It's being eyed as the answer to New Zealand's fast-growing waste woes - and a way to free up billions of dollars.

But shifting to a so-called "circular" economy would require some bold changes, one of the world's top thinkers says.

Dr Chris Kutarna – an Oxford University-based politics expert who notably predicted Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump – is in the country for a summit looking at the future of New Zealand's economy.

The focus of his talk at the conference, held in Rotorua today, will be how our economy can switch from a "take, make, waste" model to one where nothing gets thrown out.


Interest in this circular economy approach has grown in step with the country's mounting plastic problems.

The Ministry for the Environment has been developing a strategy pin-pointing specific sectors to target investment.

It's been estimated that the material value of some 95 per cent of plastic packaging was currently being lost to the economy, by ending up in our landfill, incinerators, oceans or countryside, instead of being turned into something useful.

And the focus had only intensified after China recently stopped taking 24 types of foreign waste, leading to stockpiles around the country as other importers were sought out.

Speaking to the Herald, Kutarna said an obvious problem was that most products weren't currently designed for reuse, repair, refurbishment or remanufacture.

"This take-make-waste mindset has created a linear economy, but this is no longer working for businesses, people or the environment," he said.

"A circular economy keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracts the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recovers and regenerates products and materials at the end of each service life. It is fuelled by renewable energy."

Globally, the model was important because humans were continuing to live well beyond their natural means.


Humans consumed around 50 per cent more natural resources than Earth could replenish, at about 60 billion tonnes of raw materials a year.

"Developing a circular economy is a real opportunity for New Zealand and all countries around the world," Kutarna said.

"Our resources are finite – meaning that once used, they will be gone forever. By changing our mindset to view waste as a design flaw, we can effectively design out waste."

He said New Zealand's Better Packaging Company was one of the Kiwi companies that had signed up to global commitment to end plastic packaging waste, launched by the summit's hosts, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

"It is using customised packaging solutions that avoid generating waste, and also working with materials that are an alternative to plastic."

Beyond taking more plastic out of the waste stream, he said the model promised innovation, long-term prosperity, more local jobs, lower carbon dioxide emissions and a climate change-resilient economy.

"Developing a circular economy is a real opportunity for New Zealand and all countries around the world," Dr Chris Kutarna says. Photo / Supplied

"The New Zealand Sustainable Business Network recently found that Auckland could liberate up to $8.8 billion in additional economic activity - and reduce carbon emissions by 2,700 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030."

What New Zealand can do

The shift would require a massive overhaul.

"Our linear supply chains have evolved to be extremely efficient and precise - but they cannot work in the long term," he said.

"Shifting towards a circular economy approach will have many impacts - for example, we will need to embrace repair and re-use much more widely than we do today.

"China's implementation of new policies restricting the import of recyclables is a good example - we will need to develop new solutions for the waste that is piling up."

A raft of such steps were set out in a major report recently published by the Sustainable Business Network.

They included boosting recycling rates, creating more on-shore processing facilities, running consistent collections around the country, lifting demand for recycled materials and bringing in 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 needed 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.

It was already working on some of what was recommended, and officials had been directed to progress mandatory product stewardship schemes for tyres and lithium batteries as a priority, with other schemes to follow.

A unique part of New Zealand's model was that it was being driven by Māori understandings of natural living systems, with a focus on sustainable regional prosperity, the ministry's chief executive Vicky Robertson said.

"Indigenous technical knowledge - mātauranga Māori - must be an integral part of how we contextualise and progress Aotearoa's circular economy model."

The Ōhanga Āmiomio: Ellen MacArthur Foundation Pacific Summit 2019, is being hosted by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the Ministry for the Environment and Scion.