New Zealand's mounting plastic woes should be tackled by swapping our "take, make, waste" approach to packaging with one where nothing gets thrown out.

That's the big take-away of the first-ever study on the country's entire plastic packaging system.

It further highlighted how even radically improving our current recycling system wouldn't solve all of our headaches.

Backed by major industry players including Coca Cola Amatil and Countdown, the Sustainable Business Network study estimated that the material value of 95 per cent of plastic packaging was lost to the economy.


Instead of being turned into something useful, it ended up in landfill, incinerated, or in our ocean, cities and countryside.

A lack of recycling facilities in New Zealand meant the bulk of plastics collected from our kerbs were being shipped overseas – some $13.1 million worth of it was exported last year.

The study instead called for a "circular economy" approach, in which the life cycles of materials were maximised, and, at the end of life, all of it was reutilised so that nothing was wasted.

"There has been an explosion in the use of plastic packaging in the last 60 years because it is relatively cheap, lightweight and durable," study leader James Griffin said.

"Unfortunately, systems to properly manage it have not kept pace. This has led to a global waste and pollution crisis, including here in New Zealand.

"More recently, the stresses in our system were highlighted when China effectively closed its doors to the world's waste."

New Zealand previously shipped 15 million kilograms of waste plastic alone to Chinese processing plants each year.

But the nation's health-driven ban on 24 types of foreign waste, which kicked in this year, forced recyclers to look for buyers elsewhere - mainly South East Asia – as stockpiles grew around the country.


The study suggested a series of measures to significantly increase recycling rates, such as reduction in the types and formats of plastics used, more on-shore processing facilities, consistent collections around the country, increasing demand for recycled materials and a container deposit scheme.

Individual businesses needed to audit the types and amounts of plastic packaging they used – and that included finding out the types of plastics being used, particularly those single-use products.

They also needed to set bold targets to design out problematic packaging and enable dramatically improved recycling, while supporting those suppliers that used high levels of recycled content.

The business sector also needs to work together to expand the market for recycled materials and develop product stewardship schemes for rigid plastics.

The Government, meanwhile, needed to develop and implement a comprehensive plastic packaging strategy, with bold and ambitious targets.

Griffin cautioned that, although such measures offered opportunities to improve the situation, recycling alone could not solve the issues associated with plastic packaging.


"There needs to be a wider approach, for example, problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging needs to be identified and eliminated from our supply chains," he said.

"Reuse models need to be adopted and scaled as an alternative to single-use plastics."

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said work was already underway on some of what was recommended.

"Manufacturers, retailers, the resource recovery sector, councils and consumers all have key roles to play and Government leadership is required," Sage said.

"We need manufacturers to be doing much more, faster and manufacturers, retailers and consumers to drive change up the supply chain."

Earlier this year, Sage announced a new work programme that included improving national data, investing more strategically and innovation, supporting processing of recovered materials within the country and expanding the waste disposal levy to all landfills.


The levy largely applied to landfills accepting household waste and expanding it to all landfills should help reduce waste in the commercial and industrial sector, she said.

The Ministry for the Environment was developing a circular economy strategy identifying sectors to target investment, and Sage had also directed officials to progress mandatory product stewardship schemes for tyres and lithium batteries as a priority, with other schemes to follow.

"The Government needs to make it easy for consumers to do the right thing. It is up to all of us – individuals, businesses councils, community organisations and government," she said.

"Consumers can make and encourage change through making good choices.

"Knowing there was strong public support for phasing out single use plastic bags contributed to the Government decision."