Plastic is useful stuff - but there's too much of it floating around, LAUREL STOWELL finds.

Like the horrifying pictures of mountains of rubbish toppling into the sea, the recognition that humans have made enough plastic to choke their natural world is crashing in on informed people like a tidal wave.

There have been mutterings about too much plastic for years. It's mainly the drive to ban single-use plastic bags has occupied the media.

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Now suddenly random acquaintances are sharing ideas about managing with less plastic in their lives. It's like the wave of awareness that's overtaking tobacco smoking and the realisation there are more than two distinct genders in the world - a new flavour in the human soup.

The substance it's all about is a slippery one.

Plastic. It existed as a word before it existed as a substance. In Greek and Latin, "plastic" describes materials that are easily shaped and moulded.

That versatility is valuable, and the first plastics were made from plant-based material in the 1800s.

Most of what we now call plastic is made from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Plastics are chains of molecules, called polymers. The elements in them are mainly the usual carbon and hydrogen, but there can be additions like oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and chlorine, and variations in molecule spacing.

There are thousands of types of plastic, and most of the polymers used to make it are manufactured in Asia, the Middle East and United States. In New Zealand polymers are imported as pellets that are melted down and made into new shapes.

Plastic arrives as polymer pellets at Axiam Plastics. Wanganui Chronicle photograph by Bevan Conley.
Plastic arrives as polymer pellets at Axiam Plastics. Wanganui Chronicle photograph by Bevan Conley.

Whanganui has two businesses that import pelleted polymer. Waters & Farr makes it into pipes and Axiam Plastic remelts it under high pressure, pours it into moulds and cools it to makes components for things like furniture and electronics.

Melted plastic is injected into moulds at Whanganui's Axiam Plastics. Wanganui Chronicle photograph by Bevan Conley.
Melted plastic is injected into moulds at Whanganui's Axiam Plastics. Wanganui Chronicle photograph by Bevan Conley.

Four per cent of the world's extracted fossil fuel is now made into plastic, and making it uses another 4 per cent, making a total of 8 per cent of all fossil fuel extracted used for plastic. By 2050 this is projected to rise to 20 per cent.

In the past decade more plastic was made than during the whole of the 1900s - about 300 million tonnes a year, Massey university environmental anthropologist Dr Trisia Farrelly says.

Only 14 per cent is recycled. An estimated eight to 10 million tonnes a year go into the sea. New Zealanders are responsible for some of this, but it is mainly from third world countries.

By 2050 the weight of plastic in the sea is expected to be higher than the weight of fish. Sea creatures feed on it, which can kill them.

Volunteers had to clear undecayed plastic waste from a Greymouth beach - after a storm scattered rubbish from an old tip site. Photo/ Tony Kokshoorn
Volunteers had to clear undecayed plastic waste from a Greymouth beach - after a storm scattered rubbish from an old tip site. Photo/ Tony Kokshoorn

That plastic swills around, breaking into ever smaller particles and picking up other pollutants. Some plastics contain chemicals that can leach out and affect the hormone systems of living creatures, potentially causing cancer and birth defects.

There is already tiny particles of plastic in 70 per cent of our drinking water, in our sea salt and in our air. It's plastic saturation, a dusting over all.

The plastic bags that leave Whanganui supermarkets at the rate of 2000 an hour - as counted by Plastic Bag Free Whanganui last year - are just a tiny part of what's happening.

Whanganui resident Merilyn Payne is horrified by the throwaway society. She's been steering clear of single-use plastic for about a year.

From the generation when bread came wrapped in a piece of brown paper, Merilyn is a vegetable grower and bottler of produce - but even so being single-use-plastic free has taken some adjustment.

"It's tough, but I'm pretty passionate. Our diet has been pretty simple but I have had to simplify it more because so much stuff is wrapped in plastic," she said.

The hardest thing has been buying protein foods, which almost always come in plastic packaging. Her husband Michael likes chicken, but it is off the menu.

Fish is equally difficult, although sometimes she will take her own greaseproof paper or a reused plastic bag to wrap it if the seller allows.

Icecream is another problem, and her husband likes it.

"To his great delight he found a huge caterers' pack in cardboard. His icecream takes up half my freezer space."

Merilyn buys milk as a powder, grows plants from cuttings, has found bamboo toothbrushes and makes waxed fabric sandwich wraps. She can carry her own coffee cup to avoid using takeaway ones, and she makes washable net bags to take to the supermarket and fill with fruit, vegetables and other bulk buys.

She says people can find creative ways to reduce plastic - edible wrappers are one idea. She'd like Whanganui to become single-use-plastic free, and says there has to be joy in it.

"I share a lot of ideas with different people, and that's a lot of fun."

Given the publicity about single-use plastic bags, New Zealand's two big grocery chains will have to get clever fast. Both have said they will phase them out by the end of the year.

Foodstuffs has the Pak'nSave, New World and Four Square stores. It stopped selling bodycare products with plastic microbeads in July last year, ahead of the government deadline.

It will continue charging for plastic bags at Pak'nSave stores - said to cut bag use by 70 per cent. It keeps that money from bag sales and uses it to keep grocery prices down.

