New Zealand packaging recycling second-worst in global trial

Aotearoa’s clean green reputation takes a hit in our global packaging recycling assessment.

Crushed can of Coca Cola.

We participated in a global assessment with 8 other consumer organisations to examine the recyclability of product packaging.

In 2021, consumer organisations in 9 countries assessed packaging recyclability and labelling on 11 popular products. Consumer NZ took part with organisations in Australia, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Portugal and the United Kingdom, coordinated by Consumers International. Combined, these consumer organisations represent 1.8 billion people.

Photograph of the packagings analized.

New Zealand’s packaging recycling is a mess!

We were the second-worst country for packaging recyclability. Here in clean, green Aotearoa, 57% of the packaging we assessed wasn’t recyclable in practice. That’s not too bad when compared to Brazil (92%), but we have a lot of room for improvement. Especially when our Aussie cousins beat us by a mile with just 14% of packaging not being recyclable.

In this assessment, a “recyclable” product is “recyclable in practice”. This means there’s an existing collection, sorting and recycling system in place that recycles the packaging. In other words, consumers can actually recycle these products in their home countries – it’s not just a theoretical possibility.

The international research found:

  • no assessed product was 100% recyclable in all countries
  • labelling was often unclear and confusing for consumers
  • sustainable packaging, labelling information and recycling infrastructure varied significantly between countries.

What the research found

While Brazil and New Zealand were the worst for recycling, the best country was Hong Kong, closely followed by Portugal.

The 3 most recyclable products were the Coca-Cola Mini 6 pack, Dove Body Wash and San Pellegrino Sparkling Water. The least recyclable were Pringles, KitKat, and M&M Peanut chocolates.

The packaging for Pringles was particularly bad. It’s a tube made of mixed materials (plastic, cardboard, foil and aluminium) that can’t be easily separated.

Percentage of packaging not recyclable by country

Of the 5 products that weren’t easily recyclable in Aotearoa, 3 were soft plastics. It is possible to recycle soft plastics here, but collection points aren’t widespread throughout the country yet. They’re located at selected stores in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Wellington, and Christchurch.

The Packaging Forum – an industry group that runs the soft plastic recycling scheme – estimates 4976 tonnes of soft plastic packaging was used by Kiwis in a 12-month period up to August 2020. The forum estimates Aotearoa will only have capacity to recycle 700 tonnes of soft plastic over the next year.

Our government is working with councils and industry to standardise kerbside recycling and consumer packaging labelling.

Products assessed internationally

*Sometimes the packaging volume varied between countries.

Coca-Cola Mini 6 pack – produced by The Coca-Cola Company

Photograph of 6-pack of Coca Cola.

This packaging was 6 aluminium cans and a cardboard sleeve. All parts are recyclable here. This product was the closest to being fully recyclable in all 9 countries (98%).

Coca-Cola is a signatory on an international commitment to make 100% of its primary packaging globally recyclable by 2025.

The Coca-Cola Company didn’t comment on the New Zealand results, but said: “We are focused primarily on consumer packaging … but we are also in the process of extending this work to our secondary packaging, such as plastic packaging that accompanies aluminium can multipacks.”

Dove Body Wash – produced by Unilever

Photo of Dove body wash bottle.

This product is a plastic bottle (made of number 2 HDPE) and a plastic plunger cap, but you need to remove the plunger cap before recycling the bottle. The plunger cap then goes in the rubbish bin as it can’t be recycled. While the plunger cap is non- recyclable in Aotearoa, other countries did better. Internationally, an average of 82% of the packaging could be recycled. This product also had the informative Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), which explains how to dispose of each piece.

Unilever didn’t comment on the New Zealand results, but said “the definition of '100% recycled bottle' is that the bottle is made of 100% recycled plastic (PCR)."

"We make sure that the labelling of recyclability reflects this definition and is also in line with each local country’s own regulation.”

Our response: This is only relevant to UK consumers as the bottle sold there reads ‘100% recycled bottle'. It is unclear whether this means recycled content or recyclable.

Heinz Tomato Ketchup – produced by Kraft Heinz

Photo of Heinz ketchup.

This packaging is a number PET1 plastic bottle with plastic seal and cap, however only the bottle could be easily recycled here. For other countries, an average of 81% of this packaging was easily recyclable. However, you need to look carefully to find its embossed PET1 logo, as it’s hidden underneath the opaque white cap.

