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Changes since the 1997 report

The 1997 report, The State of New Zealand’s Environment 1997, concluded that:

In many cities the amount of recycling has increased, in some places landfill fees have been raised, and cleaner production is being attempted by some organisations.…

While waste management responses increasingly include recycling, cleaner production systems and higher landfill fees, total waste has increased, our landfill management practices are generally poor, as are our practices and attitudes towards managing hazardous waste. (Ministry for the Environment, 1997, chapter 10.)

Waste disposal and management

Since the 1997 report, significant gains have been made in New Zealand in managing the effects of waste on human health and the environment. These have been driven primarily by stronger controls on waste disposal and management under the Resource Management Act 1991, the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, and the Local Government Acts (1974 and 2002).

In response to these controls, the management and environmental performance of both landfills and wastewater treatment plants in New Zealand has significantly improved over the last decade. The number of landfills in New Zealand has decreased, from 327 in 1995 to about 60 in 2007, with substandard landfills having closed.

As at 2007, 56 per cent of the 269 wastewater treatment plants for which information is available operate secondary treatment for wastewater, and 36 per cent treat their wastewater to the highest level (tertiary treatment). As a result, the quality of wastewater discharged to the environment has improved significantly since 1997.

In addition, most local authorities now have in place trade waste bylaws to manage the effects of industrial waste on the quality of wastewater.

While hazardous waste flows are still not well understood because of the lack of available data, hazardous substances and their wastes are now better controlled through the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, trade waste bylaws, and national environmental standards.

The New Zealand Waste Strategy

In 2002, the New Zealand Waste Strategy came into effect, providing the strategic direction for waste management and minimisation in New Zealand. It set several targets to improve the management and minimisation of wastes, including those considered to be priority wastes, such as hazardous waste.

However, progress against the 30 waste strategy targets has been variable. Good progress has been made in community recycling and ‘green waste’ schemes, through central government’s engagement with businesses, and guidelines to improve the management of landfills and hazardous waste. Less progress has been made in diverting commercial organic, and construction and demolition waste from landfills; improving the management of cleanfills; and identifying and managing contaminated sites. Progress against several targets was unable to be measured.

Local government responsibilities

Both the Local Government Act 2002 and the New Zealand Waste Strategy have clarified and formalised the role of local government in managing and minimising waste. Each territorial authority is required to prepare a waste management plan to address the reduction, reuse, recycling, recovery, and treatment and disposal of waste in the district.

Territorial authorities continue to have responsibility for collecting municipal waste, and for operating kerbside recycling and drop-off centres, transfer stations, and sanitary municipal landfills. Councils also play an important part in raising awareness of the benefits of minimising waste and recycling.

Commercial involvement

A commercial waste industry has developed since 1997, which has allowed market forces to operate for waste disposal and recovery.

As a result of the commercialisation of the waste sector, important progress has been made towards charging full costs for waste disposal and management since 1997. This has boosted efforts by industry to use resources more efficiently to reduce the generation and subsequent disposal of waste.

Waste minimisation and resource efficiency

The development of the New Zealand Waste Strategy and its targets illustrates a shifting focus away from controlling the effects of waste disposal towards:

  • minimising the amount of waste requiring disposal

  • increasing how efficiently valuable resources are used.

A significant number of government, private industry, and community-based initiatives are now working towards wider waste minimisation and resource efficiency goals. In particular, producers are taking greater responsibility for reducing their waste.

Several sectors are now involved in industry-led product stewardship schemes that enable manufacturers, brand owners, importers, and retailers to reduce the environmental effects of products, from the manufacture of products through to their disposal. One example is the 2004 New Zealand Packaging Accord, which sets several waste minimisation targets for participating sectors, and monitors progress against them.

Government agencies have also taken on greater responsibility for their waste. The introduction of the Govt3 programme in 2003 has enabled 48 government departments and other agencies to show leadership in waste minimisation.

Trends in solid waste

Partly in response to initiatives such as those described above, the total amount of waste disposed of to landfills in New Zealand has stabilised between 1995 and 2006 and, in fact, has decreased by 29 per cent when measured against the economic growth New Zealand has experienced (that is, in terms of real gross domestic product).

However, it is not known whether this stabilisation was accompanied by an increase in waste disposed of to cleanfills or other disposal sites. The stabilisation has coincided with the establishment of municipal and industry-led recycling and recovery programmes in many parts of the country. Seventy-three per cent of New Zealanders now have access to kerbside recycling, and 97 percent have access to either kerbside or drop-off recycling services.

Since 1997, there have been significant increases in the amounts of material recovered from the waste stream, and recycled, or reprocessed. The total amount of material diverted from landfills and cleanfills is estimated to be about 2.4 million tonnes a year.

As in 1997, many potentially useful materials continue to be disposed of to New Zealand landfills and cleanfills. Organic waste, timber, and construction and demolition waste make up nearly 50 per cent of the waste disposed of to landfills. Much of this waste could be recycled, reused, or reprocessed in some way. However, the evaluation of waste flows in New Zealand is still hampered by a continuing lack of standardised reporting and monitoring systems, and a resulting lack of reliable waste data.

Present and future management

With environmental sustainability now a global focus, increased attention is being given to minimising the amount of waste generated and disposed of by businesses, households, and communities. This trend reflects an international drive to use valuable natural resources more efficiently, and to reduce costs. It also coincides with global pressures to respond to climate change by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from waste (see chapter 8, ‘Atmosphere’).

In the future, waste policy in New Zealand is likely to continue to focus on minimising the generation and disposal of waste. A further challenge will be to monitor waste flows better, and to reduce waste throughout the life of products, through their ‘greener’ design. Consumer purchasing choices and an increased availability of ‘lower waste’ goods will largely influence the extent to which this minimisation and reduction of waste will occur.