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Marty Hoffart. Photo: Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
Marty Hoffart. Photo: Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services

BusinessFebruary 27, 2018

Recycling in New Zealand: not so green, not so clean

Marty Hoffart. Photo: Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
Marty Hoffart. Photo: Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services

Kiwis use about 2 billion bottles and cans each year, but Marty Hoffart says we are recycling less than half of them – and worse, we’re not doing the one thing that could make the most difference.

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Well, it’s official. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and a heap of other countries have left New Zealand in the dust. They are proving themselves cleaner, greener and 100% more pure than we might ever be if we don’t get our act together soon. When it comes to recycling and reducing waste, we are in danger of becoming a global embarrassment hanging with the bottom of the pack. We may be talking the talk but we’re definitely not walking the walk.

Kiwis care about their environment, so surely we’re good at recycling? Everyone on my street seems to have a kerbside recycling bin and there are plenty of cars at the local recycling centre every Saturday, putting containers in the bins. We have it covered, right? Wrong. New Zealanders consume about 2 billion beverage containers each year and considerably less than half of those plastic bottles, glass bottles and aluminium cans are recycled.

Despite years of repeated attempts by environmental groups, councils, and plenty of concerned individuals aiming to bring back deposits on beverage containers here, the previous government continued to ensure containers are worthless and become litter. In 2016, Local Government New Zealand endorsed the concept of a national-mandated beverage container deposit system with 90% of members in favour of it.

Instead, millions of dollars of public money was given to vested interest lobby groups to install more public recycling bins on city streets. In case this seems like great idea, it’s not. Public recycling bins are internationally recognised as the most expensive and inefficient recycling system for beverage containers and they will never come close to competing with container deposit systems. Our national recycling rate continues to rank among the lowest in the developed world and it will continue to languish there without refundable deposits on containers.

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Last year, Scotland announced the introduction of a return scheme for bottles and cans and the UK quickly followed suit. Their programmes will be based on the world-leading Scandinavian model, where they have been doing this for decades. In Sweden, Norway and Finland, customers pay a small surcharge that is reimbursed when they return their containers. This means two things. Firstly, when people are out and about, they are less likely to dump beverage containers into council rubbish bins or toss them into a ditch. And if they do, some enterprising local will pick up the containers and cash them in for a refund.

Australian states are heading in the same direction. South Australia was the first state to introduce container deposit legislation in 1977, which means we’ve known about this programme in our backyard for four decades. We also know that the state has the lowest litter rate in Australia because of it. Several years ago, Northern Territory followed suit and in the past two years they’ve been joined by NSW, Queensland, Western Australia and ACT. What about us? Yeah? Nah.

This kind of product stewardship scheme shifts the cost of a product’s environmental impact away from ratepayers and taxpayers. Instead, consumers and producers pay the cost for recycling and recovering materials at the end of their life because it makes sense that the people who make and use all this stuff also pay. It’s a concept that can be applied to all sorts of products. In practice, this means we’ll all pay a small “environmental fee” when we buy a toaster, instead of paying a disposal fee when we’ve finished with it. It means old tyres, televisions and other electrical equipment can go to your local recycling centre for free because the recycling fee has already been paid. This is what needs to start happening here.

Central government has the power to make all this possible. From what I’ve been reading and hearing in the media lately, our new associate minister for the environment Eugenie Sage is the first minister in a long time that sounds like she really gets it. The voluntary approach used for the last 40 years hasn’t delivered and it is time to roll out producer responsibility using economic instruments.

Marty Hoffart is the director of Tauranga-based waste minimisation consultancy Waste Watchers Ltd and is an advocate for the not-for-profit sector in his role as chairman of the Zero Waste Network.

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