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Waste generation and disposal in New Zealand

Every year, New Zealand industries and households discard over 3 million tonnes of construction and demolition debris to landfills and cleanfills. Averaged across the population, this represents about one tonne per person. In addition, more than 1 million tonnes of plant matter and food scraps are sent to landfills, representing about 320 kilograms of organic matter for each one of us. This is accompanied by 600,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard (about 170 kg/person) and 220,000 tonnes of plastic (about 60 kg/person). These are the main items in our solid waste pile, but we also discard many other things in the course of a year, including, for example, 300 million steel cans (about 80 per person) and 30 million litres of used oil (about 8 litres each).

Large though these figures are, they pale beside the approximately 500 billion litres of sewage that flow into our 258 public wastewater treatment plants each year. Additional, unmeasured, quantities of stormwater and pasture run-off sweep tonnes of litter and animal waste from land into waterways. Furthermore, our chimneys and vehicle exhausts emit unmeasured tonnes of smoke and particulate matter into the air. In short, each of us discards many times our own bodyweight of waste each year, often with environmental consequences. Small amounts of waste are easily absorbed by the environment, but in larger amounts some wastes can be harmful. In the case of some toxic substances, even very small amounts can harm humans or other species.

The pressures which waste puts on the environment vary according to the particular waste stream. Our airborne waste stream consists of gases and small particles which are emitted by motor vehicles, livestock, fires, power stations and industrial processes. These float into the atmosphere sometimes contaminating the ambient air we breathe. In recent decades, airborne wastes have entered the upper atmosphere, altering the ozone layer and the 'greenhouse layer' several kilometres above us. Airborne contaminants are discussed in detail in Chapters 5 and 6 of this report.

The water-based waste streams include: sewerage systems, which pipe our excrement to treatment facilities and then into rivers or coastal waters; other 'point source' discharges which pipe treated or untreated wastes from farms, factories and mines into rivers and coastal waters; stormwater systems which channel rainwater from roads and urban properties into rivers and coastal waters (picking up street litter and contaminants on the way); and 'non-point source'discharges such as livestock excrement which is washed from paddocks into streams by rainwater . These waterborne wastes are discussed in Chapter 7.

The main land-based waste streams are: municipal landfills, once known as rubbish dumps or tips; cleanfills , which are landfills especially designated for uncontaminated construction and demolition waste; recycling and recovery centres which retrieve useful waste materials; incinerators, which reduce solid wastes to smoke and to ashes that are then disposed in landfills; litter , which is mostly discarded packaging waste but can also include other illegally discarded waste and materials falling of trucks and trailers; and tailings piles of waste rock produced by mining and quarrying operations, which can sometimes have elevated concentrations of heavy metals and processing chemicals. Sites where harmful substances have been dumped, spilled or allowed to accumulate are referred to as contaminated sites. The land-based waste stream is discussed in this chapter, except for contaminated sites, which are discussed in Chapter 8, and the impact of litter on coastal waters, which is discussed in Chapter 7.

Responsibility for managing waste disposal in New Zealand is largely in the hands of local authorities who manage landfills, refuse collections, sewerage and stormwater systems, air pollution discharges, and the assessment and clean-up of contaminated sites. Sometimes these tasks are undertaken directly by the authorities. Sometimes they are contracted out to private operators.

Landfilled Waste

Landfilling is the most common method of solid waste disposal. Although landfill space is not quite the same problem here as in more densely populated countries, landfills in some of our larger urban areas are reaching capacity and the availability of new space is limited by local opposition (the 'not in my back yard' syndrome) and higher environmental standards (such as the need to avoid sites that could contaminate groundwater or streams).

The study of landfills is a relatively recent phenomenon, both here and overseas. One of the longest-running studies is being done by archaeologists at Arizona University who have spent twenty years digging into the landfills of Earth's most affluent nation (Rathje and Murray, 1993). They found that paper and cardboard waste makes up about 37 percent of a modern American landfill and is the fastest growing waste item. About half the paper waste is newspaper, and most of the rest is packaging, accompanied by phone books, computer printouts and magazines. Disposable nappies are a small part of the paper pile, accounting for 1-2 percent of landfill volume (or some 4,900-5,900 nappies per infant).

Although much of this waste is biodegradable, the anaerobic burial conditions in many landfills can prevent decomposition. In some cases, readable newspapers and edible food (e.g corncobs, hamburgers) remain intact for decades. Internationally, American landfills are at one end of the rich-poor continuum, having higher proportions of paper, plastics, metal and glass and lower proportions of vegetable waste (see Figure 3.8). Plastic waste, the archaeological marker of our time in history, makes up around 12-13 percent of American landfill waste.

Figure 3.8: Typical landfill waste in rich and poor countries

See figure 3.8 at its full size.

Textual description of Figure 3.8

Comparison of landfill make up between rich and poor countries using categories of paper, plastic, metal, glass, textiles, rubber, leather and wood, vegetable and other types. The landfill waste of poor countries is primarily composed of vegetable waste. Rich countries have a much smaller proportion of vegetable waste types in landfills but have a greater proportion of plastic, metal, glass and, in particular, paper.

Source: Cairncross (1993)

The Arizona landfill study has also uncovered some of the behaviour patterns that generate waste. For example, when a food item becomes scarce people actually throw more of it away. Panic-buying leads them to hoard more than they need and, eventually, the excess ends up in the landfill. The scientists also found that over a third of the household waste disposed in rubbish bags is from fresh fruit and vegetables. This is partly because these deteriorate quickly, and partly because 25-50 percent of their weight is inedible skins, leaves, or centres. In contrast, takeaway and packaged food yields only 4-5 percent waste. Another finding was that, although poor families generate less waste than wealthy ones, they discard more packaging waste. This is because those on lower incomes buy smaller packets of everything.

