Science and the plastics problem
Published: 15 January 2020
A short documentary by Shirley Horrocks focusing on plastics in New Zealand – the issue, facts and work being done to address and rethink our use of plastics.
This is the first in a series of POST IT documentaries centering on the work of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard. Part funding for the project was through our sponsorship funding.
Video transcript - Science and the plastics problem
Science and the plastics problem
On screen: In June 2018 Professor Juliet Gerrard was appointed as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.
Juliet Gerrard [to camera]: The biggest challenge when I took on this role was prioritising. So we’ve only got a little office and hundreds of possible projects, and so I took lots of advice from both policy makers and researcher about where the evidence base was most missing from policy. Plastics sung out as one of the most pressing issues.
[Figures on separate screens with graphics and ominous sounds:]
Humans have created about 8.3 billions metric tons of plastics to date. That is equivalent to the weight of:
- 822,000 Eiffel Towers
- 25,000 Empire State Buildings
- 80 million blue whales
- 1 billion elephants.
New Zealanders use 147,000,000 kg of plastic packaging each year, including 1,186,000,000 drink bottles.
(Based on data from Sustainable Business Network and a New Zealand population of 4.9 million.)
Juliet talks with Dame Jane Goodall
Juliet Gerrard: We met the Prime Minister on Monday.
Jane Goodall: We did indeed, and it was a wonderful meeting. I think NZ’s very lucky to have a prime minister like that (with picture of Jane Goodall and the Prime Minister).
Juliet Gerrard: We didn’t talk about plastics very much and that is the thing that the Prime Minister’s asked me to work on. There’s already been a law change to get rid of single-use plastic bags but obviously it’s a much bigger problem than that. And so we’re putting together an evidence based report – all the boring stuff, everything that’s coming in and out of the country and all the technical solutions. But we also have some psychologists on the panel and we’re looking at ways to do some cultural transformation to get buy-in from people, and I would love to hear about what you've seen that really encourages people to buy into changing the way they interact with plastic.
Jane Goodall [with pictures]: Well I've found that it’s the young people who get on board. They have other ways of thinking. They know what we’re doing to the planet, their future. Many of them have grown up being concerned about some of these things, so we have this programme for young people called Roots and Shoots. It’s in 60 countries now and it’s all ages – kindergarten to university and everything in between. And I think that in at east half of those 60 countries there are groups of young people working diligently on how to reduce plastic waste. And I have great confidence in them, they're already coming up with ideas.
Juliet Gerrard: So you think ask the children for the ideas and they’ll come up with them themselves?
Jane Goodall: Well no. I think a lot of high tech people are also coming up with the ideas, but it makes you sick. I was just reading about several whales and dolphins that are washed up on the beach dead with huge amounts, tons of plastic in their stomachs and I know in California there’s been a huge fight to save the California condor and they’ve bred them up but in the wild they’re picking up plastic to feed their chicks because it looks like something else. So plastic is a scourge.
Sharon Humphreys, Executive Director, Packaging Council of NZ: It’s a marvelous packaging material but it’s not a good material if we want something to actually degrade back into the environment quickly. So it’s got an incredibly long life, it is efficient, it is economic, so those are the properties of it that make it such good packaging, but make it very very difficult when it comes to end of life. Now the reality is that we can do something with all of this packaging. It is technically recyclable, but that gets into another whole area of do we have the capacity, do we have the capability? And the whole world is grappling with this at this moment in time.
Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke, Acting Director (Research Analyst and Writer, Office of the PMCSA: A big part of this project is that it’s really broad in scope. That means we are trying to shift the whole system at once, that is why we have spoken to so many people. We have a core panel of 11 people and I’m involved in supporting them to provide input into our larger report. And then we've also got what we're calling a broader reference group and that's where I'm talking to stakeholders from across the system, across NZ, to find out what work they are doing in the area, talking to Plastics NZ which are the manufacturing industry body for the plastics industry, speaking to various brand owners or retailers, local councils, some community groups like Sustainable Coastlines or Para Kore who are a Māori organisation who’ve been doing waste management on maraes.
Kowhai Olsen: There are basic principles around Para Kore, and the main principle is that we return all resource back to from where it came, and in the most natural process possible. Kaitiakitanga is intergenerational matauranga or knowledge, so when we are born – much like a prince is groomed to become a king – our people are given traditional knowledge and customs and it is handed down through generations as Māori. Para Kore is one of those pieces of knowledge.
Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke: As well as all of those groups it’s getting involved with the researchers who might be looking at new materials or behavioural research about how new ways to use plastic or changing your practices might spread through society.
Juliet Gerrard: The single plastic bag ban is in operation, that’s just step one of what the government wants to do in terms of avoiding waste, and so they need the evidence base that the panel can provide in order to really actively write policy so it’s quite an exciting project in that we’re making a direct different as we go. [There are pictures of the panel.]
I really enjoy the project because it is very un ivory tower, so rather than sit in the University of Auckland with a bunch of scholars we’re adding in lots of people from recycling industries, council, general public: anyone that wants to contribute.
Kim Hill and the panel
Kim Hill: We have to eliminate unnecessary packaging. Recycling will not solve the plastics problem. Do you agree or not? Let me start with you, Mike Sammons.
Mike Sammons: I think the first thing to do is to look at reduction, so if you don’t need packaging don’t use it, basically. And the plastic bags action is a case in point there, that we’ve seen that consumers can adapt and have adapted very well to that. So what was the figure – 750 million plastic bags a year. So that’s significant, so the first thing’s around reduction. And then the second thing is if you’re looking for packaging, aim for it to be renewable rather than non-renewable. And then if it can’t be renewable and you can’t look at a fibre based packaging and you have to use plastic, ensure that that plastic – in an ideal world – it will be recyclable, but not just recyclable, but recycled back into what it actually came from. So you’ve got a circular solution.
Kim Hill: What do you think, Juliet. Can we even approximate dealing with the problem by recycling?
Juliet Gerrard: No, because even if you could deal with all the sorting and get people to recycle, the chemistry is not perfect. So it will never be a circle, it will be a downward spiral.
Kim Hill: So Mike was in fact wrong? You’ll always have to down-cycle? [Laughter.]
Juliet Gerrard: I don’t think he’s completely wrong, because recycling is part of the problem, and part of the solution.
Title: Recycling: part of the solution
Derek Landers, Flight Group Director [with factory shots]: Here at Flyte Plastics we are reprocessing New Zealand's recycled PET plastic. Now that’s the plastic with a 1 in the recycling logo. [image of the triangular recyling logo with a numeral 1] It’s commonly used in drinks bottles and in food packaging. So water bottles, Coke bottles, all that sort of stuff. Our food packaging that we make, which is biscuit trays and blueberry punnets, and so on. And what we’re doing is we are buying [pulls a squashed plastic drink bottle from the bale of compressed plastic items behind him] this material from the recycling bins around New Zealand, effectively. It’s coming from a recycling bin to a sorting facility. We buy the material and then we are able to clean that up, get rid of the glue and the labels and the cap, and turn it back into a food grade product. And those food grade products – interestingly there is a blueberry punnet – that has been made from New Zealand recycled plastic here at Flyte, it’s gone to a supermarket, gone to a customer, gone into a recycling bin and come back to us here at Flyte and we’ll be able to put that back through the system and use it again. That’s a circular economy.
What we’ve been living in up until very recently is what we call a linear economy, and that is, you buy something, you use it, and you throw it in the bin. And that goes to waste and it’s wasted. And what we’re learning from this circular economy situation, is that what we used to think of as rubbish – like an empty water bottle – is actually not rubbish, it’s a resource.
The key to recycled plastic in New Zealand, and using recycled plastic, is that it actually creates a double benefit. We’re not importing materials so we’re not spending our overseas earnings buying this stuff. We’re not shipping it here, so there's no carbon issues like that. And more than that we are taking it from our own waste stream, using it here in New Zealand, making a product we can use again and again.
Juliet Gerrard: It’s really exciting that the PET recyclers have led the way in New Zealand and now they’re at more than capacity, so we can take in the PET recycling plants as much as New Zealanders can make. So you might think that everyone should switch to PET for all their plastic packaging, but you can’t make everything out of PET. So if, for example, you tried to make an ice-cream container out of PET you’d need it to be really thick, which would be a waste of resource because overall we’re trying to reduce our footprint. So the next challenge for New Zealand will be to start recycling other types of plastic. So number 2 will be good – things like milk bottles. There’s a little bit going on already, but we need to scale that, and then to try and persuade consumers, communities, manufacturers to focus on the ones that we can recycle before we move on to more exciting solutions that might roll out in the future.
