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From bag ban to a genuine circular economy: New Zealand takes some steps

New Zealand cityscape
photo: Kirsten Drew

There are encouraging signs from the New Zealand government that will push adoption of circular economy thinking, according to James Griffin, general manager projects and advisory for the NZ Sustainable Business Network.

He singled out the Ardern government’s recent ban on single-use plastic bags as a step in the right direction.

“It’s not a circular solution in itself, but sends a welcome signal, and will trigger circular economy innovations to fill a niche that had been filled by a product which has created many problems,” Griffin tells The Fifth Estate.

“The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment is also starting to support a lot of innovation and work on the circular economy.”

There is however a policy legacy from previous not-so-green governments that needs to be overcome.

A lot of the legislative settings would “benefit from review”, Griffin says.

“One of the most obvious with regards to the circular economy is the relatively low cost of the current waste levy – much lower than Australia’s.

“In short, if we continue to make it cheap to bury waste resources in the ground rather than reutilise or properly recycle them, then that behaviour is likely to continue.”

Current conservation minister and associate environment minister, Eugenie Sage, was one of the highlight presenters at the Sustainable Business Network’s Circular Economy Summit last week when she appeared via video link from Wellington.

Greens MP Sage brings a substantial track record as an activist and environmental advocate to her ministerial role, Griffin says. Her involvement with the conference “sends a signal about how the current government is really starting to embrace this way of working”.

The deputy head of Sage’s department, James Walker, was among around 150 delegates to the summit from across NZ’s business sector, local government and the consulting sector.

The keynote was delivered by pioneer of the cradle-to-cradle approach, Professor Dr Michael Braungart.

Other speakers included Jennifer McIver from Wishbone Design on circular thinking in product design and economist Shamubeel Eaqub.

Griffin says having Eaqub at the conference was important, as “it’s vital to remember that this is an approach grounded in economics, not just waste or any other of its aspects.”

There are opportunities “across the board” for circular economy thinking in NZ. Griffin cites examples of SBN members who are putting the thinking into practice through initiatives such as turning waste streams into new products, creating vehicle sharing services, or business models where products such as carpets and printing are offered as services rather than outright purchases.

The part that is exciting is when these start to get wired together into systems beyond a single business.”

Plastics are one of the most obvious areas for innovation. Like Australia, Griffin says that NZ has relied on exporting plastic waste to China. Now that door has closed, the challenge is to create a “new plastics economy” in NZ.

This would mean minimising the use of plastics, maximising the lifecycle of products that do use plastics and creating opportunities for re-utilisation and “genuine recycling”.

“As a first step we have brought together some of the biggest plastic packaging users in the country to back a diagnostic study about how the whole plastic packaging system currently works, and how we can shift to something more circular,” Griffin says.

There are already a number of outstanding examples of circular thinking emerging in NZ.

While these “design exemplars” are “not necessarily always the biggest players in the economy” they are blazing the trail for others to follow.

Griffin singles out businesses such as Wishbone Design, which makes modular, home repairable children’s bikes that effectively grow with them; Decibel, a modular mobile wireless speaker which is home repairable and updatable; and New Zealand King Salmon which is using what was previously a bi-product – fish offcuts – as the feed in resource for a new high-quality pet food.

SBN itself has had a specific focus on growing circular economy thinking and practice in the commercial office realm, with its Circular Economy Model Office project. It details how to incorporate the circular approach into fitouts and refurbishment, and is part of a broader agenda of addressing the major issue NZ has with building and construction waste.

Griffin says there has been “good take up” of the pilot, with it now being picked up by some architects to recommend to their clients, which is a “positive step”.

“There are other ongoing initiatives like Resene’s Paintwise, which recycles and reuses paints.

“The [NZ Green Building Council] Homestar Rating system is also starting to gain traction as a way to guide and signal sustainable and circular practise in building and refurbishment.

“But with construction still going at a pace here in New Zealand, and the general level of construction sustainability or circular thinking still low, the challenge is still on to mainstream these changes.”

Griffin says the key barrier to growth of the NZ circular economy is the same as the one faced everywhere else in the world – the “sheer inertia of the outdated linear system.”

“People are habituated to the ‘take, make, throw away’ approach and business systems are wired into them. It takes shift in understanding, behaviour and processes to make this change.”

There are also unique challenges due to the relative small size of the country and its remoteness. Many of the global companies operating in NZ are based elsewhere, which can make affecting their policies and processes “a little more difficult”.

There are obvious links between circular economy approaches and other policy arenas such as climate change mitigation, energy policy, housing policy and employment policy.

Griffin says signs of “joined up thinking” in terms of policies are starting to emerge in both the business sector and in local and national government. While it’s a style of thinking that SBN itself practices, it “hasn’t always been the case across the economy”.

“There are now developments happening all over the economy – from legislation underway to revitalise our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to attempts to shift the way we farm,” Griffin says.

“All these issues interlink, and link with other issues like poverty and equality that also need to be addressed in a systemic way to make the changes we need.”

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