Until recently, New Zealanders had very little information on the wastes going into our landfills. This has now improved and the latest information is summarised in the country's first National Waste Data Report (Ministry for the Environment, 1997). The process of gathering waste data only began in earnest in the late 1980s with a series of regional surveys funded by the Health Department. However, the methods used were not nationally consistent. Efforts to develop a more consistent approach began in 1990 when the Government set a national target of reducing solid wastes to 80 percent of their 1988 levels. To pursue such a specific target, accurate data were needed. The result was the Waste Analysis Protocol (WAP), a set of guidelines for local authorities on how to measure and analyse waste. The Protocol was developed by the Ministry for the Environment (1992d). Since 1993 a number of local authorities have used the Protocol to survey their solid waste stream.

A further source of information on landfilled waste comes from the national census of landfills which was conducted by the Ministry for the Environment in 1995. It revealed 327 legally operating landfills (down from 462 in 1987), 40 percent of which serve populations of under 1,000 people. However, as there is no formal definition of landfills in New Zealand, the number of tips containing waste (e.g. drilling mud dumps) is likely to be much higher than the 327 in the Census.

From the WAP surveys and the Landfill Census, it is estimated that approximately 3,180,000 tonnes of waste were landfilled in 1995 (see Figure 3.9). Some 1,420,000 tonnes (45 percent) of this was residential waste and some 1,760,000 tonnes (55 percent) was industrial waste (Ministry for the Environment, 1997).

Although no national information exists on the volume of waste going to cleanfills, surveys have found that cleanfills in the Auckland region receive slightly more construction and demolition waste than the total total waste entering Auckland landfills (Auckland Regional Council and Auckland City Council, 1996). Nationally, this suggests that cleanfills may receive more than 3 million tonnes of non-toxic waste annually.

Figure 3.9: Annual weight of landfilled waste in New Zealand in 1995

See figure 3.9 at its full size

Textual description of Figure 3.9

Landfilled waste in New Zealand 1995:

  • Residential: 1,419,770 tonnes (45%).
  • Industrial: 1,762,350 tonnes (55%).

Source: Ministry of the Environment (1997)

Averaged across the population, each person sends about 401 kg of 'residential' waste to landfills each year. When industrial waste is included, our 'total' landfilled waste comes to 898 kg/person. At first glance, these figures seem high. The OECD statistics for 'household' waste ranged between 190 and 440 kg/person in the early 1990s, with a midpoint of 260 kg/person, while 'total municipal' waste ranged between 310 and 690 kg/person, with a midpoint of 400 kg/person (OECD, 1995). However, the comparison may not be quite valid.

For a start, New Zealand's 'residential' waste is higher than the OECD's 'household' waste because it includes bulky waste, such as garden and home renovation waste that is taken privately to landfills. In many other OECD countries, 'household' waste consists of rubbish bag collections while the bulky waste is counted among the 'total municipal' waste. Furthermore, New Zealand's 'total' waste is higher than the OECD's because, it includes landfilled construction and demolition waste. This is counted separately by most other OECD countries whose 'total municipal' waste is confined to homes, offices and small businesses. A better (though still imperfect) comparison, therefore, may be between New Zealand's 'residential' waste figure and the OECD's 'total municipal' waste (see Table 3.2).

District and city councils manage 87 percent of the landfills covered by the Landfill Census. Detailed questionnaires were completed for 271 of these. Of these, only 39 percent were being monitored for the quantity of waste they receive. Only a third (34 percent) were reported as having any clay underlying them, suggesting that the remainder have porous bases and are at risk of having leachate enter waterways. Despite the leachate risk, only 13 percent actually had systems for preventing leachate entering waterways, and only 17 percent monitored for leachate. Forty percent of landfills had diversions for stormwater, but only 9 percent treated the diverted water in some way, and only slightly more monitored it. Measures to control nuisance effects were reported for: litter (56 percent of landfills); odour (14 percent); dust (11 percent); and noise (4 percent).

The composition of New Zealand's landfill waste is dominated by organic matter (kitchen and garden waste) and paper (see Figure 3.10). The resulting waste profile falls somewhere in the middle of the rich country-poor country spectrum. This does not necessarily mean that we discard less metal, glass, plastic and paper than the rich countries, but only that these make up a relatively smaller proportion of our total waste because of the greater predominance of organic matter.

The composition of our landfill waste varies considerably from area to area and from season to season. The two items which vary most are organic matter (mostly kitchen and garden waste) and building waste. The 1995 WAP surveys showed that the percentage of landfill waste made up of organic matter ranged from 23 percent to 65 percent, while the percentage composed of building debris varied between 8 percent and 24 percent (Blake and Sweet, 1995). These variations are also reflected in the total volume. Christchurch's landfills, for example, receive 60 percent more waste in summer than they do in winter, most of the increase being organic matter. In fact, organic matter tends to make up a larger share of landfill waste in New Zealand than in most other industrialised countries.

The reason for this is that New Zealand has relatively little high density housing. Most homes have sections with lawns, gardens or trees that need regular mowing, weeding or pruning. Backyard composting was once commonplace, and pruned tree branches were once disposed of as firewood. But, as supermarkets supplanted family vegetable gardens and electricity and gas replaced domestic fires, landfill disposal became more widespread. Home composting is now making a modest comeback, but not enough to remove the organic segment of the landfill waste pile.

