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This chapter provides an overview of the state of, and trends in, waste management in New Zealand since 1997. The chapter focuses on the disposal of solid waste to landfills, although information on other aspects of waste is also presented, including cleanfill disposal, waste recovery, and recycling. The chapter includes brief assessments of liquid waste including wastewater, sewage sludge, and hazardous waste.

What is waste?

The New Zealand Waste Strategy 2002 (see box ‘More about the New Zealand Waste Strategy 2002’) defines waste as any material – solid, liquid, or gas – that is unwanted and/or unvalued, and has been discarded or discharged by its owner (Ministry for the Environment, 2002).

Waste is generated in a variety of forms, and can also change its form over time.

Solid waste includes common household waste (including kitchen and garden waste), commercial and industrial waste, sewage sludge, construction and demolition waste, waste from agriculture and food processing, and mine and quarry tailings.

Liquid waste includes domestic wastewater (liquid kitchen, laundry, and bathroom waste), stormwater, used oil, and waste from industrial processes.

Gaseous waste comprises gases and small particles emitted from open fires, incinerators, and vehicles, or produced by agricultural and industrial processes. Once released, the effects of these gases and particles are hard to control. Gaseous wastes and their impact on air quality and the atmosphere are discussed further in chapter 7, 'Air' and chapter 8, ‘Atmosphere’.

Hazardous waste is solid, liquid, or gaseous waste that poses a risk to human health and the environment. It includes paint, medical waste, used oil, solvents, electronic waste, and toxic gases.

Waste in New Zealand

Solid waste

The character of New Zealand’s economic activity has important implications for our waste. The large proportion of our land that is dedicated to agricultural, horticultural, forestry, and other primary production, and our comparatively limited manufacturing and heavy industry, have a significant impact on the types of waste we both generate and dispose of in New Zealand.

Much of the solid waste generated in New Zealand is disposed of to landfills and cleanfills, although industrial waste such as that produced by agricultural, forestry, quarrying, and mining activities is generally disposed of on site.

Cleanfill sites accept material that, when buried, will have no harmful effects on people or the environment. This includes natural materials such as clay, soil and rock, as well as other inert materials such as concrete or brick.

Many of our landfills and cleanfills are owned and operated by councils, although managed on a commercial basis.

Large volumes of waste are also disposed of at privately owned and operated construction and demolition waste landfills. These landfills have local authority consents that allow them to accept cleanfill materials, as well as limited amounts of construction timber, green waste, plastics, and steel, depending on the consent conditions for the site.

Gaseous waste

Gaseous waste is primarily controlled by the resource consent process or national environmental standards under the Resource Management Act 1991 (see box ‘More about national environmental standards’). These national environmental standards include regulations that ban waste incineration at schools and hospitals, unless resource consent is granted to allow the discharge of the substance to the air. The regulations also prohibit the high-temperature incineration of hazardous waste, with the exception of some medical waste. Unlike many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only a fraction of the waste produced in New Zealand is disposed of by incineration.

More about national environmental standards

Fourteen national environmental standards were introduced in 2004 under the Resource Management Act 1991 to control the release of gaseous wastes into the air. The standards include:

  • seven activity standards that ban various activities that discharge unacceptable quantities of dioxins and other toxins into the air (such as lighting fires and burning waste at landfills, the burning of bitumen, tyres, coated wire, and oil)

  • prohibition on the use of school and healthcare incinerators without resource consent and new high temperature hazardous wastes incinerators

  • a design standard for the collection and destruction of landfill gas at large landfills.

Hazardous waste

A significant portion of the hazardous waste produced in New Zealand is discharged in dilute form to municipal wastewater treatment systems. Other types of hazardous waste have to be exported for disposal because they cannot be safely treated and disposed of in New Zealand.

Liquid waste

Every day, 1.5 billion litres of domestic wastewater is discharged in New Zealand. By volume, liquid waste is our largest waste stream. Liquid waste is generally managed and disposed of in wastewater treatment plants. However, some liquid waste from diffuse sources – such as effluent that has leached from agricultural land – is not currently managed or controlled. Waste management legislation (see box ‘Waste legislation’) empowers councils to play a key role in waste management through their administering of the resource consent process.

Waste legislation

Local Government Act 1974

Part 31 of the Local Government Act 1974 assigns responsibilities for waste management to territorial authorities. In particular, they are required to:

  • promote effective and efficient waste management within their districts

  • establish plans for managing waste through the waste hierarchy (from reduction and reuse through to disposal).

The range of powers that territorial authorities have in relation to waste management includes making bylaws to prohibit the dumping of waste, regulating waste collection and transport, and setting charges for public use of landfills and other waste management facilities. Territorial authorities are required to recover the costs of implementing their waste management plans.

Resource Management Act 1991

The purpose of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources by regulating discharges into the environment. Councils therefore play a key role in waste management by administering the resource consent process. The RMA also provides opportunities for the creation of tools, such as national policy statements and national environmental standards, which could affect waste management. However, the RMA plays a minimal role in promoting waste minimisation.

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (Approvals and Enforcement) Amendment Act 2005

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (Approvals and Enforcement) Amendment Act 2005 established standards, known as ‘group standards’, for groups of materials with similar hazards. These standards were introduced to ensure the safe disposal of hazardous waste, and to provide data on hazardous waste generation and disposal.

