Do you pause with plastic poised over your waste bin, squinting to see recycling numbers, or question the compostability of a coffee cup? You have company. Colmar Brunton’s 2020 Better Futures report found 67% of us want more business environmental action. We toss 97 million plastic bottles into landfill, yet half of us say we would switch brands based on sustainability. Perhaps we should take more personal responsibility.

Sandford, a self-professed ‘sustainable’ fishery, packs my market fish on a plastic tray with no recycling number, then clingwraps it. Following my enquiry, it says it is moving to using sustainable packaging. After a call to Hellers about the lack of a recycling number on packs, Brydon Heller replied that customer pressure is prompting them to change to recyclable packaging. So speak up.

The supermarket that banned plastic carry-bags festoons me with produce plastic bags, so my veges now go loose to the checkout.

Last year, a report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor came to the worrying conclusion that there is no coordinated approach to reporting plastics use. But the report is baffling – it stated the aim of onshore recycling by 2025 of PET, HDPE, PP and perhaps LDPE. Elsewhere, the kids’ ‘ecovibe’ drinking straws are PLA, and my freezer bags are BPA-free. Have I missed a lifestyle eco-glossary?

Today, plastics comprise 85% of the world’s beach litter, most of which is food-related. Does greed drive prolific packaging, or is it the increased demand of a growing world? Sir David Attenborough reminded the British parliament recently that the mantra of continuing economic growth in a finite environment belongs to either an economist or a madman. You can jolly nearly obliterate plastics with the stroke of a pen said the 94-year-old broadcaster, adding, “If you can convert or get rid of plastic waste economically, there’s a fortune to be made.”

In 2003, Tom Szaky launched international recycling company TerraCycle, now operating here. He believes it is more economical to manufacture from recycled than from virgin materials. Despite almost all products being ‘technically’ recyclable, he says only four are commonly accepted – clear glass, uncoated paper, certain rigid plastics and certain metals. Inventive TerraCycle accepts Gladwrap, Caffe L’Affare and Nescafé capsules and even cigarette butts, destined to become compost, park benches, pallets, or (ironically) ashtrays. It also invented chewing-gum recycling.

In New Zealand, “plastic recycling is broken” says Innocent Packaging’s general manager, Fraser Hanson. He began in 2013 in a garage, and now employs 15 staff making packaging from bagasse (a sugar byproduct), straw, paper and corn starch and Innocent composting bins sit outside 50 Auckland cafés. Hanson says our plastic production has increased twentyfold since 1964, yet just 5% of plastics are recycled effectively.

My local council (Far North) has reduced its recyclable plastics list, and their Solid Waste Engineer admits, “We recycle what we have a market for.”  So, plastic 5 is off the menu for one-third of our local councils. However, jam makers Anathoth-Barkers say we import valuable plastic 5 because recyclers can’t collect enough. Processed into granules it makes low-grade items such as planters and buckets.

Plastics NZ admits that “recycling is currently a minefield of confusion.” Take ‘compostable’ PLA (polylactic acid) drinking straws. Made from naturally occurring plant material, they require high-temperature composting and do not decompose in landfill or waterways.

Some containers state ‘commercially compostable’ and, as of May last year, 12 facilities from Kerikeri to Timaru exist where the requisite 55-degree temperature is maintained. That’s also possible in a well-managed home compost system. Bostock Brothers packs its free-range chicken in home-compostable Grounded Packaging. Ben Grant from Grounded says the end-of-life process for packaging is poorly  understood. “Nationally the recycling stream doesn’t work; the chances of getting recycled are, more or less, none.” Composting, however, is a different story. Ben Bostock says their bioplastic packaging was developed to ensure shelf life. “We’ve had a lot of people say they don’t normally buy organic chicken because of the price, but they’re buying ours because of home-compostable packaging.” Bostocks themselves will hot-compost any packaging returned by consumers unable to compost at home, using it for fertilising hen-food crops.

Sublime Coffee Roasters, frustrated with a tardy local council, developed its own hot compost system, diverting from landfill more than 5000 cups and lids a month in Nelson and Palmerston North. Nespresso also recycles its aluminium pods returned to them by consumers.

For a reusable, recycled coffee cup, check the ingenious rCup from Ashortwalk Ltd in Cornwall, the idea of Dyson designer, Don Dicker, who says 500 billion disposable cups being thrown away annually, motivated him to create recycled products.

Air New Zealand welcomes reusable cups onboard, and Head of Sustainability, Lisa Daniell, says they have diverted nearly 900 tonnes of flight waste from landfill since 2017. They’ve trialled edible cups which Customer Experience Manager Niki Chave home-tested, reporting, “The coffee cup will hold up, and stay crisp, much longer than it will take for you to drink your coffee.”

There are more successes to smile about. Colgate has an international scheme to take back all brands of toothpaste tubes, brushes, floss containers and packaging. Its TerraCycle partnership has 2000 collection hubs from Kaitaia to Tokanui and a free- post scheme. Last year, New Zealand schools and charities received $70,000 from the scheme, along with lunch bags made from recycled toothpaste tubes.

Support supermarket moves like the Food in the Nude initiative that began in New World’s Bishopdale store in Christchurch. Owner Nigel Bond says sales of some unwrapped veges increased up to 30%.

Clean bread bags, bubble wrap and soft plastic packs, including foiled potato chip bags, can be recycled at The Warehouse, Huckleberry and 37 Countdown stores. They become recyclable fence posts and ducting.

Graduates from the country’s top hospitality college, QRC, are charged to lead a culture of change says CEO Charlie Phillips. “Plastic packaging becomes ingrained, but it has not always been like that. We need to revert back to the future.”

In the words of Ben & Jerry’s founder Jerry Greenfield, we’re “sheltered from the environmental and human impact of our everyday decisions and lifestyles.” So, let’s take more personal responsibility. Speak up and exercise the power of consumer choice. As Sir David Attenborough says, “The only way I get up in the morning is to say ‘Something’s got to be done, and I will do my best to bring that about.’”

NOTE For a list of soft plastic collection points and recycling partners go to