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Regional Fund’s $40m backing for plastic recycling initiatives

Fighting the war on plastic rubbish has just become easier for recycling businesses.

China’s refusal to take New Zealand’s waste has been a wake-up call, says associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage. Photo: Photo / Ana Tovey

The Provincial Growth Fund is stumping up $40 million for companies investing in converting waste to useable products to try and slow down the amount of low quality plastic being dumped in landfills.

China and other countries refusing to take New Zealand’s waste has been a much needed wake-up call, according to associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage.

Today’s announcement comes on the first day of plastic-free July – the official start of the ban on single-use plastic bags.

The volume of waste going to landfills has increased by 20 percent since 2008, but Flight Plastics – an innovative one-of-a-kind company in Lower Hutt, near Wellington – is changing the way plastic is recycled and re-used.

The third generation family-owned operation received a grant from the government’s waste minimisation fund, which helped install the country’s first PET wash plant in 2017.

PET is low-grade plastic used for things like soft drink bottles and takeaway food containers, which is the most difficult to recycle and most commonly ends up in landfills.

Flight Plastics chief executive Keith Smith said consumers were already on board with recycling, but the funding from the PGF would help other businesses get set-up and hopefully lead to more retailers paying to buy New Zealand recycled products.

“Every PET container recycled at Flight gets a new life, and they come around and get a new life over and over again. Each time saving the import of new material and saving waste going to landfill,” Mr Smith said.

Ms Sage said the current waste minimisation fund was up to $14m a year but it was always over subscribed so the PGF funding would help fix that.

Government officials will seek out investment-ready proposals of significant scale in regional locations, close to main urban centres where much of the waste is made.

Currently about 16,000 tonnes of new PET is imported but only about 8000 tonnes is recycled.

Mr Smith said since the wash plant was established there had been a 2000 tonnes decline in PET.

“I think what everyone has to understand is it does cost a little bit of money to take care of the environment. Sometimes you’ve got to be prepared to pay an extra two cents for your tray of meat but what you’re doing is cleaning up the waste problem,” he said.

“There is a cost to recycling in-country.”

It’s not only plastics that the minister-in-charge of the PGF, Shane Jones, has his mind for the money.

He said investing in ways to recycle tyres and lithium batteries would also be considered.

The self-professed champion of the regions had his own metaphor in mind when explaining the tough nature of the plastic being recycled at the Lower Hutt factory.

“If you’re made of robust stuff it just recycles endlessly, there’s a political analogy there,” Mr Jones said.

Mr Jones also wants to see the fund used for commercial partnerships with Māori as well.

The government is also promising more policy to come on regulating the waste sector.

Retailers face a fine of $100,000 if they are caught handing out a single-use plastic bag.

RNZ