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Bulletin readers respond: 12 ways New Zealand could deal better with waste

A call for feedback in our daily email newsletter The Bulletin on how New Zealand could reduce the amount of waste being produced – and ending up in landfills – prompted a massive response. Here are some of your ideas. 

In some ways, this call for feedback was the crisis New Zealand is facing with waste and plastics disposal in microcosm. It came in a flood that I wasn’t prepared for, and I didn’t have the capacity to process it all at once.

All jokes aside, this is clearly a really deeply felt issue for a lot of people. There is a justified fear that problems with waste are getting out of control, and that the present trajectory will end in disaster.

In the days since that edition of The Bulletin, I’ve talked to a range of people who know this topic well. Two clear themes emerged. The first is that we need to dramatically cut down on producing so much stuff that later ends up in landfills in the first place – food packaging for example. The problems need to be addressed at a production level, to ease the burden on the processing level.

Secondly, the processing level itself needs to be improved dramatically. At the moment, far too much stuff simply ends up in a landfill. Or, it ends up being sent overseas, to become someone else’s problem. That’s not sustainable, even if we can reduce the amount being produced.

So, with all that in mind, here are some suggestions that readers of The Bulletin have offered. A note about these as well – I intend this to be something of a living document for the next week or so. In particular, if ideas have been suggested and some version of that idea already exists, please let me know and I’ll add it in – just send it to thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz.

It should also be noted that many people made some acknowledgement that these are huge, systemic problems that encompass economics, politics, trade, culture – pretty much every aspect of life. Many of the ideas would almost certainly involve not just the whole country, but really the whole world pulling together and changing the supply chains of the global economy. But these problems already affect the whole world – other, poorer countries currently bear far more of the brunt of plastic pollution than we do. So rather than letting that be an excuse for despair, we should be looking at these sorts of ideas as ways to start dragging ourselves out of the huge hole we’ve dug.

Finally, before going through all of these suggestions, there’s one fundamental point that needs to be made. The simplest thing individuals can do is just consume less. Buy less stuff. Especially buy less stuff you don’t need. Individuals making better choices will not be sufficient to solve this problem. But a piece of plastic that ends up in a landfill (or the bush, or the ocean) will stay there pretty much forever, so every good individual choice will make a tiny difference, but a difference nonetheless.

And if you want to sign up to The Bulletin and contribute to these conversations in future, you can do that here.

Make spare parts more easily available

Tim had this suggestion, which could cut down on the amount of brand new products that would need to be manufactured.

“It would be great if there was something requiring manufacturers to provide spare parts for their products and make them reasonably accessible. It’s infuriating having to throw out something that only needs one tiny part to make it work again, but the part isn’t available. You could probably legislate for it, but a change in business models to de-incentivise planned obsolescence would be better. E.g. when you buy something, the seller wants it to work well for a while then break so you’ll buy another soon. If you hire something, the hire company wants it to last so they can hire it out again. If, at a national level, we hire more stuff and buy less, there should be a reduction in waste generation.”

It’s worth noting as well that the most environmentally friendly products currently in existence are the ones that already exist, and don’t need to be made all over again. Wayne had this suggestion – which could be a controversial one, but is certainly something to consider. “Don’t set standards which don’t support a second hand market, for example electrical goods and reusing second hand microwaves.”

UPDATE: Arran has written in with this potentially little-known aspect of the Consumer Guarantees Act: “Technically you can demand spare parts under the Consumer Guarantees Act. Ive done it a few times, and it really pisses vendors off, but its the law.” The exact guideline of this from MBIE’s website is that sellers of products must “have spare parts available and a way to offer repairs. This might be through an arrangement with the manufacturer or a trusted repairer. If spare parts and repairs aren’t available, tell the customer before finalising the sale.”

