Single-use plastic ban timeframe criticised

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Anti-plastic campaigners and plastic producers are both critical of the four-year plan to phase out the harmful packaging, saying it falls short on plastic bottles and PVC.

The government has released details of its three-stage plan to delete difficult-to-recycle items from shelves and keep an estimated two billion single-use plastics out of landfills each year.

There will be no more PVC meat trays, plastic cotton buds or polystyrene takeaway containers by late next year, then in mid-2023, the country will wave goodbye to plastic fruit labels, straws, produce bags, cutlery, bowls and plates.

In mid-2025 the government will outlaw all other PVC and polystyrene food and drink packaging, while it is also talking to sector experts about options to replace plastic-lined coffee cups and wet wipes containing plastic.

“These types of plastics often end up as waste in landfills and cause pollution in our soils, waterways and the ocean. Reducing plastic waste will improve our environment and ensure we live up to our clean, green reputation,” says Environment Minister David Parker.

“Phasing out unnecessary and problematic plastics will help reduce waste to landfill, improve our recycling system and encourage reusable or environmentally responsible alternatives.

“We estimate this new policy will remove more than two billion single-use plastic items from our landfills or environment each year.”

National’s Environment spokesperson Scott Simpson says the opposition largely backs the plan but is critical of the time frames involved.

“The Government can and should be criticised for taking so long to act and for sending a series of conflicting messages to manufacturers and retailers over the last nearly four years,” he says.

“It’s been a time of uncertainty with some food and retail businesses not having the benefit of knowing what the government’s intentions are.

“Even with the announcement now made, actual implementation will be delayed because time is required for changes to packaging processes, materials, sourcing alternatives and in some case inventing new solutions such as will be required for fruit labels.

“Those time frames could have been shortened if the government had been clearer about their intentions much earlier.”

Marine conservation non-profit Our Seas Our Future share a similar view, welcoming the Government’s announcement on Sunday, but admitting disappointment in how long the rollout will take.  

“Phasing out these single-use plastics is a positive step to address our growing plastic pollution problem,” says Our Seas Our Future spokesperson, Lesl van der Voorn.

“We are disappointed, however, that the time frame outlined won’t see some of these items phased out until 2025.”

OSOF’s petition to encourage the Government to phase out single-use priority items by 2023, rather than 2025 has over 2000 signatures.

“The phase-out of these items is really only a fraction of the plastic problem. It’s encouraging to see items like plastic straws which have caused the death of many marine specimens finally banned, but there is still so much single-use plastics that needs to be eliminated. Wet wipes and coffee cups, for example, are excluded from this plan despite the significant issues they cause in our waterways and oceans.

“We understand that introducing new policies can take some time but the plastic pollution crisis requires urgent action. Every day that passes, hundreds of these items will harm our marine life, our ecosystems and our health.”

About 8000 people and businesses gave feedback on the government's draft proposal last year.

Greenpeace were one group to give feedback and they are now criticising the omission of plastic drink bottles from the final scheme, after a 2019 study found the average household threw out 188 of them each year.

Greenpeace plastics campaigner Juressa Lee says the government has been working on a container recycling scheme to cut that number down, with no announcements yet.

She would like them banned and replaced with refillable alternatives, which she says would be in line with what the government's already doing for other plastic products.

"I'm hoping that's coming. I was disappointed to not see it. But I think that the government understands that it's one of the worst culprits in our waste," she said.

"And the government is indicating that these hard to recycle single-use plastic items - that the answer to that is to ban them, to turn the tap off. I think that's an indication that they understand that recycling doesn't work. It definitely doesn't work on its own."

The plastics industry has also found a shortcoming.

Plastics NZ chief executive Rachel Barker says it was unclear why the government has banned the hard-to-recycle PVC packaging for food and beverages, but not other products.

"PVC - it's quite cheap and strong and it can be fully flexible or fully rigid. So it's used in a huge amount of packaging both within the food and beverage and outside of that sector. So what they're doing by only phasing out the food and beverage packaging is not solving the underlying problem," she says.

"We want to get it out of kerbside collection. By having it in general retail it still means we're going to have it in kerbside."

Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Auckland, Duncan McGillivray is unsure why businesses are waiting for guidance from the government.

"I think if I were in the packaging industry I'd be looking one step ahead and thinking actually if we can find alternatives then maybe we don't need to wait to be told by the government. We can start making these movements already," he says.

That is something supermarkets are doing - meaning shoppers might see changes before the government's single-use plastic deadlines.

Foodstuffs and Countdown say they have already started phasing out single-use plastics.

Both have switched to recyclable meat trays, and Countdown's stopped stocking plastic straws, plastic cutlery and products containing glitter.

Foodstuffs has quit selling plastic cotton buds, and just announced a ban on plastic produce bags from all its Pak 'n Save, New World and Four Squares across the country, instead trailing different types of reusable bags and crates.

The government has launched a $50 million plastics innovation fund to support projects that manage plastic waste effectively.

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