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Covid-19 sees us fall in love with plastic again

Article by Steve Carden, Chief Executive of Pamu Farms as published in the NZ Herald

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Like many New Zealanders, I was slightly horrified by the collection of plastic containers that accumulated outside my house during the lockdown period. With a six-week hold on kerbside recycling in Wellington, the growing pile of yoghurt containers, milk bottles, cleaning-product bottles and other plastic containers drove home just how reliant we are on plastic.

According to a report published by the Waste Management Institute in January 2020, New Zealanders throw out 1.76 billion plastic containers into their rubbish and recycling every year, with the average household throwing out 188 single-use drink bottles alone.

Around the world, concerns about the spread of Covid-19 means plastic packaging is enjoying something of a renaissance. Some US cities have temporarily revoked their bans on single-use plastic bags due to concerns that reusable bags may be a source of infection. In many countries, the demand for plastic-wrapped goods is soaring.

But rather than embracing plastic made from fossil fuels again, and reversing the slow gains we have made towards developing a more circular, low-carbon economy, now is the time to look at alternatives.

We know that recycling is only a small part of the answer. While 87 per cent of the plastic containers we use in New Zealand could be recycled relatively easily, more than a third of them never make it into the recycling bin. Internationally, only 9 per cent of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste produced over the last 60 years has been recycled. The rest of it has ended up in landfills or made its way into our natural environments and oceans.

Basically we need to stop using so much plastic. Banning single-use plastic bags may make us feel good, but these bags make up a tiny fraction of the plastic we use. What's needed is a fundamental change in how our businesses and households operate. We're crushing our planet because we have a high-consumption, high-wastage mentality. In other words, we've become a throwaway society.

As we start to remake the global economy in the post-Covid-19 era we have an opportunity to rethink the path we're on. Now is a good time to start thinking differently about where we source our products, how we make them, and how we reduce – and preferably eliminate – waste.

One part of the solution is to replace products made from fossil fuel with products made from biomass – particularly trees and plants. Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is both renewable and low-carbon: a tree captures as much carbon while it is growing as it releases when it is burned.

New Zealand is well placed when it comes to producing biomass. We have plenty of available land, a small population and a productive growing environment.

There has never been a better time to make this shift. New Zealand is in the midst of a forest-planting boom, driven by the goal of reaching a billion new trees. After decades of deforesting to create grazing land for sheep, cattle and cows, we're now replanting some of this land back into forestry where it makes economic, social and environmental sense to do so.

This new forestry is contributing to New Zealand's growing stock of biomass. Other biomass resources include forestry residue, waste from harvesting plant crops, human (and animal) digestive waste, and household and food waste.

This biomass has the potential to be as valuable a resource as oil or natural gas reserves.

Banning single-use plastic bags may make us feel good, but these bags make up a tiny fraction of the plastic we use. Photo / File

We already know that it's possible to make biodegradable plastic from biomass and in particular the residue from logging. Those same logging residues can be used for many other purposes: making wood pellets to replace coal in dairy factories; producing biochar, a carbonised compost that can fix nitrogen in the soil and stop nitrates leaching into our rivers; producing wood molasses to use as animal feed.

Off the farm, it's possible to use wood residues to make a resin that can be used in varnishes and adhesives, as well as specialty fibres such as viscose and rayon.

But we won't capture the potential of biomass without real effort. At present, only 42 per cent of our wood is sold on the domestic market. The rest is exported, with China consuming approximately 80 per cent of our log exports. As recent events have shown, when that market closes our forestry industry quickly gets into trouble.

As for our wood residues, a lot of it is simply being left to rot. However, some New Zealand companies are already starting to change that. For example, a company called Wood Engineering Technology has developed a product called "optimised engineered lumber" made from low-grade pinus radiata logs that can be used as structural timber suitable for midrise buildings. Another possibility is using thermally modified pinus radiata to replace non-renewable hardwoods; this is already happening in Europe.

In Paeroa, ENZO Nutraceuticals is making a product called Enzogenol from the bark of Pinus radiata trees. The powder has antioxidant properties and is used in dietary and health supplements. It is now being sold in the US, Europe, Asia and India.

Internationally, Dutch renewable biochemicals company Avantium is hoping to kickstart investment in a pioneering project to make plastics from plant sugars rather than fossil fuels. The project already has support from beer-maker Carlsberg and backing from food and drink companies Coca Cola and Danone. Trials have shown that the plant plastic would decompose in one year using a composter, and a few years longer if left in normal outdoor conditions. It could also be recycled.

One of Pāmu's roles is to foster innovation in our primary sectors. We are responsible for running 120 government-owned farms around the country which means we are well-placed to explore and make investments in new land uses and new technologies that will increase the value of our primary products.

Over the past few years, we've developed a range of new, high-value products. These include premium deer-milk cosmetics now sold in Korea, and sheep-milk products such as powder and toddler formula which are highly sought after on the international market. We're also expanding our suite of organic dairy farms to meet customer demand in Asia, and we recently collaborated with NZ Merino and Barron Surfboards to create surfboards made from wool, rather than fibreglass.

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We know through feedback from our customers that they want regenerative farm systems that utilise sustainable inputs and generate minimal waste. We're particularly interested in developing farm systems that integrate locally produced biomaterials into their operations.

One example of this is our recent move to use sweet-corn waste from Gisborne company Cedenco as a feed supplement at our dairy farm complex near Taupo. This follows our decision to ban the use of Palm Kernel Extract (PKE) on all our farms. Using sweet-corn waste lowers our environmental footprint by using a local, rather than an imported product, and it also reduces the amount of waste being sent to landfill.

We also have one of the largest forestry holdings in the country, and we're keen to see that resource being used in a more circular way. By doing that, we are more likely to achieve our goal of becoming a low-carbon economy by 2050.

In a dream scenario, our trees would be used to make the plastic components in our milking sheds, to run the dairy factories that process our milk, to produce biochar to enrich our soil and molasses to feed our animals – as well as to build the houses and fuel the vehicles.

That reality may not be as far off as you might think.