Three shipping containers of used, contaminated plastic waste are on the way back to New Zealand after a sting by the Indonesian government, and more could be on the way.
Indonesia is a major destination and New Zealand's largest for recycling used, low grade plastic, after China banned imports of most types of plastics early last year due to high pollution levels and environmental concerns.
Earlier this month, it launched an investigation to catch out countries sending un-recyclable plastic waste to its shores, finding hundreds of containers of contaminated waste. Containers from New Zealand were included in the countries responsible for sending the waste.
Officials inspected 2041 shipping containers of used plastic - a quarter (547) contained contaminated waste meaning the contents could not be recycled.
The Indonesian government confirmed eight containers from New Zealand were inspected - three of those contained contaminated waste.
Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said "there could still be more contaminated containers that are yet to be confirmed".
"Indonesia's decision to send back waste highlights the importance and urgency of the Government’s plan to reduce waste and recharge New Zealand’s recycling system," she said.
"We need to reduce our waste and reuse more materials from products at their end of their life. We also need to increase our ability to process waste here in New Zealand."
Steve Abel of Greenpeace told 1 NEWS New Zealand being part of Indonesia's contaminated waste saga was not only embarrassing.
"More importantly, it's morally unacceptable," he said. "We have a planetary plastic pollution crisis... and we are part of the problem. We are not part of the solution and that needs to change."
He said New Zealand should not be exporting used, low grade plastic overseas.
"There's no place that's good for this waste to go. We need to be honest about that."
Mr Abel said Indonesia and Malaysia, as the top countries where New Zealand's used plastic ends up, often have poor regulatory systems in place for plastic recycling. It could be processed "in a really unhealthy way", he said.
"It highlights we need to stop producing the waste in the first place."
Local Government president Dave Cull said 82 per cent of councils were impacted by China's ban, selling lower grade plastics (numbers 3-7) overseas at a low price, stockpiling, or struggling to find new buyers.
“Councils have little control over the plastics that are coming into the waste supply stream, particularly the low value ones that are expensive and difficult to recycle."
Mr Cull said the onus needs to be put onto the producers of the low-grade plastic.
"Better product stewardship is being investigated by the Government, and is well needed – so many purchases come wrapped in metres of polystyrene and low value, difficult-if-not-impossible to recycle plastic.
"Do we want plastic packaging coming into the country that can’t be recycled?" he asked.
Mr Cull said his organisation has been advocating for onshore recycling and expansion of the waste levy, and a nationwide approach to deal with recycling in New Zealand.
"Councils are on the front line of waste and recycling, but we’re just one small part of a complex system – only a combined effort that includes reducing waste and dealing with our cost and geography challenges will make a difference."
Ms Sage said the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials were working with the Indonesian government to get more information about the contaminated containers.
Those found to have exported contaminated waste may be penalised under the Imports and Exports Act.
How much plastic does New Zealand export?
In May, New Zealand signed up to the Basel Convention. The convention was changed to include legally-binding framework that would ensure the global trade in plastic waste was more transparent and better regulated.
However, New Zealand's latest plastic recycling export figures show there was no slowing down of shipping used plastic offshore.
According to customs data, New Zealand shipped over 8300 tonnes of plastic to Indonesia from January 1, 2019 to September 16. Over 12,000 tonnes was exported to Indonesia for the entirety of 2018.
Malaysia was exported 7800 tonnes for the 2019 period, and 7400 for 2018.
In total, 23,098 tonnes was shipped offshore in the 2019 period to Monday this week. In 2018, 31,616 was shipped offshore.