Our dream vision for recycling in New Zealand

Our dream vision for recycling in New Zealand

At Otis, it’s no secret that we envision a future where intensive dairy and it’s harmful effects on our environment is a thing of the past. A future where agriculture is more diverse and restorative and where plant based milk isn’t a choice for the few but a viable alternative for the many. 

Alongside this, we also envisage a future where packaging is free of fossil fuels and instead made from regenerative, plant based materials. Where an empty carton isn’t treated as waste but a resource that can play a key part in a thriving, circular economy.

Our vision for the future isn’t some lofty ideal or pipedream, it’s our company’s north star and as we see it, well within our nations reach. 

This is why we were looking forward to getting our hands on the greatly anticipated consultation document for the ‘Transforming Recycling Proposal’, a long-term project initiated by the Ministry for the Environment in March 2022 with the aim of increasing the recycling of drink containers, reducing litter and lessening emissions.

Although we were really pleased that those with higher powers had started to sit up and take notice of the critical recycling issues this country faces, we were left disappointed by how in key areas the plan felt at odds with the low carbon, circular future, (that not only we and many other New Zealanders envision) but which our nation so desperately needs.  

After having had time to digest, here is a run-down on the key things that we believe need to change within this proposal.

The proposal seeks to standardise our kerbside recycling across the country. For example, currently what is accepted for recycling in Hamilton is different to Dunedin, or Invercargill, or Wellington. Standardization provides greater clarity to New Zealanders and helps decrease contamination rates. We’re all for it.

What we don’t agree with is that the packaging we use: Liquid paperboard packaging ( LPB, commonly known as Tetra Pak) not being included amongst the packaging types accepted for kerbside recycling.

When we chose this packaging option, we committed ourselves to solving LPB end-of-life recycling options for NZ rather than choosing an option to suit NZ’s sub-standard recycling infrastructure. Recyclability simply isn’t the strong indicator for environmental friendliness that many would think, which our decision reflects.

Unlike plastic that’s made from pulling fossil fuels from the ground, LPB is made from renewable plant based materials and is shown to be the lowest carbon packaging option available. Not only that, but here in New Zealand we now have the option to upcycle it through SaveBOARD ( for those of you who aren’t aware, a new NZ company, that turns rubbish such as coffee cups and our cartons into much needed building materials – think GIB board made from cartons).

In essence, we have available to us the lowest carbon packaging that can now be upcycled into a low carbon building material, solving a major building supply shortage in our country.  

Despite this LPB is not being included in kerbside recycling. What and who continues to be included and supported through kerbside recycling is fossil fuel derived plastic and the main user of this? The dairy industry.

Plant milks like us, of which the majority use LPB are left out. With plant milks shown to have a substantially lower environmental footprint to dairy milk and on the rise globally, this is a decision that neither feels future proofed nor in line with the low carbon future we all hope to create.

Haven spoken to many different people within our network and attended an MfE webinar, one of the major excuses given for excluding LPB from kerbside is that it will cost too much, in particular to modify the recovery centres (where our kerbside recycling goes to get sorted) and it will put extra costs on councils to have it included in their collection contracts.

But, what’s the cost on our environment of continuing to support the use of fossil fuel laden plastics over lower carbon alternatives? What’s the cost to our environment ( & future economy) of continuing to support ‘big dairy’ over plant milk.

We hate to think.

We’ve also heard the rationale for excluding LPB from kerbside recycling because it would be received in volumes that are too small for our existing centres to viably sort. However with the rapid rise of plant-based milks and climate scientists desperately trying to engage more global citizens to adopt low-carbon diets, those small volumes we see today will be very large volumes in the years and decades ahead. Importantly, the ability for these small volumes to grow will be slowed if the dominant, existing product is offered different, preferential treatment.

In conjunction with kerbside recycling, it’s also proposed that we have a Container Return scheme (CRS). See the diagram below for a brief overview, or you can read more about how it works here

Otis container return schemeAs a company, we are in favour of this scheme. If nothing else, we understand that money motivates people. So if we are to get the majority of our community members to recycle the packaging resources they use, we have to place a financial value on them. The proposed 20c value on every beverage container (we think this is the right price) will help ensure a large section of our community (that isn’t already motivated to be part of a circular economy) will become motivated.

Proposed beverages to be included in CRS:

As you can see, yet again dairy milks (described above as fresh milk) and the plastic it’s packaged in is getting a free pass. The rationale being that the majority of dairy milk is consumed at home (of which kerbside is sufficient) and that dairy milk is a staple in many New Zealander’s diets.

However, plant milk also is mainly consumed at home and for many of us, is a staple part of our diet. As the plan currently stands, anyone who is following the advice of climate scientists and choosing lower carbon milk alternatives, or anyone who can not consume dairy due to health, cultural, or religious reasons will have to pay extra and will not have the convenience of putting their empty LPB packaging in kerbside recycling.

As a small New Zealand start up, it also hinders us, putting us even more on the backfoot against the multi-billion dollar dairy conglomerates. Our ability to grow and compete will be slowed if the dominant, existing product is offered different, preferential treatment.

We need a level playing field for innovative companies to compete with the entrenched dairy industry, not a system that preserves the status quo simply because that’s the way it has always been.

The entire global dairy industry, which New Zealand is one of the world's largest suppliers of is going to be significantly impacted by dairy alternatives in the very near future – from plant-based milks to precision fermentation.

This recycling plan will set the course for how we manage packaging resources through our economy for the coming next decades. We should not be designing it based on the current volumes of LPB but the future volumes.

To summarise:
MfE talk about a low carbon future and a circular economy for Aotearoa but have a recycling plan that gives preference to our largest GHG emitting industry, promotes fossil fuel based packaging, discriminates against anyone choosing dairy free/ low emissions alternatives and is not supporting the upcycling of the lowest carbon packing type into a low carbon building material.

It’s a plan that is outdated and not future proofed for the very different future we will inevitably see ourselves in.

As a young New Zealand start up, we undoubtedly spend more time thinking about the opportunities for our future than we do getting caught up in the constraints of our past. It’s a mindset that to pushes us to do and see things as they should be and not as they have always been done.

What we are calling for is a recycling system with foresight; a system that is fit for our future, not entrenched in our past. A system which encourages and supports start-ups like ourselves who are trying to do good for our nation and our environment.

Where is the proposal currently at?
After low-key spamming the Government with submissions of feedback from our perspective and encouraging our followers to do the same, we are now eagerly awaiting the next announcement on the finalised future plans. This is a work in progress so watch this space, but we can promise that as a brand, we are fully committed to creating upcycling solutions to close the loop and achieve our circular economy dream.