Petition urges Govt to ban plastic waste exports

A petition urging the Government to stop overseas exports of millions of kilograms of plastic waste was presented to Parliament, with activists raising concerns over health and environmental issues overseas.

Parliament grounds, Wellington (file photo).

Petitioner Lydia Chai presented the petition with more than 11,000 signatures on Tuesday to Greens' Eugenie Sage and National's Scott Simpson.

She urged the Government to stop sending New Zealand's plastic waste to places such as Malaysia - which sees a significant portion of plastic waste exports from New Zealand.

"I would like it to be decided by the end of this year, it is an emergency, I want it to stop and I want meaningful action to happen."

Chai said there was not enough due diligence to ensure the plastics were being safely recycled and processed overseas.

She said enforcement was weak in places such as Malaysia.

"The impact is huge, it's devastating."

She said there were health and environmental impacts and that many New Zealanders believed most plastic was dealt with onshore.

"Being easily recyclable does not equate to being recycled."

Greenpeace Malaysia described the country as "a dumping ground as some of the plastic waste imports included mixed plastic waste, non-recyclable plastic waste, or plastic waste that was significantly contaminated with other wastes".

"The issue of illegal plastic waste recyclers, illegal dumpsites, and open burning were highlighted by affected communities and civil society organisations since then."

Enforcement officials attempted to shut down illegal recyclers, but there was still reports of plastic waste leakage, mismanagement and illegal trade.

Figures provided to 1News from StatsNZ show more than 13.5 million kgs of ethylene polymers (the most common type of plastic) classed under waste, parings and scrap, was exported in 2021.

While 6.8 million kgs of other plastic waste, parings and scrap was sent overseas.

The main recipients of the plastic was Malaysia, with more then eight million kgs exported.

This was a drop from 2020, where 14.6 million kgs was sent.

In the first six months of 2022, New Zealand exported 1.6 million kgs of ethylene polymer waste and 1.5 million kgs of other plastic waste to Malaysia.

In May 2019, New Zealand signed up to the changes in the Basel Convention. The convention was changed to include legally-binding framework that would ensure the global trade in plastic waste was more transparent and better regulated.

In 2020, changes required hard to recycle plastics to have a permit to go offshore from 2021. Plastics type 1, 2 and 5, such as milk and soft drink bottles and ice cream containers are exempt.

At the time New Zealand's plastic recycling export figures showed there was no slowing down of shipping used plastic offshore.

Eugenie Sage.

Former Associate Conservation Minister and Green MP Eugenie Sage told 1News New Zealand needed to make sure plastic waste isn't causing environmental or social harm overseas.

"There has been changes to the Basel Convention, I had thought the issue had been resolved. Some plastic that goes overseas is in pellet form so that it can be reused into other products, but it appears some is still... because of licencing regimes overseas, is not being properly dealt with, is being burnt and that is causing harms."

She said New Zealand may need to be stricter on what can be exported.

Sage said some of the plastic is reprocessed and reused, "but if it is being exported to be burnt, that is causing environmental problems elsewhere, it highlights the need to avoid plastic waste and to ensure that where it does go it is dealt with appropriately and doesn't cause environment harm or health harm to others".

Simpson, National's environment spokesperson, said there is "a more broadly accepted consensus" in Parliament around reducing waste.

"Particularly how we process waste.

"The problem with our throwaway society is that there is no 'away'. It all goes somewhere. Far too much goes to landfill, far too much ends up loose in the wild in our beautiful environment, and far too much still, notwithstanding the steps we are taking to try and halt export waste, far too much of it ends up in other jurisdictions where it is handled and processed sometimes in a way we would consider to be totally inappropriate."

Government response

Environment Minister David Parker said that if people wanted to export mixed waste they would need a permit and “they probably wouldn't get one”.

“In general terms, yes, I agree we should be doing our utmost to make sure that plastics are recycled in New Zealand and we take responsibility for our own waste.”

"If there are reports of contaminated plastic waste being exported, then I would expect them to be brought to my attention and the Environmental Protection Authority."

When asked if he was happy with the status quo, “even though there are reports that there's issues overseas in places like Malaysia", Parker answered that he thought "we're doing much better than we used to”.

“It's probably not perfect and we still need to do better, but we've certainly got the regulatory tools in place to address problems if they persist.”

In 2019, 1News investigated the impact of plastic exports to Indonesia, and the environmental repercussions of plastic waste.

The Government opened up consultation for its plan for the future of New Zealand's waste in November last year. That closed in May with any changes not expected to go to Cabinet until the end of this year.

1News asked when the submissions or summary of submissions would be released, with the Ministry for the Environment saying given the large number of submissions (more the 6000), it will be published "later this year".