A half to two-thirds of New Zealand's household waste is disposed of in bags and bins which are collected each week. The remainder, consisting largely of garden and construction and demolition waste, is taken to the landfill in private cars and trailers. The composition of waste in the household bags and bins is shown in Figure 3.11. Almost half is organic matter and a quarter is paper. Plastic is the next largest item.

Figure 3.10: Estimated composition of New Zealand's landfill waste

See Figure 3.10 at its full size.

Textual description of Figure 3.10

Estimated composition of landfill waste in New Zealand:

  • Organic matter 39%.
  • Paper 19%.
  • Construction and demolition waste 17%.
  • Potentially hazardous 8%.
  • Plastic 7%.
  • Metal 6%.
  • Glass 2%.
  • Other 5%.

Source: Ministry for the Environment (1997)

Trends in waste generation

Assessing trends over the past decade or so is difficult because of both the ambiguous definitions and New Zealand's poor data prior to 1995. The OECD's average output of municipal waste per person rose by 28 percent between 1975 and 1992, from 390 kg/person to 500 kg/person (OECD, 1993; 1995). However, New Zealand's waste estimates over this period vary too widely to chart any reliable trends. In 1975, for example, our total municipal waste was estimated at 390 kg/person and in 1980 it was put at 662 kg/person (OECD, 1993).

More reliable trend data come from Auckland Region where total landfill waste, including industrial waste, has been monitored since 1983. The trend has been uneven but, by 1995, it had nearly doubled from 419,000 tonnes to 821,000 tonnes. In per capita terms, this was an increase of more than 60 percent per person. The OECD per capita increase over a similar period (1980-1992) was less than 20 percent. Most of Auckland's increased waste was generated during periods of high economic growth (see Figure 3.12). This reflects the changing fortunes of the construction industry, the changing consumption patterns of homes and businesses, and also population growth.

Figure 3.11: The composition of household waste in bags and bins.

See Figure 3.11 at its full size.

Textual description of Figure 3.11

Composition of household waste in bags and bins:

  • Organic 47%.
  • Paper 26%.
  • Plastic 11%.
  • Glass 5%.
  • Metal 4%.
  • Construction and demolition 2%.
  • Potentially hazardous 1%.
  • Other 4%.

Source: Ministry for the Environment (1997)

Although the overall scale of waste generation appears to have increased, there is some evidence that people have become a little more responsible in how they dispose of their waste. Litter surveys have been conducted twice a year for the past decade by the Keep New Zealand Beautiful Campaign (see Figure 3.13). The surveyors systematically count and classify the litter discarded at over 100 regular sites throughout the country. Although litter represents only a small fraction of the solid waste stream, it is the most visible and widely dispersed fraction and has considerable nuisance value, especially in scenic areas. The survey shows that, although substantial amounts of litter are still discarded, the quantity declined from 1986 to 1994 (Drum, 1994).

Figure 3.12: Economic growth and waste disposal at Auckland landfills.

See Figure 3.12 at its full size.

Textual description of Figure 3.12

The amount of waste disposed at Auckland landfills has increased and decreased at a similar rate to the Gross Domestic Product.

Source: Auckland Regional Council; Statistics New Zealand

Just over half the litter is paper (53 percent) and a quarter is plastic (26 percent). The remainder is divided among metal (6 percent, half of it cans), glass (4 percent), and a miscellany of items, such as wood, ice cream sticks, food scraps, tyres, rubber items, clothing and construction material. The metal and glass proportions have declined significantly over the decade, while the plastics proportion has expanded. Much of the paper, plastic, metal and glass litter comes from discarded packaging, particularly food and drink containers.

Figure 3.13: Litter trends in New Zealand (September 1986-Match 1996)

See Figure 3.13 at its full size.

Textual description of Figure 3.13

The amount of litter has decreased between 1986 and 1996. In 1986 there were around 22 thousand litter items and in 1996 there were around 13 thousand items.

Source: Keep New Zealand Beautiful Campaign

In some areas, the packaging litter is not from human takeaways, but from cattle food wraps. In 1993, the Taranaki Regional Council estimated that 13,000 kilometres of plastic silage-wrapping are used each year by the region's dairy farmers. This is enough to encircle Egmont National Park 150 times. Although the wrap is biodegradable and can be disposed of by burial or burning, every year some escapes to festoon the pastoral landscape.

Waste Management Policy in New Zealand

In 1990, the Labour Government announced a national waste management policy which included the target of reducing the nation's solid waste to 20 percent below its 1988 levels by 1993 (Associate Minister for the Environment, 1990). The policy had a profound effect. It stimulated the development of recycling programmes by local authorities and industry. It also spurred the development of national guidelines for monitoring and managing solid waste (Ministry for the Environment, 1992c, 1992d). In 1992, the National Government issued a revised waste policy (Ministry for the Environment, 1992b). Though broadly in agreement with the previous policy, it dropped the waste reduction target, and emphasised, instead, the importance of waste management programmes. Such programmes should, as far as practicable, ensure that waste generators meet the costs that their waste imposes on the rest of the community, and the programmes should also promote the internationally recognised waste management hierarchy.

The waste management hierarchy is a list of the six most effective ways to control waste in order of their environmental acceptability. It calls on waste managers to:

  • reduce waste generating activities; or otherwise
  • reuse products rather than discard them; or otherwise
  • recycle waste materials to make new products; or otherwise
  • recover any useful materials and energy; or otherwise
  • treat the waste with processes that remove or reduce its impact; or otherwise
  • dispose of the waste safely on land set aside for the purpose.
Figure 3.14: Fees charged and amounts of waste dumped at four landfills.

