We know that Kiwis overwhelmingly support climate action and take actions in their own lives to reduce their climate impact. But our research shows that fewer New Zealanders make choices that would have a really big impact.

Recycling always comes tops in our quarterly consumer survey, with 83% of Kiwis saying they do it regularly, and 59% ranking it as being one of the most impactful actions against climate change.

Yet, recycling is not always as green as you may think. Researchers from Thinkstep ANZ say that we should all live by the hierarchy of "Reduce, reuse, repair, recycle"(external link) and avoid waste going to landfill as much as possible, as emissions from landfills make up 4% of our national total(external link).

However, they point out it's often hard to know whether something is worth recycling: for instance, recycled aluminium has around one-tenth the carbon footprint of virgin aluminium, but your unrecyclable tetrapak milk carton could produce fewer emissions(external link) across its whole life-cycle than easier-to-recycle cartons like glass and plastic. (Although it will last in the landfill forever.)

That doesn’t mean we should stop recycling. Globally, it’s estimated that by 2050, plastics could account for 13% of the global carbon budget(external link), once their cradle-to-grave emissions are taken into account. Because most plastic in New Zealand comes from elsewhere, its manufacturing footprint is kept at a distance.

Recycling helps to keep plastics out of the natural environment, but doesn’t undo the carbon footprint of your milk bottle.

We should be aiming higher up the hierarchy, at “reduce” first. And the same goes for our fossil-fuelled travel. The single easiest and most effective way for most of us to reduce our carbon footprint is by using our petrol or diesel vehicles less. Only 41% ranked this as a high impact action, and even fewer – 32% – said they did it. Transport accounts for over 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and they grow year on year.

  • Over 20%

    of GHG emissions come from transport

  • 12

    short trips are made on average by Kiwi households each week

  • 41,000

    cars (equivalent) could be taken off the road if everyone dropped two short trips

“Recycling is a really tangible thing for people,” EECA’s Jo Bye said. “We can see rubbish and waste in a way we can’t see our car’s emissions. We’re rightly proud that we’ve started to phase out a few single-use plastics, and applaud everyone who’s working to reduce waste, especially by refusing to buy it in the first place. We have a vision that ditching the fossil-fuelled car more often will become just as easy as recycling – and that starts with changing our default. Instead of automatically driving when we need to, opting for active or public transport, especially for short trips.”

Around a third of all car trips in a year are under two kilometres – which adds up to more than  a billion short trips, according to the Ministry of Transport’s Household Travel Survey(external link).

Jo Bye said, “Right now, Kiwi households make 12 short trips each week, on average. If everyone dropped just two of those, it would be the equivalent of taking 41,000 cars off the road. That’s a huge impact.

“And less driving doesn’t just lower emissions – it has physical and mental health benefits and will save you fuel money. Fewer cars on the road also means lower air pollution, as we all saw during lockdown, and safer streets. Gen Less is all about ‘living more with less energy’, and making good transport choices really ticks all the boxes.”

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