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Erasing the Problem - Pollution, Plastics and Polystyrene

Globally, the management of recycling and the re-use of materials has been an overwhelming issue.

By Sonia Yee, Senior Advisor Communications and Media, IoD
12 May 2022
read time
5 min to read
Plastic bottle floating in the ocean.

The world once rejoiced in the advent of plastic. Cheap to manufacture, plastic was light and durable and could be used for a range of products.

In 1869, American inventor John Wesley Hyatt created a form of plastic. The goal was to find a replacement for elephant tusks, which were being used by the billiards industry. Protecting precious wildlife was the driver behind it, but little did he know that more than a century later, the threat would extend to the entire health and wellbeing of the planet.

A true adoption of plastic didn’t become commonplace until after the second world war when it began making its way into everyday household items. And today you only need to walk down a supermarket aisle to see some form of plastic on every shelf from easy-to-use mops to soda bottles, sealed wrapping on meats, sweets, biscuits, cheese… plastic is everywhere.   

Approximately 14 million tons of it ends up in the ocean every year, and it’s one of the main pollutants of our waterways and landfill. Mostly derived from fossil fuels, when plastics are burnt they also release harmful nitrogen oxide into the environment.

 The question is, can we live without it?

There is no escaping the fact that plastic has contributed to a global environmental crisis. The food industry has relied heavily on plastic to extend the shelf life of products and ensure food safety. But finding a sustainable replacement isn’t an easy task.

Lowering levels of pollution

Globally, the management of recycling and the re-use of materials has been an overwhelming issue. Our method of sending plastic to landfill or shipping our recycling to other countries with the mindset that if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist, is no longer a viable option.

China, like the rest of us, is dealing with this issue too.

Ten years ago, wandering around Beijing or Guangzhou was like walking through a heavy cloud of low-hanging, thick smog that filled your nostrils with black soot. The rivers and waterways surrounding the villages on the outskirts of the city were heavily littered with an assortment of plastic and rubbish. Food packaging, disposable nappies and other unsightly objects lined gutter ways no more than two feet from people’s doorways - a vision that is hard to stomach.

But according to David Boyle, CEO for Primary Collaboration New Zealand (PCNZ), today it is a different story. He says China is making headway into tangible sustainability measures.

“China wants to be a good global citizen,” he says.

Like New Zealand, China has signed up to the Paris Peace Agreement to be carbon neutral by 2050.

“There have been significant moves here in the last five years to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and clean up the villages and streams…people are swimming in the rivers now,” says Boyle who has been living and working in Shanghai for the past 25 years.

He says social and environmental changes are currently taking place and becoming part of legislation. Another driver has been COVID, as well as people becoming concerned for the health and well-being of their children. 

This push for change is proving beneficial for Kiwi businesses from the primary sector.

In China, the certificate of origin of most products is carefully monitored. This has been reinforced by changing consumer habits and a heightened awareness around sustainable practices.

Boyle says the rising middle-class have a growing appetite for sustainable produce. They want to know where their products are being sourced and how they are processed and manufactured.

New Zealand has a reputation for strong practices around food safety and Boyle sees this as an opportunity for Kiwis doing business in China.

An increased demand for organic, premium New Zealand produce is welcome on Chinese dinner plates. But with that demand, PCNZ have also seen a rise in home deliveries over the past two years. Business might be booming, but delivering door-to-door translates to an even greater use of packaging to ensure products reach their destinations safely.

“Some of [the packaging] is good and can be reused…but it's got a long way to go here,” says Boyle. 

Environmentally friendly plastic bag products have been on the market for some time now. There are eco-friendly disposable shopping bags, compostable postage bags and bin liners. These break down quickly, which doesn’t make them very ideal for food waste or as an effective food packaging solution.

David Hughes knows a thing or two about plastic. In his case, expanded polystyrene which is used to package a range of products such as electronics and home appliances. An excellent insulator, it is widely used by the fisheries industry to keep products cool during transportation.

While expanded polystyrene is hard wearing it is also difficult to recycle and break down.

Hughes, who is the CEO for Plant and Food Research and Chairman of BioPolymer Network (BPN), says BPN began exploring a new range of biomaterial products a few years ago. Recently, they chose to focus on replacing expanded polystyrene.

He says finding a sustainable alternative to expanded polystyrene has been an important challenge.

“Our alternative Zealafoam™ is a plastic, but its feed source is plants as opposed to fossil oil,” he says.  

The majority of plastics are made by the petrochemical industry. The feed source is oil, which is converted to a plastic resin and formed into the final product. BPN’s green polystyrene is a more sustainable solution.

“In this case the feed source is corn, maize or tapioca. Increasingly people are looking at waste streams from biological processes to create the feed source, rather than oil,” says Hughes.

BPN’s green polystyrene is a similar properties to expanded polystyrene. It is hard wearing, and has appropriate properties for cool-chain use.

“It is very good for those critical jobs where you don't want things to warm up. For example, if you're transporting medical products or vaccines which are often packed in polystyrene as a way of keeping them cold while they're in transit.”

This new product also performs well in wet conditions.

For the fisheries and exporting industries this is highly beneficial. The only time water might pose a problem is if the green polystyrene is exposed to hot conditions of 70 degrees Celsius while in the presence of a lot of water.

“Because it will start the decomposing process….but at cold temperatures where chilled export takes place it works perfectly well,” says Hughes.

With a global incentive to phase out expanded polystyrene by 2050, the timing is ripe for businesses to start finding a replacement, and BPN will be waiting in the wings. 

“It would be great for New Zealand to be leading the world and taking this global,” he says.

Why supporting climate governance initiatives is the only way forward

As the Chair of BPN, Hughes also sits on other boards including Prevar, PSH Technology, Science New Zealand and others. He says those who have little understanding or are resisting a sustainable way forward might find it useful to view sustainability through the lens of ‘value creation’ which includes economic, environmental and social value.

“Those three things need to be very carefully balanced, and I think directors need to be able to look at their business and have a clear view around where they create value and where they destroy value through the activities that they undertake.”

He says some of that value can be captured in price to an end-consumer and some of the vital questions to ask at the table are:

  1. Where is value being created?
  2. Where is value being destroyed?
  3. How much of that value is captured by the company creating it?

Ultimately, without capturing some of that value it can’t be invested back into the business to create more value again. He says if businesses create economic value but destroy a lot of environmental value they need to ask themselves whether it’s right.

“There is an ethical dimension to that, including who is paying that hidden price of value destruction when it is occurring, who is fronting up and meeting that cost, and who will benefit in the future,” he says.

Transparency and visibility is also part of the equation.

Hughes says often some of these issues have not been addressed in the boardroom due to reporting mechanisms that only focus on the economic dimension.

“The world is becoming much more interested [in transparency]. If you don't provide transparency somebody else will figure out how to do it for you sooner, or later.

He warns that in a highly connected world, there is no stopping information from getting out.

“It is much better for an organisation to build that transparency themselves and be actively working to improve value creation and reduce value destruction.” 

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