Kim and the panel
Kim Hill, addressing Sharon Humphreys: You’ve also said we need to engage society to address consumption. Do you mean quantity of consumption?
Sharon Humphreys: I mean the whole - well, yes: quantity, quality of consumption, quantity of consumption, how we’re consuming. So again, it’s a big, big social question. It’s a big social behavioural picture that’s looking at – well yes when we purchase something what are the credentials that we’re looking at? What’s important to us? And how then do we actually, then, project that in terms of our consumption habits? So it’s really a matter of actually thinking about how we consume.
Kim Hill: Juliet, have you got any suggestions to the government to affect consumption patterns in that way? Incentives for example?
Juliet Gerrard: The very last part of the report at the end of the year is going to be led by the psychologists who are interested in how to change behaviour. So they use examples like sunhats. 20 years ago, kids didn’t wear sunhats at school. Now they all do. So how do we get people to be more mindful of packaging in the same way that that behavior changed. Much more complicated problem than sunhats, but at least there are some tools out there to help understand how you get sort of cultural transformation.
Interview with Sir Bob Harvey
Sir Bob Harvey: When I became mayor of Waitakere City and founded, I guess with a bunch of terrific counsellors, the idea of an eco-city, we actually lived totally by that agenda. I think that more than any city in the Auckland region, Waitakere had a name for environmental good management and that was backed by fantastic community involvement. On our twin streams, saving water when the dams ran dry, no one saved water more than Waitakere. So I honestly believe good leadership, education of the community, education of a nation will achieve what we set out to do.
Kim and the panel
Kim Hill: What about the attitude that we’ve taken to tobacco, and just tax the hell out of it?
Juliet Gerrard: We do the science advice not the tax advice. [Audience laughter.]
Juliet to camera: Part of my role is to make sure that policy is informed by the evidence. And that might be simple numbers from a recycling plant, but it might also be much higher tech evidence. So evidence base for new materials: whether they really do compost, whether they provide new solutions to present new solutions for packaging – that we could change the whole way that packaging is done in New Zealand. That would be on a much longer time-frame to simple things like recycling, but whatever we do we need an evidence base to make sure that when we change we know we’re changing in the right direction.
Title: Bioplastics: part of the solution
Juliet Gerrard: One of the most exciting things about the project has been hearing all the new ideas out there that people are coming up with to solve our plastic problem. Lots of little ideas, some big ideas, and already at different time frames. So some of them are ready to go now and others – like the work that’s going on at Scion – are really ambitious and imagining a whole new future where most of the plastics are made from a new class of materials derived from plant waste.
Elspeth McRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer, Scion: Plastics actually enabled an awful lot of things that we could do. So we wouldn’t have got any spaceships up on to the moon without plastics for lightweight, strong, reliable material. The same with airplane flights. Flying around the world right now you’re flying in plastic pretty much – a bit of metal, some other stuff, but mostly it’s plastic and enabled by it. So that makes it cheaper to fly for the fuel side of things, and easier, able to get up in the air. So plastics are really important for us, and they’re all around us, and we’ve adopted them so fast because they’re convenient, they’re lightweight and they’re effective at what they do. So transferring into bioplastics for this means we’ve got to go fast-tracking through some of all those developments, and finding the right places where bioplastics can substitute.
Kim and the panel
Kim Hill: Let’s talk about bioplastics. What are they? Why are they called plastics at all?
Juliet Gerrard: People muddle up plastics that can biodegrade – that can come from any source – with plastics that are made of biological materials. So the Scion programme is all about making sustainable plastic from any sort of biological materials, but wood would be a focus at Scion.
Kim Hill: Sustainable in the sense that they don’t come from fossil fuels, and also in the sense that they can biodegrade.
Juliet Gerrard: So ideally they’d be plant based in some way and also would biodegrade.
Florian Graichen, Scion: Fundamentally you have 2 different ways of making plastics: from petro-chemical sources as we know it today, or you can make it from renewable material. And at Scion we use sugar out of trees, for example. We ferment that, and turn that then into bioplastics. So the base material does not come from out of the ground – digging deep into the ground – but we’re using what has renewably grown, and turn that into a plastic.
