The public opinion on the challenge of waste has fixated on everyday consumer items like single use plastic bags, coffee cups and straws. As an agricultural nation, New Zealand needs to extend its eye-view to the wider waste issues faced by our vibrant primary industries – reputed as the world’s food basket.

At no other time has it been more important to address plastic waste issues.  Covid-19 has led to increased plastic consumption and has further exposed vulnerabilities in the global waste system. At the same time, it has highlighted the importance of our primary industries as the sustainable supplier of high-value, quality food – which is now helping to support our financial recovery.

Recycling is part of the tapestry of being an ethical provider of sustainable food and much more needs to be done to boost farm plastic recycling.

The Agrecovery programme recycles rigid plastic for the agrichemical industry right here in New Zealand.  As a voluntary scheme, the programme recovers almost 60 percent of this product packaging, but it suffers from free-rider issues – where some manufacturers refuse to participate and take responsibility for their products. This means that the programme is unable to collect all the product in this market.

Other farm plastics, like seed, feed and fertiliser bags, as well as horticultural netting, are difficult to recycle due to their composition.  The global trade for these scrap plastics is challenging at best and New Zealand doesn’t have the technology to recycle these types of plastics.

The global recycling crisis also saw demand for recycled plastic plummet. This crisis, resulting from the China National Sword Policy, wiped out global recycling facilities and resulted in a muted demand for recycled resins. Using virgin material remains the default choice for plastic packaging due to the low price of virgin plastics.

The reality is, if we don’t act now, our food basket could end up filling the waste basket too.

To address these issues, manufacturers, recyclers and central government need to collectively invest in creating recycling systems for all farm plastics.

There are three ways of doing this: by developing local recycling facilities to manage challenging waste streams; by creating viable markets for recycled plastic; and by ensuring that all manufacturers support the recycling of their products.

The government’s recommendations in its rethinking plastics plan is a positive start to driving change. This now needs to be backed up with an investment in domestic recycling infrastructure to sustainably manage farm plastics that require additional treatment.

It is imperative that we develop infrastructure to recycle this packaging locally and retain its value.  This will ensure that these agricultural plastics can move way from a ‘make, take and waste’ model and be part of a circular economy where end of life packaging is recycled and repurposed.  This will address challenging waste streams, create local employment opportunities and reduce the quantities of these soft plastics ending up in landfill.

To boost this, an investment in mechanisms to stimulate demand for recycled resins is needed to incentivise people to use it. Recycled resins come from the recycling process, where a plastic product is cleaned and broken down into its essential component – the resin. From this, new products can be created.  The containers that Agrecovery collects are made into a resin that is used to make underground cable covers and building materials. The brands that support Agrecovery pay a levy for every product sold, so this service can be free for farmers and growers.

Since its inception in 2006, Agrecovery has recycled and repurposed 3,000 tonnes of product packaging and safely disposed of over 150 tonnes of unwanted agrichemicals, but it could be doing much more.

Creating an environment where all product manufacturers participate in recycling will level the playing field and divert more plastic away from landfill. This creates a more efficient system for farmers and growers as it removes the confusion about which products can be recycled through the programme for free. Declaring agrichemicals and other farm plastics as priority products under the Waste Minimisation Act will allow this to happen.

As New Zealand aims to grow its primary industries, it also needs to step up and advance local recycling. Rural communities need convenient services as they do not benefit from curbside recycling or access to competitive commercial services, like people in urban areas do.

Agrecovery will continue to strive to be New Zealand’s product stewardship solution for our primary industries. We are backed by industry groups. We now need the government to step in, ensure all manufacturers participate and invest in solutions that deal with persistent waste issues.

By collectively taking these actions, we will help lift our nation’s reputation as a high-quality, safe and sustainable producer of primary products and divert more waste from harmful disposal practices.