Making sense of plastic waste
Not every plastic is created equal. Some are easy to recycle, but some are low-value and have limited use. Here’s how to figure out which is which.
Knowing which plastic packaging you are buying your products in can help you make a choice about where that plastic ends up.
Here is some information to provide clarity on what the plastic numbers mean. Not all plastics are recyclable in your kerbside recycling bin. For example, soft plastics (number 4) need to go to a specialised recycler. To find out if something is recyclable at the kerbside, use our search tool or chat with Binny, the recycling app.
What’s the difference between the plastic categories?
Parul Sood, Auckland Council’s Manager of Waste Solutions explains the difference.
“Plastics 1, 2 and 5 are used in the majority of the plastic packaging we put in our recycling bins. They are more easily turned into other useful products. It is different for plastics packaging made out of plastics 3, 4, 6, and 7, as they are lower quality and difficult to recycle into other products. This means there are limited markets for them anywhere in the world.”
“It is important to reduce our dependence on plastics and to reuse them rather than recycling right away.
"The classic kiwi ice cream tub is usually plastic number 2 or 5, and I’m sure most homes in New Zealand have at least one of them that they’re storing something in. The other numbers 3,4,6 and 7 are plastic types that we should be encouraging manufacturers to avoid using,” shares Councillor Richard Hills, Environment and Climate Change committee chair.
WasteMINZ research shows that the most common plastic in Aotearoa is the single-use plastic bottle. We use 188 of these single use plastic bottles per household every year, but despite being fully recyclable, 36 of the bottles (or nearly one in five) end up in landfill instead of being recycled. This is another reason to get into the habit of bringing your own drink bottle everywhere you go and refill at a tap as many Aucklanders already do, instead of buying single use.
When your only choice is a plastic container, seek to reuse that container as often as possible. For example, when buying tomato sauce, keep the bottle and buy a tin of sauce to refill the squeezable bottle. Aluminium may be recycled an infinite amount of times, making it a more sustainable choice than plastic. Or for delicatessen items, take your own container and ask the staff to use it instead of single use plastics.
What about soft plastics?
Soft plastics can be recycled but not in your kerbside bin. Soft plastic recycling can be done at supermarkets and other stores in a green and white recycling bin. Bread bags, produce & frozen food bags, bubble wrap, courier packs and packaging for items like toilet paper, breakfast cereals and snack foods can all be recycled in these bins. As with other recyclables, wash and dry your soft plastics at home first before putting them in the recycling bin on your way to the supermarket.
Councillor Hills understands that change has to be systemic as well as individual.
“As a nation we should be aiming for all our recycling needs being met here in the country.”
In addition to calling for onshore recycling, Councillor Hills encourages manufacturers to lead in making changes towards the circular economy, including reducing the use of hard to recycle plastics. WasteMINZ research highlighted that 182 million containers in use in New Zealand households do not even have a plastic code on them, which makes recycling them an extra challenge. If you do not know if something is recyclable because it’s not labelled, the best choice is to put it in your rubbish bin. Recycling contamination is costly and should be avoided.
Cllr Richard Hills says that last year’s ban on single-use plastic bags shows that public sentiment can make a difference.
“We, as consumers, can influence the decisions of big companies. If enough of us call on manufacturers to avoid plastics, that change will come.”