See Figure 3.14 at its full size.

Textual description of Figure 3.14

Fees charged, and amounts of waste dumped (per person), at Waitakere, Manakau, Christchurch and Hutt Valley landfills. Waitakere has the highest fees and the least amount of waste dumped. Hutt Valley has the lowest fees and the greatest amount of waste dumped.

Source: McLachlan (1993)

In August 1996, the Local Government Act was amended to require that every territorial authority adopt a waste management plan incorporating the waste management hierarchy. The Government has also issued guidelines for cleaner production, and for landfill management and monitoring, and has negotiated voluntary waste reduction targets with industry, starting with packaging and used oil. If these policies prove ineffective, the Government will reconsider the use of regulations or economic measures (e.g. return deposit schemes). First though, before progress can be assessed, a national waste data set is being created using the Waste Analysis Protocol.

In late 1996, the new Government's Coalition Agreement reinstated a reduction target and included the following objectives for solid waste management:

  • encouraging waste reduction at source, reuse of products and recycling of waste materials in order to reduce solid waste to half the 1990 level by the year 2000; and
  • continuing to develop national standards and guidelines for landfills, solid waste disposal, and hazardous waste disposal.
Table 3.4: Recycling rates for some common waste materials in 1993-94
Recyclable materials Collection for recycling as a percentage of:
Total consumption (1993) Packaging only (1994)
Paper and cardboard 39% 42%
Plastic 14% 8%
Aluminium 12% 41%
Steel Not known 3%
Glass Not known 36%
Used lubricating oil 23% Not applicable

Source: Ministry for the Environment (1997)

One way of reducing the amount of waste at landfills is to increase the fee for dumping it. A 1993 study of local authorities' waste reduction initiatives found that disposal fees at landfills tend to be lower than the costs of landfill maintenance or expansion (Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, 1993). As a result, landfilling is seen as the cheap and convenient option in many cities and districts. The relationship between dumping fees and landfill waste volumes is shown in a 1993 comparison of four New Zealand cities (see Figure 3.14). Where fees are higher, businesses and householders have a greater incentive to produce less waste-or to dispose of it in other ways.

Evidence from the Hutt Valley suggests that illegal disposal has increased since landfill fees went up. The Hutt City Council has reported increased amounts of rubbish illegally disposed into streams and a consequent upsurge in rat and ferret populations in the valley. Other free alternatives to landfills include backyard incineration and composting. Because 40 percent of the nation's landfilled waste is decomposable matter, backyard composting is encouraged by some councils, such as Hutt City where 50 percent of surveyed residents now compost their organic waste.

At least a dozen local authorities have gone one step further and invested in community composting operations. The compost schemes in such places as Waitakere City, Taupo, Masterton and Devonport have reduced total landfill waste by 30-60 percent. In 1995, both Auckland and Christchurch commissioned composting plants, the largest in Australasia, at some $4.5 million each. In full production, the Christchurch plant will reduce the 'Garden City's' landfill waste by 20 percent and will also produce saleable compost (Young, 1995). Although composting plants have environmental costs (smells, noise, leached nutrients), some of these have been mitigated by restricting bulk composting to garden waste only, and by having a buffer zone between the compost and nearby residents.

Another approach to waste management has been to tackle it at the production end rather than the disposal end by encouraging businesses to minimise waste through better management and production systems (see Box 3.5).

Recycling in New Zealand

Although, in theory, reduction and reuse are the most preferred waste management options, in practice most of the emphasis has centred on recycling. Various industries have developed recycling programmes and a number of community recycling schemes exist for residential waste. In 1996 these included:

  • kerbside recycling collection bins in all or part of the following cities: Auckland, Waitakere, North Shore, Lower Hutt and Wellington, with plans to commence in Christchurch in 1997;
  • kerbside collection of specific materials for recycling if placed in suitable bags (e.g. supermarket bags) in New Plymouth, Wanganui and Upper Hutt; and
  • collection of recyclable materials at "drop off" sites or transfer stations for some materials (e.g. aluminium cans, glass,newspapers or cardboard) in most parts of New Zealand.

National data on the amount of recycled waste are limited, but recycling rates for some waste materials in 1993/94 are shown in Table 3.4. Since that time, the level of glass recycling has probably gone down because the major recycler no longer pays the transport costs of used glass. Conversely, levels of steel and oil recycling may have risen as a result of voluntary agreements between industry and the Government. The steel industry set itself the goal of recycling 25 percent of the nation's 300 million used cans by the end of 1996. The oil industry's Used Oil Recovery Programme, which was launched by the Minister for the Environment in March 1996, aims to recover 95 percent of available used oil by the year 2000. At present about 30 million litres are discarded annually, of which about 7 million (23 percent) are re-refined and sold (Ministry for the Environment, 1997). The remaining 23 million litres are dumped at landfills (7 million litres), burnt (5 million), poured on roads for dust control (4 million), used to lubricate chainsaws and stain fences (3 million), and lost or discarded in various unknown ways (4 million).

The packaging industry, which produces the most visible if not the most voluminous waste, is another to have entered a voluntary agreement with the Government. Under the June 1996 Packaging Accord, the industry accepted responsibility for minimising packaging waste and agreed to a strategy that includes codes of practice, performance objectives and monitoring of progress. It also agreed to work with central and local government to collect data, develop measurable indicators of packaging waste, establish an education programme, and support waste management options for packaging such as recycling.