Environmental and health effects of waste

Waste is not only unsightly, it can also pollute our water, air, and land unless it is adequately managed. Waste of all types can affect human health and the environment. The effects can be direct, such as high levels of air pollution that causes respiratory problems, (see chapter 7, 'Air') or indirect, such as contaminants in soils that reduce the productivity of land or affect the quality of food (see chapter 9, 'Land').

Inert wastes, such as those produced by earthworks, building, and demolition activities, do not usually affect the environment significantly.

Some waste can produce hazardous substances that cause asthma and other respiratory diseases, bacterial illnesses, birth defects, and cancer. Some hazardous waste, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), can be especially toxic. Persistent organic pollutants remain in the environment for long periods, are widely dispersed – usually by water or wind – and accumulate in the fatty tissue of people and animals.

Waste is of concern to many New Zealanders for many different reasons. For example, Māori have a particular concern about the way in which waste disposal degrades the mauri, or life force, of the environment. They consider the disposal of waste at wāhi tapu (sacred sites) to be particularly inappropriate.

Illegally dumped waste and its impact on the environment.

Photo of illegally dumped waste encroaching towards the sea.

Source: Ministry for the Environment.

Waste and the economy

Waste is the by-product of economic activity. Waste can be generated at different times during the material life cycle: when raw natural resources are extracted or harvested; when goods are manufactured or services produced; and when goods are packaged, transported, and consumed.

Waste generation can indicate the inefficient use of resources. Some business commentators consider waste to be a design flaw (Economist: Science Technology Quarterly, 2007). Studies have shown that up to 93 per cent of raw materials are discarded during processing and do not end up in saleable products, and that 80 per cent of saleable products are discarded after a single use (Von Weizsacker et al, 1997, in Ministry for the Environment, 2002).

Historically, the relationship between the amount of waste generated and economic growth has meant that the greater the wealth, the greater the consumption of goods and services (and the resources used to produce these), and the more waste produced. A 40 per cent increase in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gross domestic product since 1980 has been accompanied by a 40 per cent increase in municipal waste over the same period (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, in Ministry for the Environment, 2002).

Internationally, a key goal is to ‘decouple’ waste generation from economic growth. Waste generation can be decoupled by:

  • increasing the resource efficiency of goods and services by using fewer resources in production

  • decreasing the resource intensity in the production of goods and services through improved processes, designs, and materials.

The efficient use of our valuable natural resources saves us money, reduces our impact on the environment, and ensures that our goods and services are competitive. Some international businesses, such as Wal-Mart in America, recognise the benefits of resource efficiency and have adopted zero-waste targets (Economist: Science Technology Quarterly, 2007).

The New Zealand Waste Strategy recognises the benefits that can be achieved by using our natural resources more efficiently. In particular, the strategy supports the ‘waste hierarchy’ – the ‘5Rs’ of reduction, reuse, recycling, recovery, and management of residual waste. Under this hierarchy, the reduction in the amount of waste generated is put ahead of all other forms of waste management (see box ‘More about the New Zealand Waste Strategy 2002’). The avoidance of waste generation is more economical than paying for waste to be reused, recycled, or treated and managed to final disposal.

More about the New Zealand Waste Strategy 2002

The New Zealand Waste Strategy, published in 2002, was developed in partnership with local government. Its vision is for ‘zero waste and a sustainable New Zealand’. The strategy has three core goals:

  • to lower the costs and risks of waste to society

  • to reduce environmental damage from the generation and disposal of waste

  • to increase economic benefit by using material resources efficiently.

The strategy recognises that waste management and minimisation in New Zealand are everyone’s responsibility, including central and local government, the private sector, the waste sector (including commercial waste operators and non-government organisations), and households.

The strategy identified nine priority waste areas and 30 targets. Progress against these targets has been reviewed regularly (Ministry for the Environment, 2004; 2007c). The most recent review showed that, while much of the groundwork had been laid for achieving the strategy’s wider goals and objectives, progress against the strategy targets has been variable.

Good progress has been made in providing community recycling facilities and ‘green waste’ schemes. Central government has made progress in engaging with businesses and in developing guidelines to improve the management of landfills and hazardous wastes. However, less progress has been made in reducing commercial organic, and construction and demolition wastes; improving the management of cleanfills; and identifying and managing contaminated sites. Progress against other targets was either unable to be achieved or unable to be measured.

Reuse, recycling, and recovery

The reuse, recycling, and recovery of much waste is often technologically feasible, but may be hampered by economic factors. These include:

  • the relatively low cost of raw materials, which makes it difficult or impossible for reprocessed waste materials to compete in the market

  • New Zealand’s small and dispersed population, which adds to the cost of collecting and transporting materials for recycling, reuse, and recovery

  • the traditionally low cost of waste disposal

  • the lack of a regulatory framework or strong market signals for more efficient resource use.

Despite the difficulties listed above, the recovery and reuse of waste that has some economic value is increasing in New Zealand. For example, a small but growing proportion of waste is being used to generate energy or heat, instead of being disposed of to landfills. The Used Oil Recovery Programme recovers half to two-thirds of all used oil in New Zealand. The oil is collected from oil producers, major industrial oil consumers, garages and workshops, then transported to Westport to fire kilns at the Holcim cement plant.

Public expenditure on waste management

In 2003, public expenditure on waste management in New Zealand amounted to $218 million, or about 0.16 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The management of wastewater cost an additional $603 million, or 0.45 per cent of GDP. Since 2001, the operation and maintenance of facilities for managing waste and wastewater have accounted for about 58 per cent of the total expenditure on waste and wastewater, with local authorities accounting for 99 per cent of that figure (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2007).