9 July 2018 Dr Rowan Dixon

Last Thursday WSP Opus brought together a group of sustainability champions to discuss projects tackling climate change and plastic pollution in the Pacific. As suspected, there is no silver bullet solution, but the power of group thinking enabled us to identify a number of bronze bullet solutions.

Firstly, a big thanks to those who took part in the panel discussion;

I’m still buzzing from the event and the willingness in the room for change to happen. One of the biggest questions debated was whether it’s best focus on influencing voluntary behaviour change, or whether to push for legislation to force it.

Glarinda’s experience in Vanuatu shows that legislation needs to be designed around people and their needs. In Vanuatu the ban on single-use plastics and polystyrene containers had an impact on women whose main source of income is cooking and selling food. Those polystyrene containers are cheap and the alternatives are too expensive in the Pacific islands. As Glarinda says, plastic is immediate – it takes a while to weave a basket. Similarly, wrapping food in banana leaves sounds like a solution, but not for soup-like dishes.

In comparison, the benefit of grassroots change encourages people to buy-in and develop their own lasting solutions - although it’s crucial to monitor these to ensure that they aren’t just as or more harmful.

We landed firmly on middle ground - there is a definite need to balance state and individual power. Nick pointed out that while people are willing to give up a plastic straw there are many that are deeply attached to plastic bags and feel aggrieved that this could be taken away. We only need to look at what’s happened in Australian supermarkets last week.

Plastic bags have very quickly become ingrained in our society, which is astonishing given that they’ve only been mainstream for 30 years. While some are ok with reusable bags they are absolutely immoveable on bin liners. The debate between single-use vs multi-use plastic bags seems to forget they both continue plastic pollution. Meanwhile, we’re seeing confusion with the added dynamic of compostable plastic bags in a waste management system that doesn’t separate them from landfill.

Unlike our Pacific cousins, who don’t necessarily have the waste management infrastructure we enjoy here, the effects of plastic pollution are less visible to us. We can consume and dispose endlessly - our rubbish is taken away so it’s out of sight and out of mind. However, with China’s ban on importing plastic waste we could well be at the tipping point (get it ?) of change as we’re forced to find solutions.

Ultimately, it’s about balance; nudging voluntary behaviour towards a well-designed outcome while working alongside policy makers and experts to ensure that alternatives are fit-for-purpose, disruption is minimised, and vulnerable households can realise the opportunities such change can offer.

In terms of bronze bullets – here’s a few from the discussion;

  • Collaboration is key across all stakeholders in supply chains – makers, users and regulators. Group-thinking will generate viable alternatives and shift how business is done to remove waste streams.
  • Importantly, it’s a process of shared learning. Between business, civil society and their government; taking the journey together to develop sustainable and plastic free packaging in communities.
  • Business and suppliers should be encouraged to build the relationships and supply chains they need. They need clear guidance as to what’s acceptable in the market, and reasonable (but pressured) time to adapt and design such products. From there they can innovate and source materials to ensure the market price is amendable with minimal detrimental effects to people’s livelihoods and choice.
  • Engaged local champions can drive dramatic change, and sports people make fantastic change ambassadors. Together they very effective influencers in NZ, the Pacific and worldwide.
  • Local creativity can yield impressive impact. Driven and empowered communities will design their own change through identifying a problem – such as cleaning up a local stream, park or beach – and coming together to fix it. Something like 3 for The Sea is a great starting place for local action.
  • Keep the pressure on! Reminding our regulators of the efforts and success to remove plastic waste from our supply chains, beaches and waterways helps Governments back it up with legislation.


As a Senior Environmental Consultant at WSP Opus, Rowan leads sustainability insight and expertise across the business. Key projects include community based climate change adaptation and integrated coastal management in Vanuatu. He is also responsible for sustainability projects and certification schemes, including carbon inventories and environmental social management plans for the Auckland's iconic Harbour Bridge.