Packaging waste is estimated to make up 10-14 percent of the waste going into New Zealand landfills (Ministry for the Environment, 1997). According to industry estimates, the development of lightweight packaging and the growth of recycling over the past decade have already led to packaging waste being 42 percent less than it would otherwise have been (Packaging Industry Advisory Council, 1995). On the other hand, packaging waste would be even less if the industry had not replaced reuseable packaging, such as glass bottles, with disposable containers, such as cardboard cartons, aluminium cans and plastic bottles (McLachlan, 1993). Although many of the disposable containers are recycled, it takes much more energy to recycle and reconstitute a container than it does to wash it (see Table 3.5).

Table 3.5: Energy consumption 1 per use for 350 ml drink containers.
Container Energy Use (kilojoules)
Aluminium can, used once 7,500
Steel can, used once 6,300
Recycled steel can 4,100
Glass beer bottle, used once 3,900
Recycled aluminium can 2,700
Recycled glass beer bottle 2,700
Refillable glass bottle, used 10 times 640

Source: Demanuele (1994)

1 Includes treatment but excludes transport (which varies from place to place)

The shift away from reuseable drink containers is linked to the expansion of the supermarket system, the rationalisation of the beer industry, and the deregulation of the milk industry and road transport in the past 30 years. A crucial factor in all of this was the changing transport costs as distribution centres became fewer and farther between and as new lightweight packaging made one-way containers much cheaper to transport. In the early 1980s, refillable beer, milk and soft drink bottles were collected and redistributed quite efficiently within local areas. Now the transport costs of bottle collection and redistribution are greater than those of the 'one trip' disposable containers. Whereas the word 'disposable' was coined for a new generation of packaging or product, 'reuseable' and 'refillable' are now needed to describe what was once the norm (McLachlan, 1993).

Of the 376 million litres of beer produced annually in the early 1980s, nearly half (48 percent) was sold in refillable bottles, and nearly all the rest was sold on tap (Department of Statistics, 1985). By 1993, the tap proportion had not changed substantially, but the refillable bottle proportion had fallen to less than a tenth (9 percent) of all beer sold, with disposable aluminium cans and non-refillable glass bottles, or 'stubbies', making up the balance. In 1985, milk was sold in returnable glass bottles all over the country, mostly through home delivery and shop dairies as supermarkets were reluctant to handle returnable containers. From 1986, milk in cardboard and plastic containers became freely available in supermarkets. By 1993, the supermarket share of retail milk sales had reached 29 percent, and was growing at more than 3 percent per year, and the percentage of milk sold in disposable containers had climbed to 85 percent (McLachlan, 1993).

Paper forms a large percentage of the total waste stream and over a third of it can be easily recycled. There are markets for clean office paper and newspapers which can be reborn five times before the fibre eventually collapses. These recycled paper products go into egg and apple trays, paperboard and some lines of recycled stationery. There is practically no market for 'mixed paper waste' (glossy magazines and 'junk mail') because of the costs of removing the impurities in it. Markets for recycleables fluctuate, and low prices paid for plastics and paper in particular can render commercial recycling unprofitable. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (1993) found that: "Without exception, councils and private waste haulers identified lack of adequate markets for recovered materials as an impediment to waste reduction." Despite these uncertainties, an increasing number of local authorites now operate recycling depots and kerbside recycling schemes where householders are provided with bins in which to place their recyclable rubbish. A 1993 survey of consumer behaviour showed that over 90 percent of people had access to recycling facilities for paper, plastic, glass, or metal and that 84 percent make some effort to sort these materials for recycling. Many areas also have collection facilities for the recycling of oil, CFCs, and acid lead batteries, though transport costs have constricted glass recycling to Auckland and Wellington.

Recycling depots are well patronised but are more prone to contamination from non-recyclable products than are kerbside collection schemes. This means the waste needs to be sorted, which adds an unacceptable labour cost. The energy (and air pollution) costs of transporting waste to depots are much higher than those of kerbside schemes because the former involve many individual car trips. But even kerbside recycling is more energy intensive than simply reducing waste production in the first place. However, kerbside and depot recycling is effective in reducing the flow of waste to landfills by up to 20 percent.

Local bodies tend to view recycling as necessary to reduce the burden on landfills. However, recycling is rarely self-funding let alone profitable, and is less environmentally-friendly than waste reduction and product reuse. Some have even argued that recycling is preferred by industry because the community subsidises the cost while allowing continued industrial throughput and a convenient environmental excuse for planned obsolescence (Fairlie, 1992). The planned obsolescence argument holds that many products are designed for limited lives rather than durability because the market for them has become saturated and manufacturers rely on replacements for sales (New Economics Foundation, 1994).

There is no doubt that recycling is strongly community driven, with a high public profile, and that it reflects the concern of citizens about the waste problem. But community-funded recycling is, arguably, an anomaly in a free market environment, a response to the failure to include the full costs of waste disposal and environmental protection in the market price of goods (Starr, 1991). The result is products that are so 'cheap' that we can 'afford' to just throw them away.

Box 3.5: Making the marketplace cleaner and greener

New Zealand businesses are required by law to be environmentally sustainable as set out in rules, plans and consents issued by local authorities or national legislation administered by central government (e.g. the indigenous timber provisions of the Forests Act 1949). To ensure that they meet these legal requirements, many firms are embracing environmental management systems (EMSs). These are methods and procedures by which a company regularly monitors and assesses its environmental performance to keep legally 'clean'. Some companies choose to go further by adopting the cleaner production philosophy. Cleaner production means using energy and resources more efficiently, minimising waste, and producing environmentally sound products and services for less cost and more profit. The cleaner production idea was developed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and has been adopted by many businesses around the world.

