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Background to waste minimisation in New Zealand


Why is waste a problem?

The main problems with waste are:

  • inefficient use of materials and energy

  • environmental effects of waste disposal

  • the volume of waste generated per head of population

  • a lack of information on waste generation, diversion and disposal.

Inefficient use of resources

Waste shows we use energy and resources inefficiently. Almost every activity that uses materials and energy creates waste. Landfills are costly to develop and operate. Suitable sites for new landfills tend to be some distance from population centres, increasing transport costs and greenhouse gas emissions. There is significant scope for New Zealand to use resources more efficiently at all stages of a product’s life cycle, from design and manufacture through to final disposal. There are business opportunities for New Zealand firms to develop innovative product design, efficient manufacturing and resource recovery technologies. This will have economic benefits, produce less waste, save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and divert more material from landfill for beneficial use.

Pollution of land, water and air

Waste pollutes our environment. Water that leaches through landfills becomes contaminated with heavy metals, oils and organic compounds from the decomposition of waste. Unless the leachate is collected and treated, these contaminants enter the environment and pollute water and soil. Decomposing organic waste generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and burning waste releases hazardous and toxic substances into the air.

There have been improvements in landfill management in the last decade, and these are discussed below. However, there are still gains to be made by improving environmental management at some landfills and other waste disposal sites.

Volume of waste

The volume of waste created by societies has traditionally reflected the level of economic activity in the society. A 2007 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Environmental Performance Review of New Zealand (OECD, 2007) found that household waste sent to landfills roughly tracked gross domestic product (GDP) between 1990 and 1999. The review saw little sign that waste will not track GDP in the future. Between 1995 and 2006, the estimated weight of solid waste disposed of at landfills fluctuated between 2.8 million tonnes and 3.2 million tonnes. In this period, population increased by 14 per cent and GDP (adjusted for inflation) increased by 40 per cent.

We estimate that around 8.7 million tonnes of waste were produced in 2006 (MfE, 2007b). This is around two tonnes per person per year. Of this, an estimated 2.4 million tonnes were recycled and an estimated 3.2 million tonnes were disposed of at municipal landfills. The remainder was disposed of in cleanfills or other landfills that accept a more limited range of wastes.

Lack of information to help manage waste

Both the 2007 OECD review and the 2006 review of New Zealand Waste Strategy targets found that lack of information hampers our ability to set and achieve targets for waste minimisation. Six surveys of waste disposed of at New Zealand landfills have been undertaken since 1991, but the results are variable and differences in survey methodology make it difficult to compare results over time. Data on the composition of waste is expensive and difficult to collect, and our current information is based on data from 16 of the 65 municipal landfills (Waste Not Consulting, Unpublished). Information on waste diverted from the waste stream, through reuse, recycling and recovery, is even more sparse, and is based on occasional surveys.

What have we been doing to minimise and manage waste in New Zealand?

Several steps have been taken to minimise and manage waste in New Zealand, including:

  • improving on-the-ground management of landfills

  • developing a national strategy to focus our efforts

  • developing more sustainable products and production systems.

Managing the environmental effects of waste disposal

Under the Resource Management Act 1991, regional councils regulate the environmental effects of waste disposal sites by granting and monitoring resource consents. Improvements in environmental management have resulted from more stringent regulatory requirements, and the closure of small poorly managed sites.

The number of landfills decreased from 327 in 1995 (MfE, 2003), to 60 in 2006 (MfE, 2007a).

More stringent regulatory requirements have included leachate collection, controls on what is disposed of in the landfill and systems for the management of landfill gas. The proportion of landfills with liners designed to prevent groundwater contamination rose from 4 per cent in 1998, to 52 per cent in 2006, and the proportion of landfills with leachate collection systems rose from 35 per cent in 1998 to 77 per cent in 2006 (MfE, 2007a).

Decomposing organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The Resource Management (National Environmental Standards Relating to Certain Air Pollutants, Dioxins, and Other Toxics) Regulations 2004 (the air quality national environmental standard) required that by October 2007 at the latest, all operating landfills with a capacity of 1 million tonnes or more would collect and manage landfill gas. In 2006, 23 per cent of landfills were collecting landfill gas for beneficial use, compared with 5 per cent in 1998 (MfE, 2007a). However, a 2008 investigation of compliance with the landfill gas standard showed there may be some applicable landfills which still do not fully comply with the requirement to collect landfill gas.

Burning wastes releases hazardous and toxic substances into the air. The air quality national environmental standard prohibits open burning of toxic materials, such as tyres, bitumen and waste oil, and fires at landfills. A Ministry for the Environment review of compliance with the national environmental standard in 2008 showed only two instances where the prohibition on fires at landfills was contravened. There was good compliance with the prohibition on burning bitumen and open burning of waste oil. However, there was poor compliance with the prohibition on open burning of tyres. There is also some evidence to suggest there has been an increase in the low temperature burning of waste oil.

The New Zealand Waste Strategy: Towards zero waste and a sustainable New Zealand

New Zealand Waste Strategy: Towards zero waste and a sustainable New Zealand (MfE, 2002) was developed through a partnership between central and local government. The Strategy sets Government policy to minimise waste.

The Strategy covers solid, liquid and gaseous wastes. It deals with the life cycle of waste, from generation to disposal. The Strategy promotes resource efficiency at every stage of production and consumption, and focuses on waste prevention rather than on waste disposal. In particular, it supports the ‘waste hierarchy’ – reduction, reuse, recycling, recovery, treatment and disposal.

The Strategy has a vision of ‘towards zero waste and a sustainable New Zealand’. It provides principles for guiding policy and priority setting, and includes an action plan for reducing and managing waste. The three core goals are to:

  • lower the costs and risks of waste to society

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

  • increase economic benefit by using material more efficiently.

