New Zealand is still shipping tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste offshore – much of it to countries with worrying environmental track records – as new requirements clamp down on exporters.
Campaigners say the amount of plastic recycling we're sending to other countries remains far too high - and are urging the Government to move to a waste-busting "circular economy" as soon as possible.
New Zealand remains one of the most wasteful countries in the developed world - and it's been estimated the average Kiwi household churns through nearly 1000 plastic containers and bottles every year.
Much of our recyclables previously went to processing plants in China - but when it stopped taking 24 types of foreign waste in 2018, exports turned to buyers elsewhere, mainly Southeast Asia.
A breakdown of export statistics, released by Customs NZ to the Herald under the Official Information Act, has shown which countries have been receiving the bulk of our waste plastic.
Malaysia has remained our biggest recipient over the past few years, taking nearly 41,000 tonnes - and nearly 3300 tonnes in the first quarter of this year alone.
Indonesia was the second largest - taking 23,536 tonnes over the past three years - followed by Hong Kong (10,527 tonnes), Thailand (5,756 tonnes) Australia (5,593 tonnes) and Taiwan (3229 tonnes), Vietnam (2015 tonnes) and Singapore (1580 tonnes).
Over time, the total quantity of these exports had dropped from nearly 10,000 tonnes in the second quarter of 2019, to 5190 tonnes this quarter - but advocates say that volume is still worrying.
"It will be shocking to many people, but unfortunately it's not surprising," Greenpeace Aotearoa plastics campaigner Juressa Lee said.
"If you look at just the single-use plastic drink bottle, we throw away an estimated one billion here in New Zealand every year.
"There's currently no way to deal with the vast quantities of single-use plastics that are sold and discarded."
Lee said it was especially concerning that much of this waste was still being dumped on countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
"A Greenpeace investigation a few years back showed that significant amounts of that 'recycled' plastic was being dumped, buried or burned at illegal sites in Malaysia with little concern for the health impacts on the surrounding communities."
Emeritus Professor Ralph Cooney, of the University of Auckland, said Indonesia was able to reduce, reuse and recycle just 15 per cent of its waste, while 35 per cent was being dumped in landfills or incinerated.
The World Bank had also reported how uncollected waste was a significant source of pollution and health problems for communities around the country, Cooney said.
"This situation with Indonesia and these consequences for ocean waste will be echoed in other developing economies in South-east Asia and South Asia."
Cooney said the alarming amount of waste that New Zealand produced per capita was down to a range of factors - among them, market prices, and packaging design decisions and practices by brands and manufacturers that limited recyclability.
"These include not using the plastic identification codes and symbols and a lack of standardisation in recycling around the country," he said.
"They are responsible for only 60 per cent of all waste plastic containers going into a recycling bin and even fewer being optimally recycled and given a second life.
"This, in turn, has meant that more plastics are disposed of in landfills or are exported to overseas countries."
Trish Allen, of Mahurangi Wastebusters, said how recyclables were collected and processed here could also explain why some developing countries were burning or dumping much of it.
Most smaller councils in New Zealand now only collected plastics 1, 2 and sometimes 5 at kerbside, and sent types 3, 4, 6 and 7 straight to landfill.
Small operators such as her own group, Wānaka Wastebusters and Xtreme Zero Waste hand separated plastics 1 and 2 into bales, some of which were re-processed here.
But larger councils like Auckland's processed the recyclables into mixed bales.
"So, when the mixed bales get to Malaysia they are opened, the 1, 2 and 5s taken out, and the rest is worthless and has to be disposed of," Allen said.
She was encouraged by reports that Malaysia had recently tightened its rules, and had been returning non-recyclable plastics to source countries.
Under new agreements New Zealand has entered into under the global Basel Convention, Kiwi waste companies were now required a permit from the Environmental Protection Authority to export mixed bales of plastic.
"But to be honest, until plastics 3, 4, 6, 7 are phased out, and as long as we have cities like Auckland producing bales of mixed plastic, I can't see a reduction in exports," Allen added.
"Although, if the non-recyclable plastics keep getting sent back, maybe that will make a change."
Lee felt the new Basel Convention rules were worthwhile - but added that, so long as New Zealand was producing vast amounts of plastic waste, the situation was "like a game of whack a mole".
"The real solution is strong regulation by Government to cut plastic waste off at the source with rules against the production and trade in unnecessary single-use plastic products."
In June, Environment Minister David Parker announced the phase-out of problem plastics and some single-use plastics - among them plastic cutlery and cotton buds, PVC meat trays and polystyrene takeaway containers - by mid-2025.
It was estimated the new policy would strip more than two billion single-use plastic items from our landfills or environment each year.
A Ministry for the Environment spokesperson pointed to a range of other recent measures that have been taken to combat plastic waste, such as investing $124m in new recycling infrastructure and $50m plastic innovation fund to support projects.
As well, plastic packaging was one of six declared "priority products" under the Waste Minimisation Act - and now required a product stewardship scheme to be developed and accredited here.
Cooney said an obvious objective for New Zealand to strive toward was a "circular economy" model where 100 per cent of our packaging and containers were recycled here.
"Packaging is the leading plastics industry sector and packaging plastics are generally more recyclable than those of other industry sectors."
The country would need to ramp up its recycling capacity - and compel consumers and manufacturers alike to lift their game - but sector data nonetheless suggested the goal was possible, he said.
Despite the high export volumes, Plastics NZ chief executive Rachel Barker contended that there'd been improvements with how plastic collected at kerbside was sorted, enabling more of types 1, 2 and 5 to be reprocessed onshore.
At the same time, Barker wasn't surprised to see we were still sending waste offshore, and didn't expect this to stop entirely in the near future.
"There is global demand for most recycled plastics as many companies have committed to using recycled content within their packaging or products," she said.
"The New Zealand reprocessing infrastructure, while rapidly being upgraded, is still limited in capacity.
"By sending some materials overseas for recycling we ensure they can cycle back into use rather than being landfilled or leaked into the environment."
She added that some of our packaging plastics might always need to be shipped overseas to ensure they were returned to food-grade quality for use in new packaging.
"We may not have the economies of scale to achieve this onshore."
Across the industry, Barker said there was a large amount of work going on behind the scenes to move New Zealand to a circular plastics economy, such as manufacturers redesigning products, choosing materials that were recyclable in practice, or exploring product stewardship.
"We have already seen many changes, such as the increased waste levy, mandated product stewardship, and the announcements around phase-out of problematic plastics," she said.
"These, alongside the planned review of the Waste Minimisation Act and National Waste Strategy and the creation of a National Plastics Action Plan, all show New Zealand moving in the right direction.
"Change takes time, however, particularly when it is an entire system that needs to shift."