The Ministry for the Environment helps develop guidelines for cleaner production and publishes case studies showing examples of energy efficiency and waste reduction techniques in different sectors (e.g. reusing heated water and other waste products, installing long-life bulbs, reusing towels, and so on). Case studies to date cover such diverse industries as: dairy production, cement, paint, plastic and leather manufacturing, meat retailing, the restaurant trade and tourism (Bailey and Mayes, 1994; Gilling and Bailey, 1994; Mayes and Bailey, 1993; Ministry for the Environment, 1992a, 1993; New Zealand Manufacturers Federation and Ministry for the Environment, 1993; Wellington City Council and Ministry for the Environment, 1996).

Companies choose to go green for several reasons: to gain a marketing advantage, to reassure customers that their products are of a consistent quality, to reduce costs by saving energy and minimising waste, to reduce risks to worker or customer health, thus avoiding litigation and, last but not least, to avoid the need for government rules and regulations. This last reason, the implicit threat of the 'big stick', has underlain New Zealand's policy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and was alluded to by the Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Simon Upton, at the launch of the Packaging Accord in June 1996. The Minister said that: "the Government's approach has been to rely on voluntary actions and programmes such as the Accord because we just don't know enough to regulate wisely or effectively at this stage". He added that action by free-riders to undermine voluntary initiatives such as the Accord would "make government regulation almost inevitable".

Besides entering accords with industry, government also encourages voluntary initiatives in other ways. It publishes guidelines on better environmental practice (e.g. on cleaner production, riparian strip management), has helped set up an ecolabelling scheme (see below), and helps fund environmental research and development projects through Crown Research Institutes (see Box 4.2), universities, local authorities and private consultants. Some of this funding comes from public sources as the Minister for the Environment's Sustainable Management Fund (SMF), the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Government's Public Good Science Fund, but a growing amount comes from is directly funded by industry.

A key means of improving environmental performance is to set standards against which performance can be monitored and progress assessed. Standards are lists of criteria that must be met to achieve a desired level of performance. The three main types of environmental performance standards are:

  • ambient environment standards , which state the minimum environmental conditions that must be maintained;
  • discharge or emission standards , which state the maximum amount of a given pollutant that may be released into the environment; and
  • design standards , which state the specific procedures or technologies that must be used to minimise environmental damage.

Some standards are imposed by law. The Resource Management Act, for example, empowers the Minister for the Environment to set national ambient environmentstandards (e.g. for water and air quality). However, in keeping with the voluntary approach, the Ministry for the Environment has so far opted to set guidelines only (see Box 4.1). The Act also empowers local authorities to set compulsory standards in the form of rules in district and regional plans, or as conditions in resource consents.

Many other standards are voluntary and have been devised by industry or international organisations to assist companies and organisations. These are most often design standards, though they can include discharge and ambient environment standards. The main international standards for ensuring consistent environmental performance and quality are those of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Among other things, the 'ISO 14000' series includes standards for Environmental Management Systems (ISO 14001 and 14004) and for ecolabelling (150 14020).

Ecolabelling can be anything from an advertising campaign to a complete quality assurance programme. In all cases, companies use ecolabels to market the environmental soundness of their operation, products or services. ISO has identified three types of ecolabel:

  • self-declaration claims in which a company produces its own label or product line and promotes it as being environmentally friendly;
  • practitioner programmes in which an independent third party assesses a company or its products against set environmental criteria and licenses its label to those that qualify; and
  • report card systems which list a product's performance or ranking on a range of environmental criteria, such as energy efficiency, use of natural resources, toxicity etc.

New Zealand's national ecolabel 'Environmental Choice' is a practitioner programme run on behalf of the Government by Telarc New Zealand. It was launched in 1991, in the midst of the economic recession. A company seeking to use the label pays Telarc a $1,000 application fee and has its product tested. If Telarc considers the product environmentally sound, the company can then buy the right to use the Environmental Choice label for between $3,000 and $15,000, depending on the product. So far, only three companies have the label, the paint manufacturers Levene and Resene, and Feltex Carpets. An attempt is now being made to revitalise the scheme. Another ecolabelling scheme, a report card system, is being developed by the food and beverage industry's Project 98 Trust. Both schemes are assisted by the Sustainable Management Fund.

While companies ask no more of an ecolabel than a few extra points of market share, some environmental economists had hoped for a lot more. The assumption was that the marketplace might prove an effective alternative to environmental regulation. Given the choice, environmentally concerned consumers would set up a demand for 'green' products, leaving the brown ones to wither on the shelf. However, recent British research has shown that green consumers are much like any other shopper (Coghlan, 1995). Their main priority is meeting their immediate needs at an affordable price. Although their environmental concerns are real, they are less pressing than the day to day concerns of food and finances. Shopping is therefore seen as a means to short-term ends rather than a means of solving wider problems. In Britain, only a small hard-core of 'confirmed' ethical shoppers, mostly vegetarian, consistently buy green products. The more numerous 'cost-conscious' environmentalists only buy green when they know they can afford it. The least consumer-conscious environmentalists, the 'couch thinkers', sympathize with ethical causes but do not link them to consumer behaviour (Coghlan, 1995).

