Manufacturers of products like phones, TVs and tyres are about to become more responsible for where they end up, with the Government moving to make some waste-busting stewardship schemes compulsory.
After proposals were floated last August, Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage today confirmed that schemes for six product types - plastic packaging, tyres, "e-waste" like electrical and electronic products, refrigerants, farm plastics and agrichemicals and their containers – would become regulated.
Product stewardship schemes work by having those making, using and using products take responsibility to recover them at the end of their lives, and prevent them ending up in landfills.
As part of a wider plan to slash the amount of rubbish being dumped across New Zealand, Sage has decided the six products will be prioritised for mandatory schemes under the Waste Minimisation Act.
"Old products that have reached the end of their life can be used to make something new, especially if they are designed better for reuse and recycling," Sage said.
While New Zealand already has 15 accredited voluntary schemes in place, Sage said these had only achieved "limited success".
Today's announcement effectively confirmed what Sage consulted on last year, when the Government found there was public support for taking stronger action.
"New Zealanders' expectations about waste have changed," she said.
"We need new approaches such as regulated product stewardship which will help reduce the environmental impacts of waste by ensuring that products and materials currently lost to landfill or pollution are recovered, reprocessed or re-used. This encourages new businesses and jobs."
How the mandatory schemes would work – and who exactly would pay the costs – wasn't yet clear.
While they've drawn concern that they could lead to higher prices for consumers, estimates for nationwide recovery programmes have suggested extra costs were low.
That included $5 per new tyre, $2 for a domestic fridge or $133 on a commercial refrigerated truck, and 36 cents per agrichemical container.
The next step would involve the Ministry for the Environment working with manufacturers and retailers to design schemes and regulations that worked for them and the environment.
Greenpeace plastics campaigner Phil Vine welcomed the moves, but saw a need to go further and faster.
"For decades now manufacturers of these products have put the blame on ordinary people, urging us to recycle away their problem," he said.
"With plastic, that has been proven not to work. Only 9 per cent of the world's plastic has ever been recycled."
Greenpeace is disappointed the new scheme didn't tackle one of the country's biggest plastic pollution problems - single-use drinks bottles, of which an estimated billion were sold to Kiwis each year.
Dr Joya Kemper, a lecturer at the University of Auckland's School of Marketing, saw the policy as a great step toward creating a "circular economy".
"In the circular economy, materials should first be recovered for reuse, refurbishment or repair, and if that isn't possible only then should remanufacturing and then raw material utilisation be used," she said.
"This allows are more fully sustainable production and consumption system to be established."
According a major report this year, less than 9 per cent of the global economy was circular.
"If we want our best shot at preventing plastic waste and preserving the earth's finite resources, solutions we must take a systematic and informed approach towards achieving a circular economy."
Industry group Plastics NZ also argued making schemes for plastic packaging mandatory – but excluding other packaging materials – would do more harm than good.
"Focusing on plastic packaging rather than all packaging is almost guaranteed to produce negative impacts on the environment and New Zealanders," its chief executive Rachel Barker said.
"Placing a levy on plastics, as is usual with stewardship schemes, will drive producers to alternatives with no view to reduced environmental footprint."
Barker said plastic was lightweight and tough, and to match it, alternatives needed to be much thicker and heavier.
"When looking at whole-of-life impacts plastic out-performs most other packaging in terms of shelf-life, carbon emissions and water use," she said.
"Moving away from plastic packaging without proper analysis will result in increased food waste, and potentially increased emissions."
Sage also announced today a grant of $70,000 would go to E-Waste Services to carry out a feasibility study on reducing e-waste plastic going to landfill.
Another investment of $320,000, drawn from Ministry for the Environment's Waste Minimisation Fund, will go to Auckland-based company TechCollect, to build on its successful e-waste pilot programme.
That meant expanding to at least 40 free drop-off sites across the country, with a goal to annually recover about 200,000 tonnes of electronic equipment and recycle up to 95 per cent of materials collected.
The funding would further help the company research and develop a national stewardship scheme specifically for e-waste.
This month, the Government announced it would invest $124m in new materials recovery and recycling infrastructure, and expanding the national waste disposal levy.
The initiatives to be funded could include plastic recycling plants, weighbridges for improved waste data collection and improved equipment for recycling plants.