The Strategy provides four criteria to focus our efforts:

  • volume and harm – deal with wastes that pose the biggest environmental and social risks because of their high toxicity or large volumes

  • achievability – focus on what we can realistically achieve

  • cost effectiveness – take measures that give the best value for money

  • public concern – make sure plans are in step with community views.

A key component of the Strategy has been its 30 targets. The Strategy anticipated that the targets would focus action in priority areas, to be reviewed as information became available and progress was made.

A sound legislative basis for waste minimisation and management in New Zealand is one of the five core principles of the Strategy, and the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 is part of this legislative framework.

Other initiatives

The Ministry for the Environment has been working with industry to help develop more sustainable products and production systems. One example of this is the ‘Greening the Screen’ (MfE, 2005) initiative, a practical toolkit developed by the Ministry, Landcare Research, South Pacific Pictures, Waitakere City Council and the Screen Development and Production Council, aimed at improving sustainability in the film and television industry.

Measuring progress in waste minimisation

Progress against the original 30 targets in the Strategy was reviewed in 2006 (MfE, 2007a). The review showed that although progress has been made on meeting the Strategy’s objectives, more work needs to be done to prevent waste generation. The review found a need for improvements in waste monitoring and reporting. Lack of funding for waste minimisation was sometimes cited as a barrier to progress, particularly for councils with a small rating base and large numbers of tourists.

The 2007 OECD environmental performance review (OECD, 2007) drew similar conclusions about New Zealand’s approach to waste management. It states, “Publication in 2002 of the national Waste Strategy gave needed focus and clarity, as well as national objectives and targets, to a waste management framework otherwise fragmented in its legislation and institutions”.

The OECD review also noted that recycling activities in New Zealand were “economically vulnerable” and that there was a lack of aggregated waste management information at regional or national levels, which hampered strategic planning. The OECD review specifically recommended that we:

  • develop regulations for managing hazardous waste, including mandatory tracking systems

  • expand and upgrade waste infrastructure and apply the polluter pays principle

  • increase regulatory support for recovery or recycling of priority wastes, building on extended producer responsibility (product stewardship measures)

  • strengthen the monitoring of waste generation and treatment.

Both the Ministry for the Environment and the OECD reviews demonstrate a need for further work on waste minimisation if New Zealand is to realise the social, environmental and economic gains to be made from the more efficient use of resources, the reduction of waste, and improvements in its beneficial reuse.

New tools for waste minimisation: the Waste Minimisation Act 2008

The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 addresses the legislative and institutional issues raised in the OECD review (OECD, 2007) and provides tools and funding to improve waste minimisation. The Act was enacted on 25 September 2008. It is administered by the Ministry for the Environment and incorporates waste management activities carried out by local government before 2008, under the Local Government Act 1974. The Act is complemented by provisions relating to waste in the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.

The purpose of the Act is:

“to encourage waste minimisation and a decrease in disposal in order to—

(a) protect the environment from harm; and

(b) provide environmental, social, economic and cultural benefits.”

The Act provides:

  • a regulatory framework for establishing product stewardship. Product stewardship schemes can be voluntary or mandatory. Products declared to be ‘priority products’ would be regulated to ensure that a scheme is developed and that producers and others in the supply chain take responsibility throughout the product's life cycle

  • for a waste levy of $10 per tonne on waste going to landfill. This levy will apply from 1 July 2009 and will provide revenue for waste minimisation. Half of the levy money will be allocated to territorial authorities to implement their waste management and minimisation plans, and the remaining half (minus administration costs) will be allocated, through a fund, to waste minimisation projects

  • local authorities with powers and responsibilities for managing and minimising waste

  • regulatory powers relating to waste and the management of waste streams

  • powers to require reporting on waste and diverted materials

  • for a Waste Advisory Board to be established, to provide advice to the Minister on waste issues.

The Act also strengthens the role of the New Zealand Waste Strategy in local government planning by requiring local authorities to have regard to the Strategy when preparing waste management and minimisation plans.

How do we plan to improve waste management in New Zealand?

This discussion document seeks your views on the next steps in implementing the new Act and using the powers contained in the Act to minimise waste. Our proposals are presented in five parts, summarised below.

Part 1: Revising targets for the New Zealand Waste Strategy

The New Zealand Waste Strategy sets Government’s policy to minimise waste, including targets to drive effective action. We are revising the targets to reflect the recommendations of the 2006 review of progress towards the targets (MfE, 2007a), the OECD review of waste management policies in New Zealand (OECD, 2007), and the requirements of the new Act.

Part 2: Identifying priorities for product stewardship schemes

We are seeking to identify products that should be the initial focus for developing product stewardship schemes. Because we only have capacity to undertake work on a limited number of products at any one time, it is important effort is focused on where the most significant gains could be made.

Part 3: Identifying funding criteria for the Waste Minimisation Fund

The Waste Minimisation Fund will fund waste minimisation projects. Eligible proposals will be assessed against a published set of criteria and the best will be funded.

Part 4: Monitoring waste in New Zealand

The lack of comprehensive information on waste is hampering our ability to move forward with waste planning and policy development leading to better resource use. Part 4 deals with a proposal for additional data collection in 2009. Note that longer term monitoring is covered in Part 1, under the New Zealand Waste Strategy monitoring and reporting targets.

Part 5: Improving the operation of the waste levy

The implementation of the levy needs to recognise the need for good management practice at landfills, which includes ensuring that sufficient cover material remains available to cover waste to avoid environmental and health issues. Part 5 seeks feedback on whether the levy will affect the availability of cover material for landfills and whether cover material should have a zero levy to avoid adversely affecting the use of cover material.