Another British study compared two 'green' products which were both launched in 1986-unleaded petrol and green detergents (Motluk, 1995). Eight years on, the petrol's market share had risen from zero to 55 percent, while the detergents were stuck at 2 percent. The difference? Unleaded petrol sales 'escalated significantly' after two government kickstarts: a price incentive and a law requiring all new cars from October 1989 to run on unleaded petrol. The detergents were never subsidised or regulated (Motluk, 1995). New Zealand's experience with unleaded petrol was much the same (see Chapter 6). So, too, were the fates of ozone-friendly spray cans and refrigerators in New Zealand.

Within three years of their introduction, in the late 1980s, ozone-friendly spray cans had displaced the ozone-depleting CFC spray cans. Their market victory was assisted by their being small, low-cost items, no more expensive than the dirty cans they were replacing. In addition, the manufacturers and the public knew that the government intended to ban the CFC cans. In contrast, the ozone-friendly fridges, when they came, were more expensive than their CFC counterparts and the government had no plans to ban the CFC fridges. Needless to say, the green fridges sold only sluggishly against their CFC-containing counterparts at first. Sales only picked up after raw CFC imports were banned and all locally-made fridges thus became ozone-friendly. However, although raw CFC imports are banned, products containing CFCs can still be imported and low priced fridges, such as those imported from China, still sell well.

Disposal of Residual and Hazardous Waste

At the bottom end of the waste hierarchy are the residual waste products which are non-reuseable, non-recyclable, or outright hazardous. The non-hazardous items form the bulk of most landfill wastes and sewage. However, hazardous wastes need special measures, such as treatment (to denature or dilute the harmful ingredients), permanent storage, export, or incineration.

The scale of hazardous waste generation in New Zealand is only beginning to be understood (see Box 3.6). Potentially hazardous wastes are released into streams and estuaries from sewers and stormwater drains, into the air from chimneys and car exhausts, and onto land from many sources. An estimated 8 percent of the waste entering our landfills is potentially hazardous (see Figure 3.10).

The past disposal and careless handling of hazardous waste has left a residual problem of potentially contaminated sites in many parts of the country, the extent of which in practice is still not known for sure (see Chapter 8). The contaminated sites are now being investigated and, where necessary, cleaned up by central and local government. The Resource Management Act 1991 and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 have been passed to prevent future occurrences.

In the past, some wastes have been exported because appropriate facilities were not available here and were unlikely to be built. Exporting these wastes is the most effective and efficient way of dealing with the small quantities for a small country. For example, hazardous wastes approved for export in 1995 included: 14,000 tonnes of vanadium slag to China and Russia; 340 tonnes of PCBs to France; 120 tonnes of of spent cell lining to Australia; and 100 tonnes of copper alloy dross to the United Kingdom (Ministry for the Environment, 1997). Smaller tonnages of aluminium dross, tungsten carbide grindhouse residue, zinc oxide baghouse dust and spent lead acid batteries were also approved for export.

These are maximum figures. The actual quantities exported are often much lower (e.g. 120 tonnes of PCBs actually went to France in 1995). The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal now requires that hazardous wastes be disposed of wherever possible in their country of origin. Signatory countries, including New Zealand, must try to reduce transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and are required to report annually on the amounts exported and imported.

Incineration of solid wastes is only used on a small scale in New Zealand, though it is heavily used in densely populated areas overseas. Waste is reduced to a much smaller volume of ash, which can be removed to landfills. Some of the waste also escapes as air emissions which include greenhouse gases and potentially hazardous gases, such as heavy metals and dioxins. These emissions are generally lower than from ordinary burning because of the very high temperatures at which they are burnt (more than 1000°C).

Our largest incinerator is at Auckland International Airport. It can burn 700-2,000 kilograms of waste per hour. The US-designed incinerator is intended to handle aeroplane and airport waste which, by law, must be incinerated to reduce the chance of harmful organisms entering the country. Medical and quarantine waste is also incinerated at the facility. Because the waste stream is a very wet combination of organic waste (such as food left-overs), mixed plastics, papers, glass and tins, natural gas is added for adequate burning. The incinerated ash is only 20-25 percent of the initial waste volume. Because the fee for using the incinerator is high, international airlines prefer to dispose of their waste overseas, particularly in Sydney. As a result, the incinerator is substantially under-utilised (EECA, 1996).

New Zealand also has four smaller incinerators licensed to burn commercial medical and quarantine waste (Ministry for the Environment, 1997 forthcoming). These New Zealand-designed "Whirlstream" incinerators are located at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. They can run continuously, and their capacities vary from 500 to 900 kilograms per hour. The incinerated waste is reduced to only 5-10 percent of its original volume. Plans are underway in Auckland for the development of a much larger general waste incinerator, which would also be used to generate electricity (EECA and CAE, 1996).

Another form of incineration is provided by the cement industry which has recently begun adding used oil to one of its kilns. This is non-recyclable oil collected through the oil industry's Oil Recovery Programme. At temperatures as high as 2,000°C, the oil gives off no increased air emissions and leaves a non-toxic ash residue which is incorporated in the cement (Kingett Mitchell and Associates Ltd, 1994).

Experiments overseas have suggested that incineration for electricity production may be the most efficient way to dispose of plastic waste (Coghlan, 1994; EECA, 1996). Most plastic waste is not recyclable because of impurities, but tonne for tonne it has more energy than coal. Although it accounts for only 7 percent of landfill volume, it makes up 30 percent of a landfill's energy content. Even where the plastic is recyclable, the energy retrieval from burning is much higher than the materials retrieval from recycling. At present, plastics are not incinerated in New Zealand.

