Recyclers see red over 'green' bottles

The two-litre opaque milk bottle sits silently under the humming supermarket lights.

A customer wraps her fingers around the chilly handle, tosses it into her shopping basket next to the capsicum and cabbage, comforted by marketing hype that once its contents are consumed it will be dealt with in an eco-friendly way.

Surveys have shown many New Zealanders now expect the goods they buy to have environmentally friendly packaging and beverage and packaging companies are bound by consumer and advertising laws to clearly display on bottles whether they are recyclable or not.

A former packaging engineer and compost expert, who asked not to be named, says beverage and packaging industries simply hope no-one will call them out on their eco-friendly claims.

The news around how much of our plastic bottles are recycled hasn't been good for some time.

Recycling consultant and managing director of recycling consultancy business Envision New Zealand Warren Snow estimates less than 40 per cent of single-use bottles in New Zealand are recycled. That means about 1 billion bottles are sent to landfills every year.

That equates to nearly 100,000 tonnes of beverage containers or 360,000 cubic metres of real estate being used unnecessarily, he says.

Coupled with that is the little-known fact that a large portion of our waste plastic bottles is shipped to China to be down-cycled into lower-grade products, such as slip mats, plastic wrapping, pipes, and rubbish bins. Last year that came to $7.7 billion worth of plastic.

You'd think the latest influx of new plastic bottles might stop some of that, but in fact many recyclers say they're ill-prepared to deal with them, and in some cases are losing money because of them.

BusinessDay investigated three examples of eco-friendly products launched in the Kiwi market to find out where they ended up.

The first was Fonterra's new Anchor light-proof bottle launched in April.

After research showed light was bad for milk, the bottle was changed from transparent to coloured high density polyethylene (HDPE).

The high-quality plastic attracts a good price when recycled, but some machines fail to recognise it as high-grade.

Auckland recycler Visy uses mechanical sorters which struggle to deal with the new bottle's lack of light penetration.

They recognise it as low-grade mixed plastics rather than high-grade plastic. The difference in returns is huge - about $600 a tonne for HDPE or other high-grade plastics compared with $13 a tonne for the mixed plastics.

Visy education and marketing manager Meredith Graham said it's not financially viable for the recycler, dealing with 85,000 tonnes of waste a year, to sort out one or two specific products.

Recycler Wanaka Wastebusters spokeswoman Gina Dempster said one option was to hand-sort unusual bottles into the correct waste stream, but this means extra labour costs and time.

The bottles' black middle layer also limits options for reuse, Dempster said.

General manager James Flexman said while the new Anchor milk bottle was recyclable and the same grade of plastic as the old one, the colour meant the bottles were often bundled in with other plastic grades.

In the current market this results in the bottles being near-impossible to sell because export markets for mixed grades of plastic have dried up, he said.

The combination of the three layers also resulted in a grey resin after re-processing which, no matter how much dye was added, was difficult to alter to another base colour, reducing what it could be reused for.

These challenges were forcing some mixed plastics recyclers to send the material to landfill rather than on-selling, Flexman said.

However, Astron Plastics general manager Steve Mead claimed there was a "negligible difference" between the value of clear and coloured HDPE.

Astron recycled the new Anchor milk bottle into packaging, construction materials, and drainage pipes as a sustainable alternative to new plastics. The new bottle's lower export value might even encourage greater local use, he said.

Consumer activist and conservationist Carol Knutson wasn't so sure. More than 2700 people have shared the Aucklander's anti-Anchor post on Facebook, and the bottle has received 143 nominations for the worst packaging in the annual Unpackit Awards run by Wanaka Wastebusters.

A key concern for her was advice from a recycler friend that the new bottle had the potential to "cripple the industry" because of the difficulties recycling it.

Despite the critics, Fonterra wa backing its bottle. Group marketing manager Craig Irwin said the primary purpose of packaging was to protect the product.

The second bottle we looked at was Charlie's ground-breaking innovation, The Honest Water Bottle. Made from organic matter, the bottle cannot be recycled in New Zealand. The United States and Belgium have the only two recycling plants equipped to deal with the organic-derived plastic Polylactide (PLA).

Last year Wanaka Wastebusters collected 1232 of Charlie's PLA bottles at the annual Warbirds Over Wanaka event and sent the bottles back to the Japanese-owned drinks company in protest at the recycling claims on its label. The bottles could be composted, but only in very specific conditions.

This lot were eventually sent to the Envirofert Facility in Tuakau, and were composted to soil after 130 days. Xtreme Waste co-manager Rick Thorpe said most composters didn't want to handle these bottles because they'd go broke relying on the low returns from PLA bottles.

After a Commerce Commission inquiry, the recycling claims were removed from the bottles and the company's website.

But Charlie's Trading Company chief executive Craig Cotton still said the organic plastic was environmentally neutral from cradle to grave because it offered a packaging alternative made from plants rather than petrol.

Consumers placed all plastics in one recycling bin.

The recyclers have done their best to educate sorters to separate the organic bottles out, but they often end up in the incorrect waste stream. And if offshore reprocessors who buy the material find any contaminants, even an organic one, in a specified grade they have been sold, they will seek financial redress from the supplier.

Another option for the Charlie's organic bottle was burial at a landfill where they slowly rot, producing 30 per cent more methane (greenhouse gas) than non-organic materials.

Envision New Zealand's Snow said: "as long as marketing departments come up with ways to make their companies look sustainable instead of making it a core purpose of the business, silly unworkable ideas like these will keep coming".

The third bottle investigated was Coke's new Kiwi Blue Eco-Twist bottle, which has 25 per cent less plastic than the former version. While praised by many, it's still proving a recycling headache.

Local distributor Coca-cola Amatil launched the bottle in March as part of what it said was an "ongoing commitment" to invest in innovation that supported sustainable communities.

The company said the crushable bottles were better for recycling because they fitted more easily in waste bins.

Marketing manager Delina Shields said the amount of PET plastic used to make water bottles would be reduced by 74 tonnes each year, which was equivalent to the weight of about 55 Corolla sedans.

But Visy said if mechanical sorters were not programmed to recognise the lighter-than-average bottles, they could be mistaken for paper.

If that occured, the bottles not only contaminated the paper stream, but the recycler also missed out on the lucrative returns generated from higher-grade PET plastic.