When conversations about waste come up, it’s very common for plastic to steal all the air time. However, zero waste is not just about plastic (which, after all, is only one waste stream among many). Zero waste is about being mindful of all the resources we use, and seeking to refuse and reduce our dependence on all throwaway and brand new products, regardless of the material these products and throwaways are made of.
And this is relevant because today, Auckland Council announced that the city’s kerbside collected paper and cardboard recycling will now be going to landfill because the paper mills in India where it was supposed to go for recycling have closed as a result of COVID-19.
This is a problem for a number of reasons, but one of the most pressing is that paper and cardboard produce large amounts of methane in the anaerobic landfill environment (i.e. no oxygen). It’s a little known fact that the methane production from paper and cardboard in landfill is actually much higher than from food waste. The bottom line is that we don’t want paper and cardboard going to landfill.
Our collective obsession with plastic may have meant that the public did not see a paper or cardboard recycling crisis coming, but the thing is, in NZ we’ve had a problem with paper and cardboard (or ‘fibre’ as it’s often referred to in the industry) for some time. While COVID-19 may have pushed our paper and cardboard recycling problem to the brink, NZ was already well into a paper and cardboard recycling crisis.
NZ only has capacity to recycle 50% of the nation’s total paper and cardboard consumption. So 50% is sent offshore (mostly to Asia) for processing. This situation means that, even when all is good in the world, we expend huge amounts of energy and resources shipping so much paper and cardboard recycling offshore…
It also makes the viability of NZ’s recycling system vulnerable to international events affecting global recycling markets. Such events are not limited to COVID-19. For NZ, things started getting really bad a couple of years ago when China implemented its National Sword policy. This policy effectively closed China’s borders to the world’s recycling by placing maximum contamination rates on recycling imports that were so strict they operated as a de facto ban on import. These strict import controls were later replicated by other recyclate importing countries around Asia. While the media focused on the impact of all this on plastic recyclate, actually, these import controls also hit fibre pretty hard. For major centres like Auckland and Christchurch that have a glass-in, commingled (or as waste geeks like to say, co-mangled) kerbside recycling collection, achieving such low contamination rates for paper and cardboard is extremely difficult.
To see a full analysis of these issues, check out the National Resource Recovery Project – Situational Analysis Report prepared by Eunomia for the Ministry for the Environment in September 2018.
NZ’s paper and cardboard recycling crisis isn’t going away, even after the COVID-19 pandemic comes under control (whenever that may be). There are some long-term things we need to start doing, or at least be thinking about, at household, business, local govt and central govt level.
We know that now is not the time to put a lot of the above into practice because we have a fully blown health emergency on our hands. However, we reiterate that NZ has been stumbling into a paper and cardboard recycling crisis for some time, much before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. As we rebuild from the rubble post-lockdown, transforming our approach to resources and moving away from the linear economy must be prioritised. Yes, we can’t fix everything right now, but let’s do what we can in the meantime, while starting to plan for the rest so that we’re ready once the time is right.