Another form of energy production from waste is becoming more widespread in New Zealand, the harnessing of landfill gas. Landfill gas typically contains 55 percent methane (CH4) and 40 percent carbon dioxide (CO2). This potentially explosive gas can be collected through a network of horizontal pipes and wells installed before and during the landfill's accretion. The gases are bottled and can be safely burnt to generate heat or electricity. Several landfills are producing gas, two in Auckland, and one in each of the Hutt Valley, Porirua and Dunedin. About 6 percent of the natural gas sold in the Wellington region is from landfills (EECA, 1996).

In summary, New Zealanders seem to be producing more solid waste than they were and the increases seem to be correlated with periods of economic growth. However, efforts are now underway to improve both our monitoring of the solid waste stream and our management of it. This has led to an increase in recycling and recovery programmes and in energy generation from landfill gas. It has also led some industries, organisations and households to adopt waste minimisation strategies. A positive sign of greater public awareness may be the decline in litter over the past decade. However, such trends are still at an early stage. The majority of households and businesses, and even waste managers and transporters, still seem quite indifferent to the problems caused by increasing volumes of waste, including hazardous waste.

Box 3.6: Hazardous wastes: the Auckland study

Auckland region's hazardous waste for 1995 was recently surveyed with assistance from the Ministry for the Environment's Sustainable Management Fund (Auckland Regional Council, 1996b). A very broad definition of hazardous waste was used, covering virtually anything that might harm human, animal or plant health, or might have negative ecological effects. This includes substances with any of the following properties, or with the potential to develop them through chemical breakdown, recombination, or accumulation: explosiveness, flammability, oxidising capacity, toxicity, corrosiveness, radioactivity, and eco-toxicity. In a departure from other surveys of this sort, biological substances were included, such as animal and vegetable waste, because of their potential to rot and pollute waterways. This definition of hazardous waste combined and extended those used in both the Waste Analysis Protocol and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.

The 1996 survey was not the first to study hazardous wastes in the Auckland region. The largest industrial zones are centered there, and surveys had been conducted as far back as 1983. One of the problems in getting reliable information is the sheer diversity of waste sources and the lack of any records. Most of the surveys looked at the business sector because households are known to produce relatively little hazardous waste. In fact, the proportion of hazardous substances (excluding biological matter) in household waste sent to landfills is less than 1 percent (Auckland Regional Council, 1996a; Blutner et al., 1994; Hodge, 1994; Holley, 1994; Ranacou, 1994; Taranaki Regional Council, 1994). Household hazardous wastes include such things as used oil, paints and thinners, garden pesticides, and spent car and torch batteries. In contrast, the much larger quantity of hazardous waste generated by the business sector includes: timber treatment chemicals; metal finishing wastes (e.g. cyanides, chromium sludges, acids and alkalis, degreasing chemicals); pesticides; asbestos from old building demolitions and renovations; sludges of mineral acids and alkalis; bitumens, tars and oils; solvents, inks, dyes and paints; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); tannery and fellmonger wastes (e.g. chemical wastes, such as sulphides); and pharmaceutical and laboratory wastes.

In 1990, a breakthrough in identifying major sources occurred when the Auckland Regional Council surveyed some 1,500 businesses and found that 95 percent of the non-biological hazardous waste was coming from just three sectors: manufacturing (68 percent); transport and storage (18 percent ); and the heterogeneous sector called community services (9 percent), which, according to the New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification, includes repair services, panel beaters, spray painters, drycleaners, laundries, photographic processors, hospitals, the military and even funeral directors. Following this lead, the 1996 survey focused exclusively on these three sectors. A sample of 1,862 was drawn, representing about 8 percent of Auckland's 24,000 manufacturing, transport and service businesses. A third (609) of these generated hazardous wastes-some 4.6 million tonnes annually. Nearly all of this was liquid sewage, with only 1.9 percent in solids and 0.4 percent in sludges, powders or gases. Roughly half the waste was organic matter (e.g. from abattoirs and supermarket leftovers) and the rest was inorganic (e.g. metals and chemical compounds). The most common hazardous wastes were: corrosive acids and alkalines, present in 1.9 million tonnes (Mt) of sewage; industrial liquids containing metals (1.8 Mt); scrubber sludges (1.5 Mt); animal wastes (1.3 Mt); and industrial organic liquids (0.9 Mt).

The Council had hoped to estimate from this the total amount of hazardous waste generated in the region. Unfortunately, the variability between business premises prevented this. However, more reliable data came from the 'hazardous waste operators' interviewed in the survey. These are companies that run disposal operations, such as sewerage plants, incinerators, landfills, and recycling plants, or that transport wastes to disposal sites. It turned out that some 110,605 tonnes went to landfills and 5,392 tonnes went to incinerators, but the amount of trade waste going to sewers was very uncertain. Despite the uncertainty, it was estimated that some 13,000 tonnes of hazardous solids (mostly biological waste) may have entered the sewerage system. Suspended in water, this was estimated to have produced a very dilute soup of perhaps 9.5 million tonnes-about a tenth of the region's total sewage received at sewage treatment plants.

Although the 1996 survey did not settle the question of how much hazardous waste is generated and disposed of in the region, it did reveal that the quantities are higher than previously thought, and it did uncover deep flaws in the management, disposal and monitoring of hazardous wastes. With no legal requirement to keep records, few companies know precisely how much hazardous waste they generate or dispose of. Many were unaware that some of their wastes were hazardous and had little knowledge of how to manage or dispose of those they did consider hazardous. Although this lack of knowledge was widespread, among both the generators and the operators, few companies felt the need for improvement or outside advice, suggesting that hazardous waste management is a low priority for most companies (Auckland Regional Council, 1996).