The building blocks of recycling

There is a growing movement in New Zealand to reduce the use of plastics in everyday life.

Supermarkets, for example, are trying to cut the use of ''single-use'' plastic bags for packing groceries. This is laudable because these plastic bags are turning up in all sorts of undesirable places. However, as a result some customers are buying disposable plastic bags to line kitchen rubbish bins instead of the grocery bags.

Cafes are encouraging customers to bring reusable cups, even often offering a discount for the use of such vessels. And cosmetic manufacturers are getting rid of those micro-beads which are causing so much damage to smaller sea-life around the shores of New Zealand.

Gripping pictures of sea-life wearing plastic bags tear at the hearts of many well-meaning New Zealanders. Most understand the damage plastic can do to the environment and its animals. But do they understand how change can be implemented?

In Oamaru, there may be hope for a partial solution. A Dunedin company, Polybuild, is considering Oamaru's resource recovery park to build a research and development site.

Using even low-grade plastics, the company says it will produce building materials. The materials used will include low-density polyethylene, used in bottles, shopping bags and plastic wraps, polypropylene, furniture, luggage, toys, polystyrene, hard-packing, refrigerator trays and CD cases.

The technology was pioneered in Russia and has been used in small-scale operations internationally. But if it can be produced on a large scale, it will be a win for New Zealand.

The majority of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced every year is not recycled and, when recycling does happen, it is typically at an industrial scale in factories using equipment that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But a growing number of designers are using a set of open-source, easy-to-build tools to recycle plastic and manufacture new plastic products on their own.

Any internet search uncovers plenty of tips for recycling things such as soft drink bottles, tips that make barely a dent in the amount of waste generated by households.

Plastic cannot be avoided in everyday life. Polybuild says in North Otago, it will be designing and manufacturing products it intends going into building houses. The recycling arriving in Oamaru is so clean there is no need for a washing plant.

The increased use in recycling comes as China begins rejecting recycling from other countries.

New Zealand previously shipped millions of kilograms of waste to Chinese processing plants each year. But China's recently introduced ban on 24 types of foreign waste has forced recyclers to look for buyers elsewhere, mainly in Southeast Asia.

Most of it was mixed paper and mixed plastics, not recycled locally the way other recyclables, like glass, aluminium and cardboard, are.

China has stopped being the rubbish tip of the world. China's withdrawal as the world's repository for plastic waste also lays bare the notion the disposable plastic conscientiously put into a taxpayer-financed recycling bin is actually being recycled. Now, with China's door closed, much of that recycled plastic is likely ending up at a local landfill. China's new policy may displace as much as 111 million metric tonnes of plastic waste by 2030.

Support in some way for Polybuild is essential, preferably through Government business funding. Government endorsement for such a project will pique interest. New Zealand has a housing crisis and KiwiBuild is not going close to fixing it. The use of recycled plastic drink bottles for home insulation is already widespread.

Widening the use further to building blocks, if possible, can help reduce waste and provide another option for home builders.

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