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

L&P could drop the brown and go free 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 should prepare for a major 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 CEO Rachel Barker about recycling in New Zealand and which plastic products can and can’t be recycled.

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

“The L&P bottle, while technically you can go through our recycling system and it goes to some kind of end-of-life recycling, it doesn’t go back into a bottle. It goes abroad and turns into things like carpets and maybe the occasional clothes, but generally a downturn.

“And the price of it. For example, if you look at the price of a bale of transparent bottles, it is quite high compared to the price of dark-colored plastic.”

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

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

“We are a proud signatory to the Department of the Environment’s plastic packaging statement, which will ensure we use 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or sooner.

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

“Locally, we are looking to transition our small number of colored PET plastic bottles, such as L&P, to 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 bought in the first place also cannot be recycled, is not properly sorted at material recovery facilities (MRFs), or is not recycled as they would expect.

The podcast also discusses products that cannot be sorted through MRFs at all, with an example being a black tub of Deep South ice cream. The tub is made of recyclable polypropylene and has a recycling number of 5, but Barker told the podcast that such black plastics end up in landfills through automated systems, and advises consumers to avoid any product made in black plastic.

“The polypropylene itself is highly recyclable, but currently cannot pass through the optical sorters. So it’s actually manually deselected by many of the automated MRFs. Some of the manual MRF’s might know what it really is, and then it might make it to recycling, but optical sorts unfortunately just deselect them for landfill.

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

In a statement, Dene Brosnan, managing director of New Zealand Creameries with manufacturer of Deep South ice cream, said the company has a team “actively working on a sustainability improvement plan, including a ‘plastics’

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future’ workstream for all our ice cream brands.

“We are aware of the differences in how plastics are managed by different local authorities across the country, as well as the specific problem of carbon black plastics not being identified by some optical recycling technologies.

“We have already started a trial with food-safe infrared (IR) black plastic, which has a special formulation that allows it to be identified by the recycling machines. Depending on the outcome of the trial, another consideration is to change the color of the ice cream cups to one that can be picked up by recycling machines.”

Barker said that while she understands brand identity is important to businesses, Plastics NZ is working with companies on what to do and what not to do in packaging – and the most important advice is to avoid black or dark colours.

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

Science Digest is available as a sequel iHeartRadio, Spotify, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts from.

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