On 27 June, the New Zealand Government announced the phase-out of some hard-to-recycle and some single-use plastics. Robert McLachlan talks to Massey University’s Trisia Farrelly, a tireless campaigner against plastic waste.
Trisia: I’m an anthropologist at Massey University, I wear quite a few hats around New Zealand and internationally on plastic pollution, which I’ve been researching since 2016.
Robert: And here I thought it was a lifetime passion! You’re an anthropologist… so are you trying to save the world, or just study how it works?
Trisia: Save it! One piece of plastic at a time.
Robert: The talk you gave recently described everything from your plastic-free year all the way up to the UN.
Trisia: Yes, multiscale! My personal journey started with a film, I watched the Clean Bin Project. The directors were in New Zealand and I invited them to Massey. That was the turning point. Film can be powerful! The revelations hit home and made me become quite concerned about plastics. A moment of realisation, a wake-up call. After that, things happened.
My UN work came out of one presentation I gave in Switzerland. In fact I angsted over whether I should go for a long time, but a number of New Zealand organisations urged me to go and speak for them.
I gave a very impassioned, political talk on why we should stop putting so much attention on the individual, on “ecological citizenship”, and start focussing head on on state–industry relationships and start talking about limiting production. I gave it my best shot. Then I was invited to join the UNEA Ad Hoc Open Ended Expert Group on marine litter and micro plastics.
I also met Pete Myers, author of Our Stolen Future. He later came to New Zealand and talked to the Ministry for the Environment, he talked to Kim Hill. That inspired my work to try and regulate toxic chemicals in plastics.
Robert: This “state–industry relationship”, is that as simple as industry lobbying government to do what they want, or is there more to it than that?
Trisia: There’s a whole playbook that industry has on how to influence government and redirect responsibility for plastic pollution onto consumers. It’s an exciting area to study. Since the 1950s they’ve been playing the recycling card, diverting attention from one thing to another, complicating by confusion. Very much the ‘merchants of doubt’ situation.
Robert: So New Zealand has now announced that we are going to ban some single-use plastics by 2025. And apart from the supermarket shopping bags, it’s the first time that something has actually been banned, is that right?
Trisia: They also banned some types of microbeads. This is all covered under the Waste Minimization Act: since 2008 there’s been a facility provision to prioritise some products for product stewardship schemes. It’s exciting that this is finally being used. It sets a precedent for a number of problematic products.
Robert: Is the hope that this will get people used to the idea of banning things?
Trisia: Yes, but it doesn’t have to be bans. There are other tools, like incentives. But for the worst products, banning is suitable. And unfortunately, 2025 feels like a long way away!
Robert: Apparently New Zealanders generate 58 kg of plastic waste each per year. Are these the most urgent products to be looking at?
Trisia: I think so. They partly made these determinations based on what is found in the beach cleanups/audits, a very powerful citizen science initiative. For example, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is very toxic, and it’s difficult to recycle, and also to transport because it’s so light and bulky. It’s nasty stuff. With an EPS meat tray, you’ve got a high fat food item which potentially increases the potential for toxic leaching from the plastic packaging into the food. They are also starting to find increasing volumes of disgusting plastic ties from meat works on some beaches, and a lot of plastic preproduction pellets. These are not on the list. But they have caught some of the high-volume items, and they’re starting with the low-hanging fruit. That’s not a bad way to go. It will ease industry and consumers into this new way of thinking about regulating problematic items.
A lot of people missed the very last line of the press release, which is the bit that got me really excited: New Zealand has now declared that we will support a global treaty on plastic pollution. I’ve been working on this for years and we couldn’t get even an informal statement of support. Now we could be seeing support for an international negotiating committee in the September ministerial meeting, before the UN environmental assembly meeting next February. We are the 131st country to support the treaty!
Robert: With the New Zealand phase-out by 2025 – why is it so long?
Trisia: It’s about getting everyone on board. For me it’s too long, but I keep reminding myself to celebrate the small stuff. And I can see it setting a precedent for more problematic items. There’s so much more I’d like to see in there, that a lot of people submitted on: cigarette butts, wet wipes that clog waste water plants, agri-plastics.
It’s good to see that the oxo-degradable and photo-degradable plastic are included. They break down into microplastics but are not truly biodegradable. That came about because of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s report, which had some really good scientists on it.
Robert: There were 8000 public submissions on the proposal.
Trisia: It was so huge! It was the biggest public engagement on plastics we’ve ever seen. There are a lot of people really wanting this to happen.
Robert: Thanks Trisia! We look forward to our plastic-free future.
Trisia: We do indeed.