Out of sight, out of mind. That still appears to be the attitude of many New Zealanders to the waste material we generate.

That is not surprising. Garbage, rubbish, refuse, scrap ... it's dirty talk, but it's hardly a sexy subject. Yet it is one that must be aired as it becomes a mounting problem worldwide. Images of landscapes littered with plastic bags and oceans clogged with plastic waste are increasingly difficult to ignore — as is information about the impact on the environment, to birds, animals, marine life, the food chain.

It is now D-Day on the issue. Swamped by its own domestic waste challenge (courtesy of its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers), China is no longer willing to be the world's biggest dumping ground, and has stopped importing the plethora of plastic and other products it used to recycle.

The move was signalled in the middle of last year, but short-term thinking still abounds and this country faces a big problem. Despite our clean, green, "100% Pure" image, New Zealand is shamefully behind other countries in tackling the issue of waste materials — particularly plastics, which can take hundreds of years to break down.


Many of these products are single-use items: plastic bags, coffee cups, nappies, a vast array of packaging. Much of this waste goes straight into (often plastic bag-lined) rubbish bins and to landfill.

Some is recycled, and those who believe they are making an effort to be environmentally conscious feel virtuous. Recycling should certainly be encouraged, wherever possible, but it is often only the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Shipping waste offshore to Third World or developing countries is hardly ethically responsible. Recycling can also be energy intensive and expensive. Some recycled products cannot be further recycled. Reduction is the key.

To reduce waste, however, requires a major change in our collective attitude. It will be necessary to ditch the throwaway, instant gratification, self-centred mindset and make sustainability the driving force, not just a buzzword. Inevitably, producers, retailers and consumers will need more "persuading".

New Zealand is still well behind other countries in terms of plastic waste reduction initiatives, including bans and taxes. However, there is some momentum building, which is positive. After public pressure, the major supermarket chains said last year they would stop using single-use plastic carrier bags from the end of this year, and there is pressure on the Government to ban their use entirely.

Some retailers put a small charge on plastic bags as a deterrent, and there is discussion about whether we might follow the UK's mooted "latte levy" to tackle the problem of non-recyclable plastic-lined cardboard coffee cups.

Hundreds of millions of those cups go to New Zealand landfills each year — along with an estimated billion lightweight plastic bags. Add to that the tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic and other waste now being turned away from China, and the problem is surely too big for any of us to ignore.