With Plastic Free July under way, Herald science reporter Jamie Morton looks at five figures that reveal the alarming enormity of New Zealand's plastic problem – and five things we can do about it.
That's how many plastic containers Kiwi households are estimated to churn through each year – and too much of it is going to our landfills instead of recycling centres.
A recent survey by the Waste Management Institute of New Zealand found households put nearly 100 million plastic drink and milk bottles in their rubbish bins instead of recycling them – with poor labelling and confusing rules across regions largely to blame.
When measured by weight, nearly 40 per cent of household plastic bottles and containers that could be recycled were going to landfill.
Despite increasing awareness about our plastic woes, households still use more plastic containers than they do metal and glass containers combined.
Our supposedly clean and green country has a high per-capita use of plastics. According to Plastics NZ, each of us consumes approximately 31kg of plastic packaging every single year - yet only recycles 5.58kg.
New Zealand might have signed up to stronger provisions in the international Basel Convention – aimed at reducing the flow of hazardous waste between countries – but our track record has hardly been green.
Thousands of tonnes of plastic are shipped offshore each year. Between January and September last year alone, more than 8000 tonnes went to Indonesia and around 7800 tonnes went to Malaysia.
Much of our plastic waste once went to China, but exporters were forced to search for other markets when the country banned such imports to tackle its own pollution.
New Zealand was embarrassed last year when Indonesia sent back three shipping containers of used, contaminated plastic waste.
According to trade data, plastic export tonnages have fluctuated between 2009 and 2018, with an overall increase from roughly 60,000 to 75,000 tonnes - and an associated increase in value of $79 million.
Over the same time, plastic imports have risen from around 400,000 to 575,000 tonnes in the past 10 years, with an associated increase in value of $845m.
Over half of that was plastic "in primary forms" – such as resins – and the rest were products, many of which were used in manufacturing such as plates, sheets, film, foil and strip.
While much of the plastic we litter flows into the ocean, where it's hard to measure, snapshots based on what volunteers have collected in our parks and streets give us an indication of the scale of the problem.
Of more than 17,700 items picked up in New Zealand's most recent litter survey, a large chunk of it was plastic packaging.
Specifically: food packaging of plastic or mixed materials made up 13.3 per cent of the count, and plastics drinks packaging made up nearly 6 per cent – not including loose items like bottle tops.
Soft plastic packaging made up about 9.1 per cent.
Globally, the amount of plastic produced each year has doubled over the last 20 years and is still growing rapidly, despite growing concerns about plastic pollution and climate change.
Humans are thought to have thrown away three-quarters of the volume of plastics ever produced – and less than 20 per cent of the waste plastic generated each year is recycled worldwide.
The boom in global plastics production has outpaced that of almost every other material in history, owing to the massive growth of plastics used in everyday applications.
In 2015, for instance, 407 million tonnes of plastics were produced worldwide - and 302 million tonnes of plastics were discarded as waste.
If this growth in the plastics industry continued, global production could produce about 1124 million tonnes of plastics annually by 2050.
It's been estimated that the equivalent of a garbage truck-load of plastic waste has been dumped into the ocean every 38 seconds over the past decade.
An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing equipment is discarded into the marine environment each year – and each day, it's been estimated that five million plastic items are lost or thrown overboard from ships daily.
As it stood, humans were each year dumping more than eight million metric tonnes of plastic into the marine environment - that was equivalent to the weight of 24 jumbo jets, or Eden Park stadium stacked with plastic more than a kilometre high.
Unless people do something, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
The toll on marine wildlife has already been frightful. More than 700 species of marine life are known to ingest plastic – and one 2015 study found the plastics we throw away have been mistakenly eaten by around 90 per cent of all sea birds alive today.
That rate was expected to grow to 99 per cent by mid-century.
The study also found that, while plastic had been found in the stomachs of less than 5 per cent of sea birds in 1960, this had climbed to a staggering rate of 80 per cent by 2010.
Plastics had the greatest impact on wildlife where they gathered in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.
Surprisingly, one of the most threatened areas was the Tasman Sea - its surrounding seas had previously been considered to be relatively free of plastic pollution.
About 10 per cent of all seabirds on the planet breed in this part of the world - and many fed on small prey with gelatinous surfaces which look similar to small pieces of floating plastic.
The result could be agonising, causing gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes death.
It's not just seabirds and other marine life that were eating plastic.
One report released last year suggested people around the world were consuming about 2000 tiny pieces of plastic, 5g or the weight of a credit card, every week – that's equal to 21g a month, just over 250g a year.
Some of those worries were allayed with a World Health Organisation report that found microplastics larger than 150 micrometres were not likely to be absorbed in the human body.
So small that they're typically invisible to the naked eye, microplastics nonetheless pose a goliath threat to our oceans.
These particles of broken-down plastic products are now being found within rainwater, sea salt, air but also us, having entered the food chain through drinking water, and species like tuna and mackerel.
In 2014, it was estimated that the ocean contained between 15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles, not counting those that have sunk to the seabed or have been deposited on shorelines worldwide.
In New Zealand, scientists have been surveying microplastics on local beaches. One recent study of 40 sites across Auckland showed the bulk of these particles weren't broken down bits of bottles, but fibres that may likely be traced back to the washing of clothing.
Five things Kiwis can do
Get a keep-cup:
People can easily avoid takeaway coffee cups by bringing along your own reusable alternative. There are many reusable coffee cups available on the market. Keep it in your bag or on your desk at work; wherever you'll remember to use it. Many people choose socially and environmentally-friendly reusables made of ceramic, glass, plastic or stainless steel. If you forget your reusable alternative and don't have time to dine-in, consider going without.
Buy less: Before you buy, stop and think about the low or no waste waste options. People making smarter decisions when shopping show that it can have a huge impact, and is not too difficult. Considering the packaging of the item is a good place to start to "buy less". Thinking about potential alternatives can include: choosing the item with the least amount of packaging, switching from plastic to paper packaging, or even choosing loose product with no packaging at the grocers or a bulk food store. For reusable products, it's better to purchase something that's designed to last forever than it is to purchase something that will need replacing regularly.
Clean up your bathroom: Choose to refuse plastic-packaged bathroom supplies, including shower gel. Making the switch from shower gel to bars of soap is an easy way to reduce consumption of single-use plastics. Bar soaps come in different blends to suit body washing, face wash, shampoo and shaving, so your line-up of bottles may become a line-up of bars. Some people also go one step further and check the ingredients of the soap to ensure they don't contain palm oil, which contributes to deforestation. Bar soap can often be purchased without packaging, especially in bulk food, health, and organic stores. Alternatively, many suppliers use cardboard to package their soap which can be thrown in the compost once used.
Celebrate without plastic: With a little bit of creativity, you can easily plan a party that's free from balloons and other harmful single-use plastics. Popular decorations that can be reused time and time again, include bunting, tassels, tissue pom poms, lanterns, fresh flowers, and more. With crafting making a comeback, many people find it easy and fun to make decorations from old fabric and scrap paper, too. Many people use Facebook for finding decorations. Local groups – such as Buy Nothing – often have a bank of decorations available to share amongst the community.
Go without single-use tampons and pads: These days, there are many reusable alternatives to single-use sanitary items. This includes the increasingly popular menstrual cups, which are made by numerous brands and can be purchased online and in many health stores and chemists. These cups are inserted like a tampon, and typically need to be emptied and cleaned out a couple of times a day. Period underwear and washable cotton pads and liners are also reusable alternatives, again with many brands available to choose from. These work more like pads, and can all be washed in the washing machine.
Source: Plastic Free Foundation
• To find out more about Plastic Free July, visit the website .