Few people outside the waste and recycling industry know the worldwide recycling system is on the verge of a meltdown according to Zero Waste Network chairman Marty Hoffart.
For decades, he said, recycling in the developed world had relied on China accepting and sorting mixed and dirty recyclable material, using extremely cheap labour. Now that country was trying to sort out its own environmental issues, and was no longer prepared to "do the dirty work".
Earlier this year it banned imports of plastic packaging and 23 other types of solid waste, while much tighter contamination limits were introduced on March 1.
Recycling industry leaders in Britain were describing the situation as the biggest problem they had, and there were reports of recycling being stockpiled around the world.
The changes also had major implications for recycling in New Zealand, Mr Hoffart said.
"People are often surprised to learn that most of New Zealand's plastic recycling is sent overseas, with the exception of small amounts (plastics 1 and 2), which are recycled here," he added.
"Closer to home, cracks are showing in glass recycling systems, with kerbside collections imploding in Queenstown and Tauranga.
"For the past year Queenstown's glass has been collected for recycling but ended up in landfill because of contamination issues. In Tauranga, Waste Management no longer collects household glass, suggesting people deliver it to recycling centres or drop-off points themselves."
Both towns had been running co-mingled recycling collections, where glass was mixed with other materials in kerbside wheelie bins. Waste Management had declared that practice to be commercially unsustainable, and the cause of health and safety issues.
Other materials were easily contaminated by shards of glass, leading to potentially recyclable materials being sent to landfill.
"The Zero Waste Network has been banging on about 'real recycling' for more than a decade," Mr Hoffart said.
"For recycling to live up to its name, materials must be collected and sorted in a way that preserves their future usefulness.
"We have to find a better way to fund recycling systems and infrastructure, which are currently funded by councils and ultimately paid for by ratepayers. And we have to redesign systems to produce clean, uncontaminated recyclable material.
"Drink bottles and cans are huge contributors to the recycling system, but they're also easy to deal with. Those of us who were around in the 70s remember trading bottles for pocket money at the local dairy.
Similar deposit-refund schemes, which fund recycling and reduce litter, are on the rise in Australia, and have been the norm in many other countries for more than 40 years. More recently, much of Britain has decided to introduce them.
"It's a very simple concept. A 10c deposit is included in the price of a drink, and is refunded when the container is returned. The 10c incentive massively increases recycling rates to as high as 82 per cent in Australian states with deposit-refund schemes, compared with rates as low as 45 per cent here.
"Worldwide we buy a million plastic bottles every minute, and fewer than half of them are being recycled. Plastic has pervaded the food chain, is harming coral reefs, and pollutes even the most remote beaches. Scientists estimate there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050."
A deposit-refund scheme would also relieve financial pressure on councils that were currently forced to pay for recycling infrastructure and systems. A New Zealand report released late last year found that councils would save up to $28 million a year in recycling, litter and landfill costs.
The system also offered bottle-drive fundraising opportunities for community groups, and commercial opportunities for businesses and social enterprises via recycling drop-off stations.
Mr Hoffart said 83 per cent of New Zealanders supported introducing a deposit-refund scheme for beverage containers, and a Local Government Waste Manifesto had ranked a scheme among the top five priorities for councils, but the problem had to be tackled at source.
"We already have an easy and effective tool to reduce waste, but it's not being properly used," he said.
"The government-imposed waste levy, a charge placed on rubbish taken to landfill, is currently set at $10 per tonne, which is so low very few people notice. It certainly doesn't make them change their behaviour. Raising the levy to a sensible $140 a tonne, similar to Australia, and applying it to all landfills would encourage huge waste reduction."
A report last year claimed that raising the levy to that level by 2025 would slash waste by at least three million tonnes a year, enough rubbish to fill trucks parked nose to tail all the way from Cape Reinga to Bluff, then back to Wellington.
It would also create a nett benefit to the economy of $500 million annually, that would pay for more onshore recycling infrastructure, waste minimisation campaigns and prevention of illegal dumping.
It had also been calculated that 9000 jobs would be created.
"With change comes opportunity. We can treat the Chinese recycling industry shake-up as a disaster, or we can view it as time to face up to the waste we make in our own backyard and do something about it," Mr Hoffart said.
"Taking responsibility for our waste on a personal, community and government level will be a giant step towards a zero waste future."