Open Letter to the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
We the undersigned urge the Prime Minister to immediately ban all plastic waste exports from New Zealand. This is because large volumes of these plastics are being burned, buried, dumped, or on-sold in the recipient countries instead of being recycled. Banning waste exports means that New Zealand will transition more quickly to a safer circular economy in which plastics are minimalised. If we ban waste exports, it will incentivise us to rapidly move away from importing, manufacturing, distributing and exporting toxic and unnecessary single-use plastics. This includes promoting reuse, refill, and repair alternatives, processing our recycling safely within New Zealand, and ensuring companies take responsibility for the full lifecycle of plastics.
New Zealand has exported over 98,000 tonnes (and counting) of plastic waste offshore since the beginning of 2018. More than 46,000 tonnes of this has been shipped to Malaysia and Thailand. In the case of Malaysia, the plastics are imported from New Zealand and illegally burned next to schools and homes, causing a health and environmental epidemic. Cancer and asthma cases have increased. Microplastics leach into the waterways. The air is polluted with burnt plastic and ecosystems have been destroyed.
The Ministry for the Environment has just published a consultation document on New Zealand's waste management strategy, "Te kawe i te haepapa para - Taking responsibility for our waste". Disappointingly, the consultation document does not “take responsibility” because it completely ignores the fact that our plastic waste exports are not being recycled by the receiving countries and the repercussions of this.
The plastic waste is able to be exported because of a major loophole in the law: our kerbside recyclables and industrial plastics are not sufficiently regulated under the Imports and Exports (Restrictions) Prohibition Order (No 2) 2004 because they are considered “easily recyclable”. Section 11 of the Order requires a permit to be issued by the Environmental Protection Authority for hazardous plastics. Polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recyclables are exempt from this law (under Part 2A of Schedule 3) and therefore are assumed to be “disposed of or managed in an environmentally sound and efficient manner in the importing State." Just because something is deemed to be “easily recyclable” does not mean that it is guaranteed to be recycled at the receiving country.
We therefore call on the New Zealand government to immediately ban all plastic waste exports by December 2022 which is the last month that Parliament will sit in that year. New Zealand authorities still operate under the assumption that, as long as our plastic exports are easily recyclable, shipping them overseas is a satisfactory solution to our waste problem. In reality, New Zealand is shipping its emissions to developing countries. Some may say that the issue lies with Malaysian authorities not enforcing its own laws to stop the open burning of plastic waste. We reject this argument. The issue lies with New Zealand turning a blind eye to the reality on the ground. We are just as culpable when we knowingly export our waste to countries with poor resources, capacity and capability for effective monitoring, reporting, compliance, and enforcement and weak environmental and human rights protections. This is also a human rights issue and our moral obligation to Malaysia (and other developing countries) and its people should be paramount.
We want the New Zealand government to invest urgently in systems and infrastructure that will reduce our reliance on plastic. It is not enough to tweak our regulations on the way our waste is exported, as the bigger problem lies with our overconsumption, poor import restrictions on toxic and single use plastics, and resins that cannot be recycled domestically. New Zealand is drowning in plastic and we cannot manage that amount responsibly, here or offshore. We need to turn off the tap and the government must establish policies and invest in systems and infrastructure that empower people to dramatically reduce their plastics consumption . We must reduce the range of plastics we import into New Zealand to those deemed non-hazardous by the Basel Convention: PE, PP and PET type plastics. We want the government to invest in companies that enable consumers to refill and reuse, rather than investing in a plastic innovation fund that will only preserve our plastic addiction (bioplastics, for example, are not necessarily good for the environment).
We need the government to make plastic-producing companies responsible for their product’s lifecycle. New Zealand is embarrassingly behind other OECD countries in requiring companies to implement product stewardship schemes to address the problem at the source. We strongly urge the government to establish import controls and product stewardship laws. Use the regulatory tools we already have to streamline the type and amount of plastics that we do use to fit with our onshore recycling capacity.
We also demand greater transparency and accountability from recycling and waste management companies to ensure that all post-consumer plastics are safely and domestically managed without any leakage to the environment.
Even so, none of these measures will amount to much if we continue to send our waste overseas to vulnerable countries.
We call on the Prime Minister to ensure that the waste management strategy is as transformative as its title suggests - that we are "taking responsibility for our waste" and not polluting other countries. To do this, we must immediately ban the export of plastic waste while transitioning to a safer circular economy in which plastics are minimalised. The government has boldly banned single-use plastic bags and microbeads, so it is no stranger to making bold decisions for the greater environmental and social good.
Pua Lay Peng
Niamh Peren (Founder of Tino Pai Aotearoa / Thumbs Up New Zealand)
Dr Trisia Farrelly (Political Ecology Research Centre, Massey University)
Liam Prince (Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance)
Manawatū Food Action Network
Sustainable Strategy Ltd
Resilient Russell Charitable Trust
Carbon Neutral Waiheke
Federation of Women's Health Councils Aotearoa
NZ Nuclear Free Peacemakers
Network Waitangi Otautahi Inc
350 Otautahi Christchurch
[Full list of organisations here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/18CppQ1cB2f3bV63xQxj6TWMK9bcLDq7Triwgb-EVpaw/edit?usp=drivesdk]