A walk in nature

There’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of nature. So, over the holidays I decided to take a little walk in nature in New Zealand – one of the most beautiful places in the world. Still, I wondered before I got there if it would have the same issues with plastic waste as other places I have been recently.

This trip sent me to Wellington and then Picton where a boat took us to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track in the famous Marlborough wine region. For five glorious days, we hiked the sometimes difficult pathway to see breathtaking views of the area.

Views from the Queen Charlotte Track
Views from the Queen Charlotte Track

I even had a chance to go out for a paddle where we saw Eagle rays and a seal sunning himself on the back of a small yacht.

Wildlife sightings along the Queen Charlotte Track.
Wildlife sightings

What I didn’t see was a lot of rubbish which was really surprising, especially in the harbours. Instead, I saw just two pieces: a floating plastic bag that we couldn’t reach and a famous bottle where a tree decided to grow around it.

Rubbish sightings on the Queen Charlotte Track
Rubbish sightings on the Queen Charlotte Track

This was incredible given the number of backpackers and boat traffic we saw there. It could only mean that everyone was doing their part to keep the environment clean.

And it was likely the little things that made a difference. All of our packed lunches were in paper bags (and so were offered shopping bags). I was given a recyclable container for my salad which was of a much stronger material than what you normally see in Australia. Bamboo utensils and paper straws were the norm everywhere. We were encouraged to refill our drink bottles from the taps.

I especially liked the reusable coffee cup the tour operator gave us for our daily morning teas. No council in New Zealand recycles coffee cups. So this was a really nice and practical souvenir.

Reusable souvenir coffee cup

While I haven’t had a chance to research their recycling situation in New Zealand, overall I have to say that I was really impressed by how clean this part of the country was during my walk in nature. And they seem to have done this by focussing more on the reduction of plastic waste – a lesson all communities can easily adopt.

Used plastic bottles

Should we still recycle?

With this being National Recycling Week in Australia, the common question that is being asked right now is, “Should we still recycle?”

After all the negative media lately on what some shady recyclers have done (i.e. sending contaminated rubbish overseas and/or putting recyclables into landfill as the War on Waste program revealed), it’s not surprising if the general public think it’s a waste of time.

Personally, between my podcast and business, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with quite a few experts in this space and to see recyclers in action. And I can tell you that there are plenty of great companies out there that are doing the right thing. Furthermore, they are making great products from these materials too.

In fact, when interviewing Mark Yates of Replas, I saw the mounds and mounds of rubbish that they were turning into outdoor furniture and industrial products even with high levels of contamination in them at times.

But Australia has Plenty of Land

One common argument to the recycling campaign is that Australia has plenty of land to bury our rubbish. While it may be true that we have plenty of land, how practical and costly would it be to transport thousands of tonnes of waste to such locations every day from metro areas? And think about the additional carbon emissions that would add.

Let’s Burn it Instead

Some say that we should just burn these recyclables instead, but to many in this industry, it’s just like burning money. There were a lot of resources expended to make plastic, and it is still has usable purposes beyond its one-time use.

Furthermore, it practically encourages people to continue to waste these non-renewable resources to keep the incinerators sustainable. Remember, plastic is made from petroleum and cannot be replenished.

But is Burning it for Energy a Better Option?

There are better technologies coming out in this space all the time. However, at the moment, most experts agree that burning rubbish is not a cost efficient source of energy yet. Furthermore, there are still carbon emissions, health concerns and a huge requirement for water with most of these options.

Is there even enough demand for these recyclable materials?

Large recycler, SKM collapsed earlier this year and others are apparently struggling in various parts of the country as the demand for recyclables has fallen. This can mostly be attributed to exports being limited by other countries, but the self imposed export ban by Australia will also add further pressure if that ever gets implemented.

So, should we still recycle?

Absolutely! As long as we continue to make and use plastic, recycling is the most environmentally sustainable and economical way to generate value from this resource.

But it’s important for consumers to know that recycling doesn’t end when you put something into the yellow bin. It’s only recycled when it’s turned into something else, and companies can’t do that unless more people are actively buying Australian made, recycled material products.

And that includes you too!

Recycling in Hawaii

This week, I’m in Honolulu for a small family reunion. While I’m technically on vacation, I can’t help notice the challenges of recycling in Hawaii, specifically on this island of Oahu.

All of the pictures that they show on tourists web pages or social media accounts can be deceiving as I can’t help notice both the rubbish and the lack of plastic reduction measures on the island. This in itself feels so wrong when native Hawaiians are especially conscious about the land like most indigenous cultures.

There does seem to be multiple groups trying to help the waste issue here, particularly ocean waste. In fact, I was invited to a clean-up on the North Shore on Sunday (which I’ll unfortunately miss) where rubbish collects on the beaches from the Great Pacific Trash Patch.

While this is not necessarily trash that originates from Hawaii, there is an issue locally too. For one, very few big hotels in Waikiki provide even the most simple options such as plastic straws or cutlery alternatives. And just about every glass of water also comes with a straw without thought.

Today, I was actually given disposable chopsticks wrapped in plastic and labelled, “Eco.” Normally, these things are in a paper wrapper. So, even the usually better alternative to plastic utensils wasn’t available.

Fake advertising of an eco product
Eco chopsticks? What happened to the paper cover?

Where does rubbish go on an island?

So what happens when so much rubbish is generated on an island paradise? Too much of it ends up in the storm water drains and eventually goes into the ocean, just like the picture below at the Yacht Club.

Wakiki Yacht Club at night and in reality
Wakiki Yacht Club at night and in reality

Recycling in Hawaii is failing

Unfortunately, it looks like things are getting worse for recycling in Hawaii just like the places I visited in mainland USA in August. Since China and other countries put their recycled material import ban in place last year, the price of mixed plastics in particular have dropped dramatically.

While Oahu is still accepting #1 and #2 plastics, as of October 2019, Hawaii County which covers the big island is no longer accept any plastics or paper. This is exactly what happened to my parent’s hometown in September.

I’m not convinced that Hawaii was doing much recycling before everything happened with exports. Certainly the idea of “reducing” single-use plastics is not front of mind at the moment – for most of the people or businesses here. So, the question becomes, what happens to the rest of the rubbish now if recycling in Hawaii is no longer an option? It’s not like they have a lot of space for more landfills here.

Greenwashing beware

In my podcast interviews with various guests, I’ve had several warn my listeners to beware of greenwashing. I’d heard that term before, but I hadn’t realised how prevalent it really was – especially now as buying green is even more trendy.

According to Wikipedia, the words “greenwashing” goes back to the 1980s when hotels first started telling guests to reuse towels in order to “save water for the environment” when it’s really about a cost savings for them.

Example of Greenwashing
Example of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is essentially a manipulative marketing practice to try to sell something including ideas. They suggest (blatantly or not) that there’s an altruistic value related to helping the environment in some way when it’s not really the primary motive or even true.

I was at a Waste and Recycling Expo in Sydney yesterday and got a taste of that as I was looking for more potential guests for my podcast. One particular company insisted that all of their plastic bags were degradable because they put some sort of coating on it to break down “90% faster than other bags.”

I asked if that meant that they degrade in 50 years rather than 500 years, and the guy said, “More like 20, but at least we’re not leaving it behind for the next generation.”

There were a lot of government people there at the Expo looking for municipal solutions. I just wonder how many of them (and others) have fallen for greenwashing stories like this.

For now on, if I’m not sure about a potential guest, I’m going to run their name by one of my other contacts who I do trust. Because I certainly don’t want to accidentally promote a greenwashing story.