Kiwi households are churning through nearly two billion plastic containers a year with over a third of it by weight ending up in landfill.

New Zealand's unhealthy addiction to plastic has been laid bare in a report that found households also put nearly 100 million plastic drink and milk bottles in their rubbish bins - instead of recycling them.

Waste Management Institute of New Zealand (WasteMINZ), which is behind the in-depth audit of household rubbish and recycling, says poor labelling and confusing rules across regions are largely to blame.

Sorting through kerbside rubbish and recycling bins of 867 New Zealand households from eight areas the report estimated 1.76 billion plastic containers were being disposed of across the country each year - more than metal (767m) and glass (854m) combined.

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Kiwi households use 188 plastic bottles a year, but 36 of them are ending up in landfill. Image / WasteMINZ
Kiwi households use 188 plastic bottles a year, but 36 of them are ending up in landfill. Image / WasteMINZ

The report also found 39 per cent - by weight - of household plastic bottles and containers that could be recycled were going to landfill, and 97 million plastic drink and milk bottles went directly into rubbish instead of recycling bins.

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WasteMINZ TAO Forum chair Parul Sood said the findings highlighted issues with household sorting, collecting, and design of packaging.

An estimated 181 million containers showed no plastic identification code or recycling information.

Almost 26m plastic containers were likely not recycled by the processor due to a container's plastic shrink sleeve.

Triggers and pumps - such as those on spray bottles - could also often not be recycled.

Coloured plastic and bottles with plastic sleaves are creating issues for recyclers. Image / WasteMINZ
Coloured plastic and bottles with plastic sleaves are creating issues for recyclers. Image / WasteMINZ

Researchers also found confusion around the different types of plastic that could be recycled, with just 2600 tonnes of household grocery packaging made from plastics 3, 4, 6, and 7 disposed of via kerbside collections, compared with the estimated 41,300 tonnes of packaging made from plastics 1, 2 and 5.

"Improved labelling, the choice of plastic used when designing packaging, and standardising nationally the plastic packaging accepted for kerbside recycling to make it easier for Kiwis to know what can and can't be recycled - all of these actions can improve our recycling rates," Sood said.

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Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage said the report was a "wake-up call".

"It highlights the value of much better product design so products and their materials can be easily reused or recycled, and the need to reduce what we use, reuse what we can, and recycle properly.

"It's a timely wake-up call for designers, manufacturers, retailers and marketers to shift towards more recyclable and reuseable packaging. There is a strong public demand for this."

Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage said the report was a
Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage said the report was a "wake-up call". Photo / File

Industry group Plastics New Zealand's CEO Rachel Barker said the report showed current recycling rates were not high enough, with just 65 per cent of plastics 1, 2 and 5 recycled.

"Many councils don't collect polypropylene [5] even though there is a strong end market for this material. Increasing the rate of collection would hugely improve the recycling statistics and this valuable material could be reprocessed right here in New Zealand."

There needed to be better education around proper recycling etiquette, with 8m soft drink bottles with liquid in them, and 1.8m "stinky" milk bottles ending up in landfill, Barker said.

Plastics NZ also proposed improved labelling, allowing only natural or light plastic colours, and improved collection and sorting infrastructure.

The audit and report, supported by a $425,000 grant from the Ministry for the Environment over three years, was carried out late last year in partnership with councils in several cities and regional towns across New Zealand.

Sage said combined with the Chief Science Advisor (CSA) Juliet Gerrard's recent report Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand, the audit provided solid information to help inform the Government's work programme to reduce waste.

Confusion around recyling codes is also found to be an issue. Image / WasteMINZ
Confusion around recyling codes is also found to be an issue. Image / WasteMINZ

Following Gerrard's report the Government announced a ban on more single-use plastic items, including meat trays, cups and takeaway food containers - six months after the official plastic bag-ban came into force.

The overall plan also includes:

• A container return scheme for drink bottles and cans.

• Regulated product stewardship schemes for tough waste issues such as e-waste, tyres and batteries.

• A National Resource Recovery work programme in response to China and other countries' bans on importing waste and recyclables.

• Improving waste data.

• Expanding and improving the landfill levy to help fund more ways to recover, reuse and reprocess materials and minimise waste.

• A $40 million Provincial Growth Fund investment to turn plastic waste into useful material for businesses and consumers.

Recycling tips

What you can and cannot recycle varies between the country's territorial authorities – an issue the report argued created confusion among residents.

For the most up to date recycling information visit your local territorial authority's website.

What you can recycle in Auckland:

• Glass bottles and glass jars

• Tin, steel and aluminium cans, including empty aerosols

• Plastic bottles from your kitchen, bathroom and laundry (plastic grades 1-7)

• Clear plastic food containers

• Pizza boxes (remove any leftover food)

• Newspapers, magazines, advertising mail and envelopes

• Paper and cardboard packaging

• Egg cartons

• Milk and juice cartons, including Tetra Pak cartons (except on Great Barrier Island)

• If you live on Great Barrier Island, you need to bundle, bag and place these items next to your crate:

• Newspapers, magazines, advertising mail and envelopes

• Paper and cardboard packaging

• Egg cartons

Before recycling rinse all containers. Leave lids on all bottles and containers (except on Great Barrier Island: take lids off all bottles and put in your rubbish bag). Containers should be no larger than 4 litres.

What you cannot recycle in Auckland:

• Plastic bags, and other soft plastics. Seek out soft plastic collections across the city.

• Food waste.

• Garden waste.

• Medical waste.

• Building waste.

• Chemicals and hazardous waste.

• Nappies and sanitary products.

• Polystyrene takeaway containers and polystyrene meat trays.

• Clothing, shoes and textiles.

• Cookware, Pyrex and drinking glasses.

• Window glass, mirror glass and light bulbs.

• Fluorescent tubes and lamps, including Compact Fluorescent Lamps - they contain toxic mercury.

• Electronic and electrical items.

• Batteries - lithium batteries can explode and have been known to cause fires in recycling trucks.

Source: Auckland Council

What the numbers mean

Many thermoplastics have a code on them that identifies the type of plastic they are made from, helping industry readily sort them in recycling facilities.

But territorial authorities differ greatly in what they accept. Auckland Council accepts plastic bottles and containers from all codes 1-7, while others, such as Whangārei District Council, only accept 1 and 2.

For the most up to date recycling information visit your local territorial authority's website.

1 - Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET(E)): drink bottles, condiment/food jars, containers and trays.

2 - High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): water bottles, milk bottles, cleaning products, and cosmetics.

3 - Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC): packaging/wraps (such as plastic takeaway containers), chemical dispensers, plumbing pipes, and flexible packaging/bags.

4 - Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): soft plastic like shrink wrap, grocery and bread bags, squeezable bottles.

5 - Polypropylene (PP): hard containers, medicine bottles, takeaway containers, bottle caps, refrigerated food containers and plastic cutlery.

6 - Polystyrene (PS) and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS): styrofoam cups, food containers, meat trays, protective foam packaging.

7 - Other (Composite, BPA etc.): milk/fruit juice cartons, oven bags, roofing, low grade bottles and outdoor goods.

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