Kraft Heinz said: “The combined bottle with cap is ‘widely accepted’ for kerbside collection in both Australia and New Zealand (meaning that more than 80% of the kerbside population has access to a council service).”

Our response: This differs from our assessment as it doesn’t consider whether packaging is recycled in practice. In all participating countries, members worked with independent waste and recycling experts to confirm if packaging was recyclable in practice.

KitKat chocolate bar – produced by Nestlé

Photo of Kit-Kat chocolate.

Even though this packaging looks like a foil wrapper, it’s a soft plastic that’s not widely recyclable in Aotearoa.

Nestlé is a signatory on an international commitment that by 2025, 100% of its packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Nestlé did not respond to a request for comment on the findings.

M&M Peanut chocolates – produced by Mars

Image of M&M packaging.

This packaging is a soft plastic bag and isn’t widely recyclable in Aotearoa. Labelling for this product was an issue around the world. For example, in Portugal, the packaging is 100% recyclable but the label states it should not be recycled.

Mars is a signatory on an international commitment that by 2025, 100% of its packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Mars didn’t comment on the New Zealand results, but said “In 2020, we launched a range of new packaging innovations … reducing the size of our confectionary pouches in the U.K. We plan for this momentum to continue into 2021.”

Nescafé Original coffee – produced by Nestlé

Photograph of a Nescafe jar.

This packaging is a glass jar with foil seal and a plastic cap. Only the foil seal and plastic cap couldn’t be easily recycled in New Zealand, making 95% of packaging recyclable. That’s a step above the global average (88%).

Nestlé did not respond to a request for comment on the findings.

Nutella Ferrero Hazelnut Spread with Cocoa – produced by Ferrero Group

Photo of Nutella jar.

This packaging comprises a number 1 PET plastic jar, foil seal and plastic cap. Only the jar could be easily recycled here (note: this may also be sold in glass jars, which are also easily recycled in Aotearoa). Globally, 84% of this product’s packaging could be easily recycled.

Ferrero Group is a signatory on an international commitment towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

Ferrero Group didn’t comment on the New Zealand results, but said ‘“The total volumes of the Nutella jar, either glass or PET, show an average 97% global recyclability as both are valuable materials, with consolidated collection and recycling schemes in our core countries.”

Our response: This differs from our assessment as it doesn’t consider whether packaging is recycled in practice. In all participating countries, members worked with independent waste and recycling experts to confirm if packaging was recyclable in practice.

Pringles chips – produced by The Kellogg Company

Photo of Pringles packaging.

This packaging is the least recyclable in our test with only 16% of it recyclable around the globe. In New Zealand, none of it’s recyclable. This is mostly due to the mixed materials used – it’s an aluminium and foil-lined cardboard tube can’t be separated easily, therefore they can’t be recycled.

The Kellogg Company is a signatory on an international commitment that by 2025, 100% of its packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

The Kellogg Company didn’t comment on the New Zealand results, but said “we are redesigning our Pringles can in Europe and have tested both a steel and a paper can there. The Pringles paper can trial in 2020 was well received by consumers.”

San Pellegrino Sparkling Water – produced by Nestlé

Photo of San Pellegrino bottles.

This packaging is a green number PET1 plastic bottle and plastic cap. In most countries 88% of this packaging was easily recyclable. However, in Aotearoa, colour PET1 plastics like this are commonly collected, but not often recycled. This is because the colour is undesirable for recycling as it can affect the colour of packaging made from it.

Nestlé is a signatory on an international commitment that by 2025, 100% of its packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Nestlé did not respond to a request for comment on the findings.

Toblerone chocolate bar – produced by Mondelēz International

Photo of Toblerone packaging.

This packaging is a soft plastic wrapper. It isn’t widely recyclable in Aotearoa. In 5 of 9 countries this product was recyclable, but the labelling didn’t always state this.

Mondelēz International is a signatory on an international commitment that by 2025, 100% of its packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Mondelēz International did not respond to a request for comment on the findings.

Whiskas mixed favourites 12 pouches – produced by Mars

Photo of Whiskas packaging.

This packaging comprises 12 foil pouches and a cardboard box. The pouches can’t be recycled here, but the cardboard box can be. At only 51% of the packaging recyclable, we’re a bit behind the rest of the countries (which averaged 60%). The packaging has the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) and states the foil pouches can be returned to stores. However, this advice is applicable only to Australia, not here.

