Heather Roy

25 March 2018

The truth about recycling is hard to find. It’s an emotional issue for too many, when a reasoned, evidenced based approach is what’s called for if we really want to make a difference.

Recycling makes people like me feel good. I hate the thought of things that can be used time and time again being thrown out after one use. So, I reuse plastic supermarket bags, save glass containers for other uses (like making jam), give used clothing to charities and spend time sorting my rubbish. My husband frequently laughs at my efforts, telling me that most will find its way to landfill – exactly what I am trying to avoid. My problem is I can’t say with any confidence that he is wrong.

It was refreshing to read Richard Meadows article this morning – My secret love – supermarket plastic bags – and I suspect he says what many are thinking. It’s terrible to see plastic bags strangling dolphins, but that is a littering issue. Everything has an impact on the environment. The question is how great is the impact of our choice of carrying vehicle for our groceries compared to options we’ve disregarded? Richard compares the options in his article and also looks at the behavioural aspects of recycling.

It seems to me that there are two issues that deserve consideration – producing items and disposing of them. We know that plastic supermarket bags for example take a very long time to decompose compared to paper bags. But more water and energy is used to produce paper bags than plastic bags, and the same for materials used for cloth supermarket bags. So what is the overall picture – production vs decomposition? To confuse the issue further, it seems that most research is around single use items. What if you really do use your plastic bags multiple times? How does this affect the big picture?

Then there are the other recycling efforts we pride ourselves on. Glass recycling, I thought was an obvious win for the environment, but further reading shows that in most areas of New Zealand only bottles that are separated by colour are actually recycled to make more bottles. Much more glass is crushed to make composite for road surfacing materials and some glass bottles are dumped in landfill.

My family has a bach in Havelock, Marlborough where there is no council rubbish collection – a point of contention for the locals with the Marlborough District Council over rates. But this lack of service has resulted in an excellent (in my view) recycling system which is well supported by the community. When you take your waste to the Waste Transfer Station glass bottles are sorted by colour and sent for recycling. Cardboard and paper are separated and I’m told that the cardboard is currently attracting a good price. Plastic recycling goes into a separate bin, as do cans. And most valuable of all are the aluminum wine bottle caps and tab tops from aluminium drink cans. These recyclables are free to dump and all other waste you pay to dump into huge skip bins.  Cost is definitely a driver of behaviour.

The more you read, the more complicated the recycling issue becomes. If ‘hearts and souls’ are to be engaged people require accurate information.  If I was the Minster for the Environment I think I’d be asking the Productivity Commission to take an in-depth look at recycling. Plastic vs paper vs material. Production costs vs waste costs. It’s a matter for economists who understand the impacts of markets, production, consumption, the environment and human behaviour.

And surely, in this day and age, someone could invent a plastic supermarket bag that can decompose more quickly than 100 years.