Elspeth MacRae, Scion: Fossil fuels and fossil materials are actually old trees – they’re actually a material called lignin that holds the tree together, and that was hundreds and hundreds and thousands of millions of years ago, and got compressed in the earth and then we got petrol and we got coal out of it, for example. Whereas today’s world, what we’re doing is we’re taking – so when we use those petroleum plastics and then degrade them we add CO2 to the atmosphere – new CO2. When we use the bioplastics we are actually using the CO2 that’s in the atmosphere to make our bioplastics, so we’re not adding to the whole system. And that’s why they’re better for the environment. And as well as that we can also manage what we do with them and how we get rid of them at the end of life.
Florian Graichen: Traditionally with fossil fuels we always looked at the economic side of things. I can grow the GDP of an economy by extracting more and more finite resources, but that will come to an end. That has to come to an end. So now with bioplastics it is about how can I extract renewable resources in a sustainable way to manufacture a product that in the overall life cycle is a benefit to the environment but also to the economy. So it can’t be just one or the other.
Elspeth MacRae: One of the technologies that Scion is working with is how can we take all of the waste on the plantation floor – the slash that people have had problems with, with flooding for example around Gisborne. And we can make a mobile unit and we can actually turn that into precursor materials and precursor chemicals. We can also take the fibre and the biomass from it and use that to then make sugars that the microbes can then use to make plastics and go through the circle again. So it’s a way of clearing away the waste and giving a reason for people to capture that waste rather than leave it in the forest.
Florian Graichen: We are now just in the first year of a multi-year, multi-million dollar project called bark bar refinery to have the under-utilised source bark in New Zealand where we have millions of tons either lying on the ground or left in the forest and to use material out of bark in polymer applications. One example of the bioplastics we’re working on here are the polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and this is a very very fascinating group of polymers produced by microbes.
Elspeth MacRae: We store glycogen as energy, plants store starch as energy, and these microbes store these bioplastic polymers. And so what we do is we have CO2 and water, it’s in the atmosphere around us – the CO2’s increasing all the time, half the problem – and trees capture both of those through photosynthesis and then trees make sugar, essentially. And then the microbes come along and say yum, sugar. I’ll store up my energy for later so I make these bioplastics and then what we do is take the bioplastics out of the microbes and we make our substitute plastic materials. And then the advantage is because microbes make them they can also degrade them. Because they’re used to reusing them the way we use glycogen and plants use starch. And so the microbes can come along and degrade them right back to CO2 and water which the tree can capture again and we can go round and round in that cycle.
Florian Graichen: The big science opportunity now is how do you redesign, how do you use new materials in that setting up of new products? Recycle technology – we haven’t been very good with our recycling rates so there’s a big challenge for innovation and science opportunities to make recycling better, and then here – what I’m personally really, really excited about – is that element of renew. Can we bring in bio-based material, bio-based polymers – also set up for either compostability, or recyclability, or resusability – into the whole system without extracting new materials.
In New Zealand when we look at or when we think of biomass we pretty much think of trees, but that’s not all there is. There are also different materials such as from algae or from horticulture, viticulture types of industries.
One way of using biomass waste is where we combine them with biopolymers through our extruder capability into filaments. Our extruder technology has actually allowed us to use a number of biomass wastes such as grape skin. So what we are doing is compounding the skin from the wine grapes with the bioplastic into these net clips. And in New Zealand you’re using nets to protect the ripening grapes and non biodegradable net clips are used for that purpose. And these nets get rolled up, the clips will break, fall to the ground and ultimately will break down into microplastics. We’ve got here now a much better option where these clips will ultimately biodegrade.
This the heart piece of Australasia’s only ‘incircle’ certified biodegradation and compostability facility. So what we can do here is, under absolutely set conditions we test the biodegradability of different polymers and different materials. So it’s really critical to do this in a evidence based and repeatable way to ensure that the results are absolutely reliable. So what companies and our own material can do is come to us to test to international standards the degradability of their materials. And the other advantage is you can do it in different media. You can do it in soil, you can do it in salt-water, you can do it in sea water, or in fresh water. What we want to make sure is that the material that we are using, developing and testing with our partner’s actually breaks down but then gets converted to CO2 and water.
