The war on plastic is under way in New Zealand, but any notion that we're "100 per cent pure" died a long time ago. Statistics show that Kiwis are among the worst recyclers in the world. Marty Hoffart tells Carly Gibbs why our environmental failings should act as a wake-up call to everyone.

LOOK straight ahead and you won't see the filth. New Zealand on the surface is clean and green.

But tiki tour around and you'll see that we're facing a recycling crisis of our own making.

Ugliness comes in the form of discarded energy drink cans, beer bottles, mountains of bald tyres and broken televisions. And they're all washing up on our streets, in our waterways and in landfills en masse.

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Marty Hoffart is calling on the Government to clean up its act - and the nation - by introducing mandatory recycling reforms.

Canadian-born Hoffart, 54, runs the Tauranga-based nationwide consultancy Waste Watchers Ltd.

Marty Hoffart has become a national voice for promoting recycling. Photo / George Novak
Marty Hoffart has become a national voice for promoting recycling. Photo / George Novak

He's also chairman of Zero Waste Network New Zealand, Keep Tauranga Beautiful and the not-for-profit Environmental Education for Resource Sustainability Trust (EERST) that runs the Paper4trees programme in more than 4000 schools and preschools.

He thinks we have a long way to go.

"No other country promotes itself like we do," he says.

"The Germans aren't claiming to be '100 per cent pure green and clean', and they bloody well should be, because they're a lot cleaner and greener than we are. So are the Japanese, most Northern European countries, and the Canadians."

Tourism New Zealand's long-running "100 per cent Pure New Zealand" marketing campaign launched back in 1999 but, almost 20 years later, it has become an empty claim.

That's because, says Environment Minister Eugenie Sage, we're the 10th worst nation in terms of urban waste. An embarrassing ranking says Hoffart, when we rely so heavily on tourism and exports.

We're also one of the highest disposers of electronic waste (we bury 80,000 tonnes a year) and he's calling on manufacturers to include the cost of recycling in the purchase price of their goods.

Furthermore, our landfills have increased in volume by 16 per cent in 10 years, while our recycling has decreased by 6.3 per cent, according to the Ministry of Environment.

"What motivates me, is that change is inevitable," Hoffart says.

New Zealand is not
New Zealand is not "100 percent pure", says Marty Hoffart. Photo / Andrew Warner

On top of banning plastic bags, he points out we are on our way to cleaning up the 22,000 car tyres that New Zealand disposes of every day.

The Government is working with recycling programme development company 3R to create a system that will collect used tyres and recycle them.  

"Tyres could be the first mandatory product stewardship scheme that we see in this country," Hoffart says, adding that while that's good, it isn't enough.

"Hopefully, from that they'll say 'let's do e-waste, let's do beverage containers'."

He wants to see deposits added to beverage containers given that our rate of recycling these containers is among the lowest in the world, at around 35-40 per cent.

Given we use 2.23 billion beverage containers every year in New Zealand, that means we're sending millions to landfills every day.  

Placing deposits on beverage containers has worked in Australia, having debuted in South Australia in 1977 where that state had a 46 per cent beverage litter rate. Today the rate is down to 3 per cent.

New Zealand has never had legislated deposits on bottles but, as recently as the 1970s, local bottlers offered incentives to return glass bottles because it was cheaper to wash and refill them than produce new ones.

Then "the big boys" came to town in the form of international breweries and soft drink companies. They bought out local bottlers, moving production to the main centres.

That was the beginning of litter and one-trip containers - "they didn't want them back," Hoffart says.  

His knowledge is impressive, given that waste management is his second career.

Marty Hoffart says mandatory product stewardship schemes need to happen. Photo / Andrew Warner
Marty Hoffart says mandatory product stewardship schemes need to happen. Photo / Andrew Warner

The environmental consultant started out working with "disturbed" 12 to 18-year-old teenagers in Canada, and did crisis work for child and adolescent mental health services at Tauranga Hospital, before embarking on a sustainability career 20 years ago.

The transition followed a chat over the fence with former neighbour and ex-school principal Bruce Trask, who trialled for the All Blacks in 1971.

After retiring as Sport Bay of Plenty chief executive in 1993, Trask won a contract to develop a Tauranga City Council zero waste education programme that was first taught in 1994.

The programme continues to be taught today in 550 schools and across 21 local authorities around New Zealand.

The programme's success led to establishment of the environmental trust in 2000, which he co-founded with Hoffart, who taught in schools for several years and still meets former students who address him as "Mr H".

