Plastic Planet

Plastic is not the first word you’d associate with New Zealand. You think instead of the mountains, the rivers and lakes, the astonishing coastline. And yet plastic is on my mind as we travel through the South Island of this astonishingly beautiful country.

Point Kean
Point Kean. Photo credit: Karen Kao

During a whale watching expedition, I hear about plastic bottles lodged in the throats of sperm whales, causing them to starve to death. At the Arthur’s Pass National Park, signs remind hikers to pack out their trash. In Christchurch, recycling bins abound.

Single use water bottles, drinking straws, takeaway food containers, produce bags, cling wrap. At home, in Amsterdam, these are all items I’d put into the recycling and feel quite saintly for doing so. But here in New Zealand, I’ve learned that plastic recycling is a tiny bandage of a festering wound.

Plastic Process

Plastic resin code
Plastic resin identification code. Image source: Wikipedia

Prior to January 2018, China took in nearly half the world’s recycling material: paper, aluminum, glass and plastic. Chinese processors knew how to turn that waste into new products. But much of the waste arrived contaminated, fit only for burning or burying. The world’s plastic became an environmental problem for China.

And so, in January 2018, China banned all imported waste. Plastic waste import dropped by 99%. Now, plastic waste around the world is piling up again. It ends in landfills, burnt, or simply tossed onto the ground. But before we lay the blame at China’s door, we should know:

Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12 percent were burned. The rest were buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans. Without China to process plastic bottles, packaging, and food containers — not to mention industrial and other plastic waste — experts warn it will exacerbate the already massive waste problem posed by our throwaway culture. The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow.

Cheryl Katz, “Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling“ in Yale Environment 360, 7 Mar 2019

The Recycling Game

Kaikoura. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This explains the Babylonian differences from one New Zealand township to the next on what kind of plastic can or cannot be recycled. The Dargaville Transfer Station on the North Island will only accept PET plastics 1 and 2. Christchurch on the South Island takes hard plastic 1-7.

Only tiny Kaikoura will collect it all: hard and soft plastic, scrap metal, paper, glass, white goods, electronics, textile and more. Innovative Waste Kaikoura performs this task but don’t call them a trash collector. IWK brands itself as a resource recovery centre.

Our vision is to divert as much waste from landfill and educate the local community to take a bigger ownership of their household waste by understanding where it goes to and how they can rethink their waste stream.

Innovative Waste Kaikoura

So now I’m trying to educate myself about my own waste stream. Looking at the bottom of every plastic container for the right recycling icon. Scrutinizing pasta packages to divine which one is truly recyclable and which one will end up in a giant plastic landfill. I find plastic in my toothpaste, liquid soap, and shampoo. Surely there’s something I can do, right here, right now, even as a mere tourist.

The Compost Heap

I watch my AirBNB hosts and follow their lead. Joanna on the North Island composts all food scraps by burying them in the garden. This avoids the problems of smell, maggots, and rodents. Susie’s property on the South Island isn’t so large. She won’t take meat or much dairy but all the rest is fine. In Christchurch, greasy old pizza boxes qualify as food scraps so they, too, go into the compost.

No plastic in waterfall
Arthur’s Pass National Park. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Not all food scraps end up in compost. Joanna throws our green-lipped mussel shells onto the gravel road. She says it works great as filler. From an in-flight magazine, I learn that some Australian chefs send their used shells to help rebuild reefs.

My neighbors in Amsterdam probably won’t like me strewing mussel shells on the street. Nor do I want rats digging in my garden.

But I can add more cooked food to my compost: old bread and stale cookies, any kind of grains cooked or uncooked. My garden will thank me for it.


While on the road, I learned to make do without cling wrap. Why can’t I do the same at home? I find ideas from, you guessed it, on how to rid myself of single use plastic. I won’t go so far as to make my own toothpaste but I can replace ziploc bags with silicone. And when I shop for grains and nuts, I can buy in bulk and bring my own container, too.

Upcycle, re-use, these are verbs you hear in the tree hugging world. Why buy more stuff when I already have so much? A little Hawaiian island mentality might work well in Amsterdam.

Of course, I could just be bullshitting myself. I may forget about our plastic planet once I’m home. Go on with my life like I always have. After all, I’m just as much a creature of habit as anyone else. But let me try for as long as it lasts, one plastic bottle at a time.