The flow-on impact of China's recycling ban has been bigger than our industry expected, prompting the launch of a new taskforce.
New Zealand previously shipped millions of kilograms of waste to Chinese processing plants each year, but its just-introduced ban on 24 types of foreign waste has forced recyclers to look for buyers elsewhere, mainly Southeast Asia.
Most of it was mixed paper and mixed plastics that weren't recycled locally the way other recyclables like glass, aluminium and cardboard were.
Although exports to Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have surged, stockpiles of some plastic have begun to appear around the country as certain types of products became harder to sell.
"The ban has had a greater impact than the industry expected and we need a coordinated response from central and local government, together with the waste and business sectors," Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said today.
A special taskforce was being set up within the Ministry for the Environment to lead the response.
A separate working group with representatives from councils and the sector would provide independent advice.
Sage said the recycling sector was facing pressure from the significant drop in global commodity prices.
The latest Customs figures showed the 2.7m kg of plastic waste sent to China in the first quarter of last year had dropped to just 125,904kg over the same time this year, and the associated value fell from $1.7m to little more than $100,000.
Last month, the Herald reported some grades of plastic waste collected by Wellington City Council had been temporarily stored while markets improved, but these products were now being sold overseas, although at a lower price.
In Auckland, where 70,000 tonnes of kerbside recycling had been previously shipped to China, contractor Visy was also looking for other markets.
"It is clear that this situation is not sustainable," Sage said.
"Several small stockpiles of recyclable materials have been building around the country, where smaller operators don't have ready access to alternative markets.
"The Government is using funds from the waste levy to invest in projects that will accelerate New Zealand's transition to a circular economy, including investing in onshore recycling plants.
"We are also looking at options such as expanding the waste levy to more landfills, improving the data we have on waste including recyclables, and other tools to reduce the environmental harm of products such as stewardship, levies and bans."
The announcement comes on the same day the recycling sector released a new discussion document calling on the Government for urgent action.
WasteMinz chief executive Paul Evans said the collapse in international recycling markets has left the recycling sector in New Zealand in a vulnerable position.
"Without positive action to address the issue, recyclable material could be sent to landfill, councils and communities will suffer financially, and operators could go out of business."
The sector wanted new funding to ensure recyclables weren't sent to landfill and for better data.
Longer term, it called for a revised national waste strategy, changes to the waste disposal levy, new product stewardship and design regulations, and a "positive approach" to public sector procurement of recycled products.
"While there is a lot to do, everything that has been set out in this discussion paper can be achieved using existing funding sources and legislation," Evans said.
"The sector is engaged and willing to work positively with the Government to ensure these things happen. But we need decisive action."