Mars didn’t comment on the New Zealand results, but said “In 2020, we launched a range of new packaging innovations … increasing recycled content in our Petfood pouches … We plan for this momentum to continue into 2021.”

What can you do?

You can also have a hand in improve the recyclability of packaging by:

  • Choosing products with packaging that’s clear, sleeveless (or remove sleeves before dropping into your recycling bin), and made from plastics 1, 2 or 5.
  • Avoiding mixed material packaging (for example, the Pringles tube).
  • Calling on manufacturers to use more recyclable or alternative packaging, and for clear labelling explaining how to recycle their packaging.
  • Taking a few moments in the supermarket to choose a product which is more recyclable.
  • Choosing products that use recycled materials in their packaging.
  • Checking with your council about what can and can’t be recycled in your area, and recycling as much as you can (and make sure it’s clean).

How we assessed the packaging

The global assessment involved types of food, drink, toiletries and pet food that are likely to be in an average monthly household shop.

Each country worked with a local recycling expert. Here, WasteMINZ sector projects manager Sarah Pritchett helped us assess whether the packaging was recyclable widely throughout New Zealand.

Once emptied, we separated the packaging into easily separable pieces, such as cap, seal and jar. Each piece was categorised:

  1. easily recyclable from the home (kerbside)
  2. easily recyclable outside the home (external collection or transfer stations)
  3. not easily recyclable.

To be classed easily recyclable, the packaging had to be collected widely in New Zealand and able to be recycled here.

Each piece of packaging was then weighed to determine what percentage of the packaging was recyclable.

We also assessed the clarity of the labelling about how to dispose of the packaging and how much of it was made from recycled materials.

Once results had been gathered from the 9 countries, Consumers International sought feedback from the parent companies that produced the 11 products.

Our recycling expert

Photograph of Sarah Pritchett.

To help assess the recyclability of packaging in our trial, we worked with WasteMINZ Sector Projects Manager Sarah Pritchett.
WasteMINZ is the largest representative body of the waste, resource recovery and contaminated land management sectors in New Zealand. Formed in 1989, it’s a membership-based organisation with more than 1500 members – from small operators through to councils and large companies.

Member comments

Get access to comment

Martyn R.
30 Apr 2021
glass is the greenest option

Whenever I can I choose a product packaged in glass.
That is OK for some products like jam, soft drinks, sauces and some coffee (like your example) and beer.
Little else.
I want to buy bread that isn't in a #@%$(*&! plastic bag!
I want to buy milk that isn't surrounded by @#*&@! plastic!
There isn't any where I live.
I am hanging out for Happy Cow to get started up here.
They keep telling us that they have encountered problems.
Who is causing the problems?
Fonterra - wanting to keep their virtual monopoly on their dull plastic wrapped milk?
I wonder!

Bill E.
08 May 2021
using milk powder to make milk

I started reconstituting milk powder (less than $10 per kg, which makes 10 litres of milk) when I discovered I could make my favourite yoghurt for less than $2 a litre, when it costs $8 to buy.
Then started using it for milk (using cheap digital scales, powder and water into a recycled glass bottle with screw on lid). Its quick and easy and I can have it whenever I need. I live in a small town with a grocery shop that shuts at 7.30 and I often don't get back here in the evenings till after that.
The taste is so similar to what I buy in the shop that I'm thinking that the shop bought milk is possibly reconstituted from powder too.
Powdered milk is available full fat, low fat and skim.
I recently did the sums and found I'm saving more than $500 per year, that's the combined milk and yoghurt saving.
And no plastic milk bottles to get rid of.
I'm also hanging out for bread in a paper bag..

Chris S.
25 Apr 2021
NZ's closet skeletons just keep on rattling..........

Despite every NZ resident knowing for decades that un-stabilized plastics will reduce to powder when exposed to our blistering UV levels AND recently discovering that this powdered micro plastic is clogging the very arteries of our soil, waterways and eventually the oceans we all rely on for our very lives, the NZ government (presumably NZ residents all) has STILL not introduced a blanket ban on the importation, manufacture or sale of said un-stabilized plastics.
Result? Untold tons of plastic products annually turned into powdering scrap in soil, landfill and waterways.

