Wednesday, 15 August 2018

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Recycling - we can do better

By Suzanne Hansen

The Coromandel Peninsula has a reputation for being a pristine natural environment with a local and visiting population who embrace the virtues of conservation. People from all over New Zealand and the world travel here to play on our stunning beaches and to enjoy the calm lifestyle the area encompasses. But are we really all that “green” or are we just paying lip service? 

At the supermarket last week, I was heartened by all the folk checking out, as most of them had reusable bags. What disheartened me was what was put into the reusable bags. There were all sorts of plastic containers and plastic-packaged fruit and vegetables - I even saw double-plastic-wrapped organic beetroot being purchased. I also saw a large number of light-proof plastic milk bottles and cartons, which cannot be recycled since they are considered “mixed plastics” and “mixed paper” and there are no markets (neither in New Zealand nor overseas) for them. So, although we are cottoning-on to letting go of those single use plastic bags (most notably the checkout bags our groceries are being packed into), most of us seem to be missing a much larger issue.  

The issue is that although there are markets for recycled glass, clean hard plastics, cardboard and some other types of paper, the piles of mixed and soft plastics and mixed paper that we are sticking in our recycling bins have nowhere to go.

Mixed and soft plastics include, in additon to light proof milk bottles and single use plastic bags, cereal box inners and pasta and frozen food packets. Mixed paper include used toilet paper and tissues, any form of paper with a plastic coating and takeaway boxes that have absorbed oils or liquid from the food.

We all need to act more energetically and with a great deal more understanding about what we buy and how it is packaged, because it is a major issue for the future of our environment. We also need to understand how we dispose of our waste, what and how we are meant to recycle, reuse and reduce.

Layne Sefton from SMART Environmental gave me a pretty eye-opening tour of the SMART recycling plant in Kopu a couple of weeks ago. The plant services the recycling and waste needs of the Coromandel Peninsula, as well as the Hauraki and Matamata-Piako Districts. The plant processes more than 30 tons of waste per day in the low season. In the high season this jumps to more than 50 tons per day. It all adds up to about 12,000 tons per year. This year, our high season on the Coromandel stretched out to ANZAC weekend, thanks to some fine weather during autumn, and the SMART Environmental team are still processing mountains of high season backlog.

In these mountains of recycling backlog, there are approximately 14 per cent pure waste, which should be in blue refuse bags or the new red wheelie bins, and 37 per cent mixed and soft plastics and mixed paper.

SMART Environmental are compressing and baling up the excess waste, mixed and soft plastics and mixed paper. When I visited, they had 2,969 bales of waste in their warehouse, now overflowing outside into their yard. Layne estimated these bales amount to approximately 2,000 tons of waste sitting around, waiting for a solution or landfill. Light-proof milk bottles and cartons are over represented in these bales, clearly an issue Fonterra needs to address

Exacerbating the situation is that everything we put in our recycling bins is manually sorted. Glass is sorted kerbside. The rest is sorted on an assembly line at the SMART Environmental plant in Kopu. While workers are sorting out the waste from the “treasure,” they often find the treasure has high levels of contamination and things that endanger the workers, such as syringes, that people stick into their recycling bins when they absolutely should not.

I spoke to the Thames-Coromandel District Council mayor, Sandra Goudie, about the way people comply with the rules of recycling. “Although we make a concerted effort to educate and reinforce to our residents and visitors on how they should dispose of household recycling, getting through to them is another story,” she said. “People need to make smarter decisions, but how do you incite smarter behavior? Much like the messaging on lifejacket use or driving to the conditions, we can broadcast all we want, but how do we get through?”

Mrs Goudie also thinks it is a much bigger discussion than just better household behaviour. “We will still have mountains of waste,” she said. “We can nurture households into more responsible purchasing and disposing of waste, but that is one part of a bigger set of solutions which revolve around technology.”

Mrs Goudie mentioned two main areas to look at.

Firstly, in other markets in the world incineration or “pyrolysis processing” is a method widely used to deal with waste. It is rapidly-developing thermal conversion technology that has been gaining much attention worldwide due to its high efficiency eco-friendliness. The technology provides an opportunity for municipal solid waste, agricultural residues, scrap tyres, mixed plastics, mixed paper and the like to be converted into clean energy. Switzerland and Japan top the list with this initiative, both incinerating over 72 per cent of their waste. 

Secondly, Mrs Goudie said that many companies will have to change the way they package things. That is something central government would likely have to legislate for. Any legislation would require a lead-in period for investigation and change. Perhaps the government could make a start by calling on Fonterra to make the first changes with their light-proof packaging.

Layne Sefton is passionate about these issues and has some strong thoughts himself, which align with Mrs Goudie’s, about what needs to happen to improve the situation - 

  • People need to stop being lazy and do the right thing with what they are buying and throwing out.
  • If people say no to overly packaged goods, the manufacturers will stop producing them.
  • Corporations and large businesses have a large part to play in improving the situation.
  • We need to invest in developing more reuse industries in New Zealand and we need to do it now.
  • Central government needs to pass legislation to mandate a percentage of recyclables in manufacturing and packaging.

The bottom line is that we, as consumers, can do better. We need to understand the issue. We need to understand what we can and cannot recycle and we need to stick to the rules. We also need to demand better behaviour from the manufacturers, corporations and large businesses that are producing packaging that cannot be recycled.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.