Coast lovers were angry this week at polystyrene waste dumped along 7km of Wellington's south beaches. Picking up thousands of tiny balls blowing into streams and drains, one resident told Radio New Zealand: "it's an environmental disaster. I'm furious."
Ōwhiro Bay resident Jade Lorier said she was worried about the health of the nearby stream.
"We've got native eels, as well as fish, I'm worried about the wildlife in the marine reserve," Lorier said. "We're trying to protect and restore this area, and this is just an absolute nightmare for the south coast.
"I'd like this person to be held responsible."
The feeling was understandable. But the damage was only a drop in an ocean of polystyrene waste inflicted daily on the planet. Indeed, of all the substances we should be rapidly replacing, polystyrene, or Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam, is among those crying out the loudest for action.
Because it is very light, EPS fills landfills globally. It is the single largest material taking up landfill by volume. Once EPS breaks into tiny balls, it contaminates wide areas as it is easily carried by wind and water.
This week's spill came from an uncovered trailer, but over 14 million metric tonnes of EPS are manufactured annually: 11.2 million tonnes are dumped into landfill and an estimated 2.8 million tonnes escape and contaminate natural environments.
Every year, we essentially dump enough EPS in our natural environments to build 40 great pyramids of Giza.
EPS has long been used by industry because it is cheap, all too long lasting and functionally performs well. Estimates of when, if ever, this waste will decompose in landfill run into thousands of years. It will break down faster in sunlight, but then only finds its way back into the food chain.
Awareness of the threat is growing.
Seventeen countries have completely or partially banned some classes of single-use plastics, including EPS. Fifteen American cities have banned it.
Although many businesses are waiting until they are forced to change, industry is reducing packaging and moving to recycling as it listens to consumer and environmental calls. Importantly, we are also on the cusp of a new era thanks to technology now being developed globally and in New Zealand.
Alternatives coming to market from companies such as BioFab in New Zealand combine agricultural products with the mycelium root system of mushrooms to produce compounds 100 per cent biodegradable in soil. Decomposing in water in 180 days, they will also reduce plastic waste in oceans. Growing hemp as a raw material input sucks CO2 out of the air.
The BioFab team includes commercial mushroom growers, bio-chemists, geneticists, mycologists and purpose-driven entrepreneurs who are serious about science-based sustainability and the zero waste objective.
In Europe and the United States, these new biodegradable products are already being used in packaging for cookers, consumer items and gin (including the non-alcoholic type from Seedlip) attracting brands like The Body Shop for their ecological credentials.
Consumers can play their part by limiting waste and choosing how they spend. New Zealand can also take a leadership position, by understanding better the alternatives on offer and the opportunity being developed for local research and manufacturing of these products.
We are developing native New Zealand biological composites and talking to our first major customers. Our vision is to leave behind a world our children would love to inherit – and make sure no one ever has to pick up balls of polluting polystyrene ever again.
• James Ferrier is the CEO of BioFab.