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Marty Hoffart (left) with Bruce Trask in 2011. Photo / Joel Ford
Marty Hoffart (left) with Bruce Trask in 2011. Photo / Joel Ford

The trust's Paper4trees recycling programme is now in most New Zealand schools and has given away hundreds of thousands of native plants, toward paper and cardboard recycling efforts.

Trask also established Water4schools to encourage schools to collect rainwater for grey water use, irrigation or ablution blocks.

He says Hoffart has "leapt over" him in terms of recycling promotion.

"Being Canadian, he's seen what can be done with the blue box recycling system, which they've had over there for years. He just wants New Zealand to catch up and be better than anywhere else in the world," Trask says.

He also claims Hoffart has taken Zero Waste Network New Zealand to "another level", and keeps waste companies "on their toes".

"He can talk to the Prime Minister, he can talk to an 8-year-old at school, that's the beauty of what he portrays.

"The facts are there, very seldom does he have to check on a fact because it's all in his head. For him, I think he's able to get a foot in the door with whoever he wants to talk to."

Hoffart first visited New Zealand more than 30 years ago as a young traveller and met his future-wife Sue on a subsequent trip, at a back yard barbecue in Tauranga in 1991. However, they only started dating after she wound up in Edmonton, Canada, during her OE and the pair eventually returned to New Zealand to marry in 1993.

He is one of nine children born to Catholic parents who still live two blocks from their church.  

While his parents embodied sustainability, he says the 1960s and 70s were a different time.

Back then, packaging was minimal and his mother preserved vegetables in jars before storing them in a cellar ready for winter.

Recycling programmes only appeared in the late 1970s and early 80s, once packaging started to increase.

Marty Hoffart grew up in Canada with parents who embodied sustainability. Photo / John Borren
Marty Hoffart grew up in Canada with parents who embodied sustainability. Photo / John Borren

Hoffart now lives in Otumoetai where he has a decent-sized backyard with plenty of trees: "I do love to be in the garden and be outside," he says, calling himself "a bit of a homebody".

He recycles all his soft plastic at Bureta Countdown and has four big, worm bins. He walks up Mauao three mornings a week and often collects discarded bottles and cans that he'll take home to recycle.

And he tries to keep food out of his wheelie-bin.

"The problem is when you bury it underground and run it over with a 60 tonne compactor, it turns into (toxic) liquid and when you squeeze food in the absence of oxygen, it also turns into methane gas."

He says every council in New Zealand should offer kerbside food collection so food waste can be turned into compost.

Tauranga City Council is considering the idea, having consulted with the community last year. The council is also looking to switch to a rates-funded collection service, so everyone has the same recycling bins.

"They've taken a lot of flak from some of the private collector companies in town. Naturally, some of them are worried about their living but, at the end of the day, there are enough things being collected that you don't have to have one company do it all."

His two children, Jake, 19 and Tom, 16, help him set up recycling stations at public events around town and, like many of their Generation Z peers, champion the cause.

"When I probably should have not been taking plastic bags from a supermarket several months ago, my 16-year-old carried the groceries out in his arms and said: 'We're not taking a bloody bag, Dad!'," he says.

Marty Hoffart says awareness around recycling is improving, but we have a long way to go. Photo / George Novak
Marty Hoffart says awareness around recycling is improving, but we have a long way to go. Photo / George Novak

More Kiwis are supporting the demise of plastics, even more so now that China has shut its door on taking 50 per cent of the world's recyclables in order to control the volume.

When that happened, many recyclers set up shop elsewhere, including in Malaysia.

Hoffart says that isn't a bad thing, contrary to some media reports.

He wants to point out that it's not "rubbish" going overseas.

"This is not mixed waste from the kerbside. It is sorted, bailed and sold as a commodity. It is plastic and other materials that have a value. People are paying for that stuff to go there. It looks bad because someone might be going out to a village where they've got kids sorting it but, at the end of the day, that's what's been happening in China for years.

"The whole industry has got to clean itself up. At the same time for our Government, it's a wake-up call because we haven't invested in onshore recycling," he says.

"Flight Plastics in Wellington can take all of New Zealand's number one clear plastic. So it can be done, it's just a matter of us setting up the onshore facilities to take that material back."

He says increased media coverage is a good thing because it shows mindsets are changing.

"There's been more in the media in the last six months than there has in the last 20 years.

"So there is some light there."