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Putting plastic packaging waste into roads is not recycling

The New Zealand Product Stewardship Council (NZPSC) is concerned about moves to incorporate plastic packaging waste in roading asphalt, following the New Plymouth District Council’s announcement this morning that it has used 500kg of the district’s stockpiled plastic waste to resurface part of Liardet St using an asphalt called Plas Mix that contains plastics type 3-7.

“The initiative is touted as a revolutionary means of ‘recycling’ our low-grade plastic packaging, but this isn’t recycling, it’s just another form of landfilling or dumping a material that is actually toxic” says NZPSC member Warren Snow.

“The unfolding disaster on the West Coast after a storm ripped open an old landfill on the Fox River leaving tonnes of plastic waste along the riverbed and coastlines, demonstrates how cautious we need to be about where we put all the rubbish we throw away – because there is no away” says Snow.

Members of the NZPSC are concerned about the long-term environmental implications of using our plastic waste in roading.

“Similar initiatives overseas have been slowed by roading engineers who cannot guarantee these plastic roads will not detrimentally affect the environment as the bitumen undergoes wear and tear from use or is damaged by possible natural disasters” says NZPSC member and plastics expert Trisia Farrelly.

“Some have argued that adding plastic waste to roading is simply replacing one polymer with another. But that is not correct. Post-consumer plastics contain a wide range of toxic additives. When these eventually weather and break down into micro and nano sized pieces, they are more available as pollutants in soil, and they enter rivers and marine environments via stormwater systems. They also become airborne and pose risks to lung health when inhaled.

“We already know that car tyres shed microplastics into stormwater drains every time we drive. Do we really want to run the risk of our roads doing this too?

“Innovations in how we use plastic continue to outpace our understanding of the long-term implications of these new uses. There are so many examples of unforeseen and negative consequences whether its plastic microbeads in cosmetic products escaping wastewater systems, the health effects of certain plastic packaging leaching toxins into foods, or that plastics raft persistent organic pollutants and invasive species.”

“The fact is that experiments like this are environmentally risky. Perhaps we should learn from past mistakes and take a far more precautionary approach to our use of plastic waste” says Farrelly.

The New Zealand Product Stewardship Council supports government policy to regulate the materials that enter our waste stream, incentivise product redesign, and improve recycling outcomes.

“We need to be operating at the top of the cliff, reducing our use of materials that are difficult to recycle. There’s a danger that false solutions like turning our plastic waste into roads makes us feel better about continuing to manufacture and consume toxic plastic products” says Marty Hoffart, Chair of the Zero Waste Network and member of the NZPSC.

“However, it’s becoming urgent that we reduce our use of these products by using policy to phase them out and incentivise industry to redesign packaging that is actually recyclable. And, if we are going to participate in a circular economy, we need recyclable materials to be collected back and used again and again.”

By focussing plastic pollution attention and public funding on waste management, the NZPSC argues that we miss the opportunity to stimulate innovative enterprises that work to prevent the increasing flows of toxic, unnecessary, avoidable, and single-use plastics into our economy.

“We need to overhaul our failing plastics economy and develop one in which the kinds of plastics we are now planning to build roads with are a thing of the past”, says Farrelly.

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