Sam Judd

Comment on the environment from nzherald.co.nz columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Plastic addiction and the myths of recycling

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Recycling has been used as an excuse for consumption for too long. Photo / Thinkstock
Recycling has been used as an excuse for consumption for too long. Photo / Thinkstock

Humans suffer many addictions - but possibly the least known and worst for the environment is our current penchant for plastic.

Like all addicts, we justify our addiction with reason: it's more hygienic, it's lightweight for shipping, it's recyclable, etc etc.

Aside from the huge amounts of energy required to recycle, when it comes to plastic we cannot even process it in NZ. The millions of plastic bottles we consume are compacted, wrapped in plastic and then shipped to Asia by diesel-hungry boats to places that you definitely won't find in a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Although recycling is certainly a better option than landfill- most people don't understand that you cannot make another plastic bottle from the material that we diligently put into our recycling bins. Instead, it becomes downgraded and deemed not worthy for those that study our consumption habits with a fine-toothed comb so as to feed the addiction which lines their pockets.

Plastics New Zealand widely promotes the volumes we recycle as if the fact that we consume so much is positive.

Looking deeper, we find we only recycle 24% of the plastic packaging we consume. Everything else we throw "away" goes into giant pestilent holes in the ground, or carelessly spills out into our marine ecosystem.

In fact, New Zealanders throw over 252,000 tonnes of plastic into landfills each year - a figure that continues to rise disproportionately to our increase in population.

In only two years, our organisation has removed more than 1,000,000 pieces of rubbish from coasts which have 'please recycle' imprinted on them. As a society we are addicted to plastic, and our consumption and disposal habits are as equally disgraceful as the marketing that gets us hooked and keeps us dependent.

Recycling is not an excuse to consume.

When awareness of plastic pollution first hit the headlines, public outrage directed at the plastics manufacturing industry resulted in the formation of the Keep America Beautiful Society. This organisation, which primarily promotes recycling, was founded by and continues to be controlled by polluters.

At the marine debris conference, a representative from the American Chemistry Council (a lobby group that represents plastic manufacturers) posited the idea that recycling was the solution to plastic entering our oceans.

When I questioned him about a grandiose yet toothless pledge to stop rubbish from entering the ocean - asking whether they would support any new legislation that would reduce marine debris but directly affect their profit margins - embarrassingly he had no answer.

I have walked past putrid rubbish bins, emblazoned with: "Recycling: saving the world one bin at a time."

Unfortunately, recycling will not save the world. It has simply become an excuse for producers to sell us more plastic packaging and for consumers to continue our easy, throwaway lifestyle.

Time for rehab

The reality is that plastic will continue to be produced, dumped in the ocean, and contaminate massive pits in our land until we, the consumers, stop using so much of it.

This means re-using what we have to consume wherever possible, and also being responsible with our rubbish when we have no use for it anymore.

* If you're looking for simple advice on how to reduce your dependence on plastic, visit Plastic Pollution Coalition and Rise above Plastics

* Or start by buying yourself a stainless steel drink bottle from Sustainable Coastlines

Sam Judd is Co-founder and Events director for Sustainable Coastlines - a registered New Zealand charity that motivates people to look after their coastlines.

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