Collective cries of despair rang out across Aotearoa in December last year as diligent recyclers heard the news that NZ's Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme was being abruptly brought to a halt. The Packaging Forum (who ran the scheme) announced that "changes to global recycling have meant that we're now collecting more than we can currently process in New Zealand".
"We wanted to let you all know that we have taken the difficult decision to suspend collections for the soft plastic scheme from 31st December 2018, with plans to resume a sustainable service in April 2019".
I'll be honest. I wasn't sad to hear the announcement.
Because the Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme was put together by people who represent some of the world's biggest food and beverage brands, to give them the appearance of being environmentally responsible without requiring them to actually change their packaging practices. Because soft plastic recycling made people feel good about their plastic consumption (even though soft plastics are made into non-recyclable products that will eventually end up in landfill). Because the Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme did nothing to stem the tide of disposable plastic entering New Zealand each year.
The one good thing about the Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme, however, is that it gave people a taste of "reducing waste". It relieved the guilt of purchasing stuff packaged in plastic and, now that the scheme has been taken away, people are extremely unhappy about the prospect of sending their plastic waste to landfill. So, it has raised awareness and, for that, I'm grateful. Over $700,000 of public money used to set up the scheme, but still, I'm grateful.
They've said that they'll restart the service once April rolls around and some people are stockpiling plastic in the hope that the scheme will resume, but let's not hold our breath. There is not enough demand for the end products and, quite simply, we are creating too much plastic waste.
But now, a new "solution" is doing the rounds. Ecobricks.
What are Ecobricks?
An Ecobrick is a plastic bottle, stuffed full of soft plastics, which is then used as a building block to make things such as furniture, garden beds and even houses.
But the problem with Ecobricks is the same as that of the Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme - it makes people feel good about consuming disposable plastic.
Supporters of the Ecobricks scheme point to the fact that building with Ecobricks requires less concrete (a material with a significant carbon footprint) than conventional concrete constructions. While this may be true, it's possible to build furniture, garden beds and houses with materials that are a heck of a lot more sustainable than plastic chip packets: Upcycled wooden pallet furniture. Renewable hardwood garden beds. Adobe houses.
Building with Ecobricks just seems to be prolonging the inevitable. What happens if, at some point in the future, that Ecobrick house is no longer required? It gets bulldozed and we're back where we started, with a pile of plastic waste. And do we really want to transform our beautiful country into lego-land?
If we're using Ecobricks to deal with waste that already exists, that makes some sense. If we're using Ecobricks to justify continued consumption, that's when it becomes problematic. It's particularly concerning that on the Ecobricks website, the first words you come across are "The solution to plastic is here."...followed by "be sure to start ecobricking right— this is a long-term life habit that you, your household and community are beginning."
If building with Ecobricks is going to be an ongoing "long-term life habit", let's be honest about what it is we're doing. There's nothing "eco" about Ecobricks. We'd be better off calling them what they are: rubbish. They're "rubbish-bricks". And they're encouraging people to continue making more rubbish.
So, what's the solution?
Well, there's not really any way around it. We have to reduce our consumption of disposable plastic.
If we want to live in a zero waste Aotearoa, let's not support businesses that are contributing to the problem. And, as well as curbing our own personal consumption, we need to tell our friends and whānau, connect with our local communities, talk to our local MPs, contact businesses, lobby the government...shout it from the rooftops that we want substantial change. It's time to move beyond the short-term solutions - the soft plastic recycling, the Ecobricks, the greenwashing. We're drowning in a sea of soft plastic and using an Ecobrick as a life raft. But, there's something else on the horizon - a day when we take the plunge, gathering the collective will to turn off the tap, so we can, once more, frolick in an ocean that is free of plastic.