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Science Digest: The truth about plastics and recycling – and the common products you can’t recycle

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L&P could be ditching the brown and going clear in the future. Photo/Getty

The brown L&P bottle is one of the most classic pieces of New Zealand iconography, but after 115 years, New Zealanders need to prepare themselves for a big change in how the product looks on our shelves.

In the new episode of the NZ Herald’s science podcast, Science Digest, host Dr Michelle Dickinson talks to Plastics NZ chief executive Rachel Barker about recycling in New Zealand and what plastic products can and can’t be recycled.

Barker said that the color of plastics can have a big impact on their recyclability, with clear PET – or Polyethylene terephthalate – plastic very high in demand, while the dark-colored PETs, such as what L&P bottles are made from, are less desirable.

“The L&P bottle, while technically you can go through our recycling system and it is going to a recycling sort of end of life, it’s not going back into a bottle. It’s going overseas and turned into things like carpets and maybe occasionally clothing, but in general very much a downgrade.

“And the price of it. If you look at the price of a bale of clear bottles, for example, it’s quite high in comparison to the price of dark-colored plastics.”

Recently, Coca-Cola announced that green bottles of Sprite would be scrapped and replaced with clear plastic to increase the recyclability of the product.

In a statement, Coca-Cola in New Zealand, which produces L&P, said that the company is committed to driving change, and a change for the L&P packaging is on the cards.

“We are a proud signatory to the Ministry for the Environment’s Plastic Packaging Declaration, which will see us using 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier.

“All of our plastic bottles smaller than one liter and all sizes of our water bottles (excluding caps and labels) are made from 100 percent recycled PET plastic.

“Locally, we are looking towards transitioning our small number of colored PET plastic bottles, such as L&P, to clear PET to further increase the recyclability of these bottles.”

No timeline was given for this transition.

L&P is just one example of common products New Zealanders may be recycling, thinking they are doing the right thing, without realizing that the product they purchased in the first either can’t be recycled, isn’t being sorted properly at material recovery facilities ( MRFs), or isn’t being recycled in a way they would expect.

The podcast also discusses products that can’t be sorted through MRFs at all, using a black tub of Deep South ice-cream as an example. The tub is made of recyclable polypropylene and has a 5 recycling number on it, but Barker told the podcast that black plastics like that are ending up in landfill due to automated systems, and recommends consumers avoid any product in black plastic.

“The polypropylene itself is highly recyclable, but it can’t get through the optical sorters at the moment. So it’s actually deselected manually by a lot of the automated MRFs. Some of the manual MRFs, they might know what it actually is, and then it might be hitting the recycling, but through optical sorts, they just get deselected out to landfill, unfortunately.”

Barke said that AI could help with this in the long term, but the technology is still years away.

In a statement, Dene Brosnan, General Manager for New Zealand Creameries with manufactures Deep South ice cream, said that the company has a team “actively working on a sustainability improvement plan, which includes a ‘plastics’

future’ workflow for all our ice cream brands.

“We are aware of the differences in how plastic is managed by various local authorities around the country, and the specific issue of carbon black plastics not being identified by some optical recycling technology.

“We are already starting a trial of food safe Infrared (IR) black plastic, which has a special formulation that means it can be identified by the recycling machines. Depending on the outcome of the trial, another consideration is to change the color of the ice cream tubs to a color that can be picked up by recycling machines.”

Barker said that while she understands brand identity is important to companies, Plastics NZ is working with companies on what they should and shouldn’t be doing in packaging – and the key advice is to avoid black or dark colours.

Listen to the full episode of Science Digest with Dr. Michelle Dickinson above for more on what you can and can’t recycle, what goes on at MRFs, and what you can do to inspire change.

Science Digest is available to follow on iHeartRadio, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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