf, they reduce the chances of the bottle being recycled because the shrink-wrap cover is made from a different plastic than the bottle. If you buy drinks with shrink-wrapped sleeves, choose to remove the wrapper before you place the bottle in the recycling bin.

Choose to be a better ancestor

Environmental writer Bina Venkataraman encourages us to be a better ancestor. The choices we make today will impact the quality of life for future generations. So be a better ancestor and choose to reduce, reuse and recycle. In that order. And teach your families to do it too, then we will all have a better future.

Guest blog post:
This is a guest blog written by WasteMINZ TAO Forum – a collaboration of councils from around the country who are working to reduce waste and improve recycling. The statistics quoted in this post are based on a national audit of 867 household recycling and rubbish bins in New Zealand in 2019.

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