The important part of this process comes in especially when we talk about microplastics. The issue with microplastics or what we can see in the environment is these are polymers that have been broken down or that are breaking down, but they’re only breaking down in smaller and smaller pieces. That is absolutely detrimental to the environment but also to sea or human life.
Olga Pantos, ESR: The definition of a microplastic is a piece of plastic that’s less than 5 millimetres in size. So these are split into two types: primary and secondary microplastics. So your primary microplastics are those that are made to be that small: so things such as what they used to use in personal cleansers and things to exfoliate, or the nurdles which are the preproduction pellets that are used to make bigger things, so they’d be considered primary microplastics. Secondary microplastics are pieces of plstic smaller than 5 millimetres that have been formed by the breakdown of larger items: so this could be a drinks bottle that’s broken down in the environment, or the fibers from your synthetic clothing.
We’ve got some bits of plastic here that were collected from a beach in Wellington. These will keep on breaking down. And once they fall within that 5 millimetre size, they will continue to break down.
So at the end of last year we received a 5-year grant from the government to look at the impacts of microplastics on New Zealand’s ecosystems. The projects is aiming to look at the plastics around New Zealand: how much there are, what sorts there are, and their effects on the environments and the animals and plants that live within the environments as well. In the marine systems we’ll be looking for what settles on the different types of plastic, so depending on what settles the plastic may have different level of risk that might affect our fisheries industry.
Elspeth MacRae: For New Zealand the exciting thing is that we can actually turn around and look after ourselves a bit more. We don’t have to import our plastics. We can manage it ourselves, because right now, with packaging, for example, 50% of it comes in from overseas in products we buy, and when we manufacture here we have selling our products overseas with packaging, and so we can start to really change the view that New Zeland – hey, it’s a very complete society and bioplastics are a positive thing for people buying our products.
Juliet meets with the Prime Minister to give her the report
Juliet Gerrard: So here’s our report. There’s far too many recommendations because it’s such a complex problem but we’ve managed to put them into different parts so that it fits into our vision of the future. We’ve already talked about the data and how little we’ve got and how we’re going to need that to make sure the new policies work. We need to clean up the environment and look at what materials we’re using so that we don’t damage the environment. Gather up all the innovation out there and make best practice, standard practice to start using of all those great ideas. And probably, most importantly change our relationship with plastic and come up with a new vision of how we might be in a few years if we adopt all these recommendations.
The Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern: The thing that really comes through for me is, firstly, actually how complex it is. People think it’s just that there’s one type of plastic and it’s just about recycling it, but that also there are some amazing ideas and innovations out there and there’s no lack of enthusiasm. It’s just about us bringing it all together. So this has given us what we need to just get on with it.
Jacinda Ardern statement to camera: There are a few things that I just didn’t anticipate with this job, and one of them was just the sheer scale of letters that I received from children. And there is a consistent theme, and that it’s plastic. You know at first it was single-use plastic bags, and we moved to ban those in large part because I just saw the strength of feeling that sat behind it. And now it’s straws, it’s cutlery, it’s the presence of plastics in our everyday life, and kids are so aware of it, as they should be. So for me this is about tackling a generational issue. We’ve had a world without the convenience of plastic entering into almost every element of our daily lives and now it’s about trying to return to that world.
Juliet Gerrard: The plastic problem is huge and it’s going to take effort from all sectors of society to solve it. The good news is that in our report there’s lots of recommendations that we can start chipping away at the problem from all different angles and we need to find best practice that’s already being used and make it standard practice. That’s the short term. In the long term we really need to build on the evidence base, find the size of the problem, see which policies are working and draw on our science community to find new materials, new solutions, and our business community to come up with new business models to use those materials.
Dame Jane Goodall: The most important message I would have for people in New Zealand or anywhere else is to remember that every single day we live we make some impact on the planet and we have a choice as to what kind of impact we make. And if we think about the consequences of even the little choices we make: what do we buy, where did it come from, how was it made, did it harm the environment, did it result in cruelty to animals like the factory farms, is it cheap because of child slave labour somewhere else, have we taken the environmental consequences into account when we think about the price. And then if people – first hundreds, then thousands, then millions and ultimately billions of people – are making ethical choices, we start moving towards a better world.
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