Everyone knows we have to reduce the amount of waste produced. But our relationship with waste and recycling often ends as the truck pulls away ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – quickly forgotten. Conscience clear!
It wasn’t until images of turtles and whales literally choked to death by marine plastic started to appear in mainstream media that the world began to take the matter of waste and litter seriously.
As a country we pride ourselves on our ‘clean, green’ image, which may well provide a false impression that we are somehow removed from the problem. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A World Bank report in 2018 showing urban New Zealanders produce one of the highest volumes of waste per person in the world – we get 10thplace in that ‘contest’.
Not exactly the kind of top-10 finish any country would aim for. There is no denying New Zealand’s waste problem.
The urgency of dealing with waste has been even more keenly felt over the past two years after China implemented its National Sword policy. The crux of it is China, which once took much of the world’s recyclable material such as plastic, paper and cardboard, essentially closed its borders to imported recyclables.
You can’t blame China. The move was well-signalled before it took effect, and why should China take our recyclable material – much of which is so contaminated it cannot be recycled – when they have plenty of their own waste to deal with.
Other Asian countries (such as Malaysia and Thailand), which had long been our ‘away’ when we ‘send away’ our ‘recycling’, implemented similar policies, leaving developed countries to deal with their own waste for the first time in decades. You would have no doubt seen much in the media over the past couple years on what effect this has had – such as huge stockpiles of plastic.
Society is having to think much more about our high-consumption lifestyle and the waste we produce, and rightly so. Gone are the days when we could fill our rubbish and recycling bins with an oblivious carefree attitude. The waste we produce has environmental impacts which reach much further than we know – but now we are becoming far more aware of it.
On a more positive note, change is afoot. After over a decade of languishing on government shelves, the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 is finally being dusted off and put to the use for which it was written.
This powerful piece of legislation has had the potential to transform the way we manage our waste and a number of recent announcements are set to reshape New Zealand’s waste management landscape.
Why the need for change? Simply put, the amount of waste we are sending to municipal landfill each year has increased by 48% over the past decade to 740kg per person.
First was the Government’s call in August 2019 for consultation on declaring six products priority products under the Act – tyres, e-waste, refrigerants and other synthetic gases, agrichemicals and their containers, farm plastics, and the big one for the average consumer … packaging.
This was probably the single biggest move by a New Zealand government to act on waste in history. In a nutshell, should these products be declared priority products, the producers, importers and retailers of the product will be responsible for recycling, reusing or properly disposing of these products at the end of their life. The way this is achieved is through product stewardship (more about that in a subsequent article).
Consider how wide-ranging this would be for packaging alone. By law, every piece of packaging will have to be collected so it can be minimised, recycled, reused or properly disposed of.
Separate but connected is the proposal to create a container return scheme. This would mean beverage containers, like a can or bottle, will have a deposit added to them – the proposed range is 5 to 20 cents. So, when you are done with it you return the container and get your deposit back.
This isn’t new to Aotearoa with many New Zealanders of a certain age remembering a similar system. Internationally, various container deposit or return schemes have proven very successful as a tool to increase beverage container recycling rates. Across the Tasman, with the exception of Victoria, all Australian states will have some form of container return by 2022. As 97% of the New Zealand population has access to existing recycling services and facilities, this will certainly be a conversation to watch over coming months.
Government consultation on a proposal to increase the cost of sending waste to landfill closed at the beginning of February. This will certainly be very contentious as it will impact everyone’s pocket in some way.
Currently New Zealand has one of the lowest waste disposal levies in the word at $10 a tonne; a rate that has not moved since its introduction in 2010. It also only applies to a small percentage of landfills. The proposal is to increase the levy to $50 or $60 a tonne and expand it to almost all landfills.
This brings us in line with other countries; some Australian states have levies which are 10 to 20 times higher than what ours currently is.
Just like water always flows to the lowest point, so waste always flows to the lowest cost. If putting it in the ground isn’t the cheapest option anymore, then there is real incentive to reuse or recycle and to seek alternative solutions.
The additional revenue collected through the levy will be used to fund council waste minimisation work as well as innovative national waste reduction projects, through a contestable fund. The higher the levy the more money is available to reduce waste, reducing the need to put stuff in landfill, and so the cycle goes.
These changes are positive for the future of our country and our world. Triggering a turnaround in how business operates and how we live – from the traditional ‘take, make, waste’ model toward a more circular economy with an emphasis on design, repair, remanufacture and recovery.
In future articles I’ll address in more depth the three conversations referred to here, as well as changes to household recycling, the issue of plastic, product stewardship and the circular economy.
Dom works on sustainable solutions at 3R Group. 3R design, implement and manage product stewardship schemes for individual businesses or industry-wide groups. We also help businesses take a fresh look at their waste to first minimise and then recover what would otherwise be wasted.