Recycle it? How do you recycle this stuff when it disintegrates at a touch?

If NZ will not ban un-stabilized plastics, the only thing green about NZ's "clean green image" is the copious mold growing behind the sign.

Chris S.

James C.
24 Apr 2021

For 20 years NZ Governments have been inept in dealing with recycling. Promoting a clean, green image is folly when our recycling capabilities are so woefully. We are a small country and logic would indicate central government is best to establish national centralised recycling facilities for the likes of plastic. Unlike many leading countries, we don't even have subsidies to drive uptake of green initiatives like solar power and electric vehicles.

Consumers are rightly angry for being told to recycle for two decades, only to now learn that plastic was shipped off to China before they stopped accepting it. Incumbent Government politicians should be ashamed of themselves. We should first deal with the methane emitted from the Beehive before worrying about cows.

roy s.
24 Apr 2021
Clutha district.

Our council doesn't allow glass in our recycling bins, so it goes to landfill in a rubbish collection that only happens once a fortnight. Our rubbish bin is overflowing by the end of the fortnight and our recycling bin, which also gets collected fortnightly, takes 6 weeks to fill up.

Steve S.
24 Apr 2021
Stepping up

We're long past the point where we can bundle up all our recyclable rubbish and send it overseas, so government, suppliers and consumers need to step up. In my area (Matamata-Piako) only glass, paper, tins and hard plastics stamped with a 1 or a 2 are accepted. Everything else goes to landfill as Council just can find recycling options for it.

- Don't let waste disposal costs fall on the community. Impose taxes on materials that can't be recycled to change behaviour
- Facilitate re-use and recycling schemes (eg refillable bottles)
- Provide local recycling facilities where possible
- Use minimum packaging necessary for hygiene and safety
- Use materials that can be readily recycled
- Make the recycling numbers bigger and more prominent!
- Choose products with no packaging or minimal recyclable/reusable packaging and recycle appropriately.

As a community we have to do so much better than we're doing. The amount of waste going to landfill to be buried and not decompose for hundreds of years is simply appalling, and a real indictment on our throw-away culture.

The 8 "R"s come to mind here:
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Refill, Repair, Regift, Recycle, Repeat

Let's do it!

24 Apr 2021
Cohesion needed

IF N.Z had a nationwide rubbish collection system, at least then people would not be so confused by different Council collection methods, and regulations, that they give up trying....Maybe then there would be enough bulk for processing plants in both South and North Islands....Bring in the 10c per glass/plastic bottles too and watch the cleanup.

Brad M.
24 Apr 2021
Soft plastics in Northland

Thanks, an excellent article which makes it pretty clear what to look for in your buying. Here in Northland we can only take number 1 and milk bottle 2s ( no other 2s) for recycling, no food grade packaging (no 5) are accepted. We have significantly reduced our plastic consumption simply by making our own yoghurt and refilling bathroom products and dishwash. But it is still maddening how much soft plastic we end up with. You say there is a soft plastic recycling point in Northland - where is it?

Sam Y.
24 Apr 2021
Aluminium not recyclable; steel only recyclable in NI

Kia ora Consumer,
I suspect the situation is worse than the research shows. When I checked last, aluminium - while theoretically recyclable - was practically not, as we do not have a NZ aluminium resmelter. At present it appears to be not 'worth' sending the aluminium offshore for resmelting. Aluminium is chipped awaiting potential use, but when storage gets full, I assume it may be landfilled? This includes all those 'recyclable' coffee pods.
Further, I heard from someone in the industry that there is only one NZ steel resmelter, near Auckland. It is too expensive to send steel across the Cook Strait for resmelting, so SI steel is landfilled.
Only glass can be used for base-course on the roads. So we can buy glass...
Pretty poor, eh.

28 Apr 2021
Aluminium not recyclable in NZ

I'm pretty sure the metal recyclers in NZ don't just dump the aluminium they purchase of their customers. They are able to send aluminium overseas in large volumes

Willem D.
24 Apr 2021
Council responsibility

Thanks for an excellent article. Councils need to step up too. Blenheim still uses he small green bins and refuses to switch over to wheelie bins. It limits the amount you can recycle and a lot of recyclable material end up in rubbish bags. These small bins overflow, spilling out onto the sidewalk and even the road when the wind blows. This needs to be fixed!