Four Square stores are looking for other options, and New World is doing the same, meanwhile "flooding the market" with millions of long-life reusable bags.

The Progressive Enterprises chain has Countdown, FreshChoice and SuperValue stores.

Managing director Dave Chambers said phasing out plastic carrier bags this year will remove 350 million bags from the waste stream - and 83 per cent of customers are in favour of it.

He thinks they will adapt quickly, and the chain is trialling compostable and paper bags in some stores, and reducing the price of the reusable bags it sells. It will not try charging for single-use plastic bags.

In Auckland a kindergarten has banned plastic bags, and Palmerston North has a Carrying Our Future campaign to reduce their use.

Massey University's Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist, is one of those behind it. She has been vocal about microplastics, and the plastic microbeads used in some body care products.

Massey University's Dr Trisia Farrelly got global attention before Christmas, saying plastic glitter should be banned because it affects marine life. Photo/ supplied
Massey University's Dr Trisia Farrelly got global attention before Christmas, saying plastic glitter should be banned because it affects marine life. Photo/ supplied

She was behind the global Lives and Afterlives of Plastic conference last year, and her pre-Christmas message about banning plastic glitter because it affects marine life reverberated around the globe.

Merilyn says Whanganui could quickly become plastic bag free. But in December the council decided not to ban the bags, on advice from Stuart Hylton.

The Queen has banned plastic bottles and straws from the royal estates. A Ban the Bag petition of 60,000 signatures goes to New Zealand's Parliament next week.

So - bags are the poster child of the anti-plastic brigade. But industry association Plastics New Zealand points out that some uses of plastic are good for the environment.

"The New Zealand plastics industry is a major contributor to the economy, generating a turnover greater than $2.6 billion a year and employing more than 9000 people. Plastics have improved our social wellbeing and are essential in our day to day lives. A large number of the environmental and economic improvements of the last century would not have been possible without plastics. They have an important role to play because of their intrinsic energy savings potential and recyclability," the association's website says.

Think of the plastic in eye glass lenses, the packaging that saves food from spoiling, the material that insulates houses. Plastic is cheap, flexible, and has allowed some innovative solutions.

Nozzles for an outdoor cleaning machine are made Axiam Plastics. Wanganui Chronicle photograph by Bevan Conley.
Nozzles for an outdoor cleaning machine are made Axiam Plastics. Wanganui Chronicle photograph by Bevan Conley.

It has allowed people to have things they couldn't have aspired to in the past. Its lightness saves energy used in transportation.

"A large part of the fuel savings and benefits of the [Boeing 787] Dreamliner come from a single fuselage of a lightweight composite material," Plastics New Zealand environment projects manager Simon Wilkinson said.

Environmental consultant Simon Wilkinson is hopeful the problem of plastic pollution can be solved. Photo/ supplied
Environmental consultant Simon Wilkinson is hopeful the problem of plastic pollution can be solved. Photo/ supplied

The plastic pipes underground in Christchurch survived earthquakes better than hard materials, because they were flexible.

So plastic in itself is not a substance to be got rid of. It's single-use plastic that should go, Simon said.

Most New Zealand's councils collect plastics numbered 1 to 7 for recycling. An estimated 65 to 80 per cent of the commonest two types are recycled, but there are no solid figures on plastics overall.

The contents of landfills are only 8 per cent plastic, according to the Ministry for the Environment - food and organic waste is the largest percentage - 30 to 40.

China used to recycle 56 per cent of the world's plastic waste, but it stopped last year and Simon says that is having a massive impact worldwide.

Recyclers are now stockpiling plastics and looking for new markets - mainly in South East Asia. The prices for some plastics have dropped.

"The best option is to recycle in your own country, but you need to invest in big, expensive plants and you need an end use," Simon said.

In New Zealand only numbers 1 and 2, the commonest plastics used in bottles, are recycled. Number 2 milk bottle plastic is flaked, washed, coloured and sold to manufacturers.

The country's best plastic recycler is Flight Plastics in Lower Hutt. It takes number 1 and makes it into plastic sheeting and the kind of clear plastic packaging used for berries and muffins.

The factory is expanding and will take as much product as it can get.

Because plastic is mostly carbon it's a source of energy and it can be burned - but at low temperatures the fumes are toxic.

"Low temperature open burning is very bad. The worst thing you can do is throw waste plastic into your open fire at home," Simon said.

Some European countries collect plastic and burn it at high temperatures, removing the harmful elements as they go up the chimney. They use that energy for heating and electricity.

Japanese inventor Akinori Ito has made a household appliance that will turn 1kg of mixed plastic into 1 litre of oil, using about 20 cents worth of electricity.

He's not the only one grappling with the plastic problem. People all over the world are trying to figure out how to produce and use less single-use plastic.

A report produced by the World Economic Forum proposes a "New Plastics Economy" in which plastic never becomes waste but is endlessly cycled.

A bottle deposit/refund scheme is one of the changes proposed by the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council. Merilyn's edible packaging could be another.

Everyone has to contribute to the solution, Simon says.

"Manufacturers, brand owners, retailers and the people using the products all have to be a bit more aware."

The problem seems big, but he's hopeful new technology can be part of the solution.