Navigating Plastic Pollution in Aotearoa: APPA Expert Panel Discussion December 2019 (post includes full AUDIO)

Published by Hannah Blumhardt on

On Friday 6 December 2019 APPA held our first ever public event – an expert panel discussion at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The event was titled Navigating Plastic Pollution: Understanding the Problem, Finding Solutions.

Listen to the full audio here or scroll down to read a summary.

The panel featured a mixture of APPA members and an external expert and was facilitated by Hannah Blumhardt (The Rubbish Trip, New Zealand Product Stewardship Council and Trustee of APPA). The panelists were:

From top left clockwise: Dr Trisia Farrelly, Jacqui Forbes, Camden Howitt, Dr Olga Pantos

Each panellist spoke for 10 minutes, with time at the end for questions.

Dr Trisia Farrelly

Dr Farrelly began by describing the problem of plastic pollution, outlining current domestic and international policy solutions, and sounding a word of warning against ‘false solutions’.

Jacqui Forbes described how mātauranga Māori can help us to better understand both the problem of plastic pollution and possible solutions, and how these insights shape the work of Para Kore, an organisation supporting marae, kura and Māori businesses to work towards zero waste.

Dr Pantos took the audience on a deep dive into the world of microplastic pollution, explaining where microplastics come from (including agricultural supplies, construction materials, wastewater treatment plants and Christmas decorations), where microplastic pollution can be found in New Zealand, and the possible health and environmental implications.

Camden Howitt delivered the final talk, discussing how Sustainable Coastlines’ latest project Litter Intelligence allows citizen scientists to gather comprehensive, nationwide data on plastic pollution in New Zealand, and translates these findings into real world solutions for businesses and everyday people.

Some of the key messages that resurfaced throughout the event were:

  • The language used to define a problem is important; referring to plastic ‘litter’ rather than ‘pollution’ can individualise the problem and distract from necessary systemic changes.
  • Addressing plastic pollution requires big legal & policy changes, domestically and internationally. We should support domestic initiatives under the Waste Minimisation Act, including regulated product stewardship (currently proposed for single-use plastic packaging of consumer goods, beverage containers, and farm plastics, among other things), increasing and expanding the waste disposal levy, and improving waste data collection. We should also support international efforts to curtail plastic pollution, including ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment and supporting a proposed international legally binding plastic pollution treaty (both of which NZ has yet to do).
  • Many proposed solutions to our plastic crisis might seem like a good idea at first blush, but when scrutinised more closely, may be ‘false’ solutions. Some of these may offer partial support, but they are referred to as ‘false solutions’ because, alone, they fail to stem the flow of unnecessary and toxic plastics into the economy; may increase exposure of plastics to vulnerable ecologies and organisms; and can undermine other efforts further up the waste hierarchy that hold greater potential to combat the scale of the plastics crisis. When the following are presented as ‘the’ or ‘a key’ solution, they tend to lull us into a false sense of security
    • Recycling single-use plastics (particularly for food and beverage contact materials)
    • Municipal waste-to-energy
    • Plastic concrete aggregate, plastic fence posts, plastic roading
    • Single-use bioplastics (e.g. PLA)
    • Plastic-eating worms and bacteria
    • Switching unnecessary single-use plastics to other single-use materials
    • BPA-free plastic (involving the swapping out of one toxic category of additives for another).
  • Different worldviews can help us to analyse the plastic pollution crisis in new ways. Westernised systems of individualism and consumption have contributed to the plastics crisis. Listening to the perspectives coming from te ao Māori could help point us towards really effective, out-of-the box solutions.
  • Mātauranga Māori also reminds us that humans are part of the natural world, not separate from it. Addressing the plastic pollution crisis and our waste problems should involve attempts to reconnect us with our environment, to foster a spirit of preserving and regenerating the world’s resources, rather than exploiting them.
  • Plastic pollution is pervasive on the micro and nano- level as well as the macro level—microplastics shed from many commonly used items, enter the environment and make their way into soil, the air, ice, waterways and our food. Micro- and nanoplastic pollution has unknown implications for human health and the health of microbial systems.
  • Addressing plastic pollution requires a move away from single-use rather than ‘swapping’ one single-use material for another. But it also requires greater mindfulness about what our products are made from or what plastic is recycled into—do these more durable/reusable/recycled products still shed microplastics and/or leach toxins into our food, air, soils, and water?
  • Understanding, mapping and addressing plastic pollution is not confined to the realm of academics and politicians. There’s a huge role for grassroots organisations, whether it’s community-based action and awareness-raising through the Para Kore regional model, or through citizen-science data gathering and clean-ups, and individual and business actions, as modelled by Sustainable Coastlines’ Litter Intelligence project.

If you have any thoughts or reflections in response to the panel discussion content, feel free to contribute to the conversation and leave a comment below!

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Hannah Blumhardt

Hannah Blumhardt

Hannah runs The Rubbish Trip with her partner, Liam Prince. They've lived 'waste-free' since the beginning of 2015 and now travel New Zealand full-time giving talks and presentations about low-waste living, to schools, businesses and community groups. Hannah is also the Coordinator of the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council. In a past life she worked for various legal, government, academic and not-for-profit institutions.

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