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Close up look at company on frontline of plastic recycling in New Zealand

New Zealand should be able to process and reuse all of our recyclable plastics onshore, says Astron Sustainability, a company dealing with around 15,000 tonnes of the plastic packaging Kiwis put out for recycling each year.

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Astron Sustainability deals to 15,000 tonnes of plastic packaging each year. Source: 1 NEWS

According to industry body WasteMINZ, 76.55 per cent of plastics in residential recycling is number 1, 2 or 5, all of which meets the criteria to be taken care of in New Zealand.

But in reality, Auckland Council's Waste Solutions Manager Parul Sood told 1 NEWS we still rely on overseas markets and processes.

And not all councils collect all the same numbers; for example, 23 councils out for 67 don’t accept number 5.

Astron Sustainability processes plastics numbered 2 and 5, commonly used for icecream, milk and shampoo containers, from residential kerbside collections in a number of North Island cities, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of its work.

The rest of Astron’s work is focused on recycling post agricultural and industrial plastic waste.

"We put the plastic through an intensive process of washing, recycling, to remove contamination," general manager Steve Mead says. 

"Once the material has been recycled, we convert it into finished products or sell it into the broader plastics industry."

Mead says his company makes products for infrastructure, for the food industry, and for agriculture. Its underground cable covers are just one example.

"It provides a visible identification that the cable is below and it's a hard plastic which makes it hard to dig through," Mead says.

Another end product the company offers is slipsheets, an alternative to wooden pallets for freight.

Other molding businesses Astron Sustainability supplies to "manufacture everything from pots, to kerbside recycling bins".

The Australasian company, with sites in Auckland, is preparing to increase its workload at the end of year, after completion of an upgrade to the optical sorter technology at Auckland Council's materials recovery facility.

"The investment means that around 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste that was historically shipped off to China can now be recycled on shore," Mead says.

Ms Sood said, "Optical sorters are pretty cool machines in terms of what they do, they've got cameras lasers and airjets that actually push product through".

"If you can get them into different grades, you can send them to different suppliers for processing into different products", she said.

And she says other cities will be able to make use of the sorting technology.

It will see Astron Sustainability receive more coloured plastics.

But while $16 million of Government funding's gone towards that upgrade, Mr Mead said, "There needs to be more investment, at a higher pace".

Adding "the infrastructure has quite long lead times, it can take up to 2 years to get equipment into the country and installed".

The Government's acknowledged there's a $2.1 billion infrastructure deficit in the recycling space.

"We need more plants, to be able to take our plastics, recycle them and process them into different products," Sood says.

Astron Sustainability says it will be looking for more businesses to partner with, to manufacture other products from the recycled plastic.

"We won’t have enough demand of our own finished products to consume all the additional materials," Mead says.

As for the plastics numbered 3, 4, 6 and 7 - commonly found in packaging for products such as tomato sauce, biscuits and sushi -WasteMINZ says they're much more difficult to recycle.

"In total 1241 tonnes of plastics #3, #4, #6 and #7 are sent to landfill [per year] as there is no end of life option," it says.

Sood says she'd eventually like to see New Zealand move away from those, to only using packaging that can be recycled again and again.

"We're hoping none of that goes to landfill," she says.

To find out what you can and can’t recycle in your area, click here.