A tax on packaging

This came up time and again, in various different forms, and I’m sure economists would be able to fill entire books with why it’s a good or bad idea. The fundamental part of the question would be whether it would lead to behaviour change at the manufacturing end. If it didn’t result in any manufacturing changes, and just led to consumers paying more for the same stuff, it would be worse than useless. If on the other hand manufacturers responded by dramatically reducing packaging, and in doing so made unpackaged stuff cheaper for consumers, that would be a huge win.

How might it work in practice? I’ll paraphrase a suggestion from Joanna. For pretty much all consumer products, packaging is a crucial element of branding – i.e, why a customer should buy their product and not a competing product. So take for example a brand of eco-friendly laundry powder. What if, instead of being sold in boxes extolling the ecological virtues of the product, it was instead shipped in bulk and sold by weight, with consumers bringing their own reusable bag to carry it home in?

Trish had a similar thought about this, which seemed like an incredibly simple but effective way of cutting out a bit of unnecessary packaging. “I am unsure why we have to buy cereal inside a packet inside a box – ditch the box! Or biscuits in a tray inside a wrapper – ditch the tray!”

And Stuart had this to say, about a plastic tax. “Plastic should be taxed at source. The societal cost of getting rid of plastic could and should be estimated and plastic should be taxed at the source. Whoever puts plastic onto the market should be taxed at a rate that will cover the costs of genuine, environmentally safe removal.”

Plastic, plastic, everywhere. Image: Supplied

Make rubbish processing part of regional economic development

Here’s an interesting one from Fiona, talking about how the processing of rubbish is an industry in and of itself. My personal view is that a plan like this would be entirely dependent on the details of how it was implemented and paid for. We’d also have to take extreme care that the pollution that was inevitably created didn’t end up simply contaminating other, poorer parts of the country – that would be incredibly unfair. But it’s an interesting suggestion nonetheless.

“Begin setting up facilities for the sorting, cleaning and processing of rubbish. Many plastics can be recycled for other uses, much paper waste can be processed and reused. Factories which provide the processing can be built in the under-utilised regions of country New Zealand, providing the lure of jobs and much cheaper housing for those struggling masses in Auckland.”

Another suggestion, from Barbara, was on similar lines. Why isn’t a big chunk of the Provincial Growth Fund being used to set up a proper recycling plant somewhere in New Zealand?

Put the responsibility for packaging disposal and recycling on retailers

This is an idea that came up a lot too. Someone who just gave their name as W said the current system was an example of privatised profits, and socialised losses, given that the responsibility for rubbish disposal and recycling ends up falling to the public. “We’ve all had that experience with finishing a meal at McDonalds and being amazed at all the waste, from the paper bag, the chip box, the drink refill and straw – it all just goes in a public bin usually – at the cost of ratepayers, not McDonalds.”

One problem with this of course – can we necessarily trust companies will dispose of what comes back properly? Or would it just result in someone else doing the dumping? There would have to be a fairly rigorous carrot and stick regime to make it work, but it’s an idea worth exploring. It would also potentially incentivise businesses to voluntarily cut back on the amount of packaging they use.

Pyrolysis/incineration of rubbish for raw materials and fuel

This idea came up a lot, in various different forms. You’ve probably seen the meme about Norway – that it works so well there that they have to import rubbish from other countries to maintain the programme. I decided to speak to an expert about this one, given it sounds sort of too good to be true. Dr Thomas Neitzert – an emeritus professor in mechanical engineering at AUT University – had this to say.

“Many plastic materials are currently in the environment, so we have to do something about that circulation. In Europe, there are big plants burning plastics, which is an energy source that can be turned into heat. It has potential, but it needs very good filtration, because in the incineration process there can be very toxic gases generated. But if you have a state of the art plastic incineration plant, that should take care of 99% of the emissions. So for example, dioxides are created, and they’re quite toxic to humans and other beings. So this has to be done properly – just burning plastic in your backyard is a very bad idea.”

However, some important caveats to this can be found in this piece on Euractiv, by two European waste experts. First of all, it’s very expensive. Secondly, even if there is highly effective capture of the emissions and toxic chemicals that are released in the process, some will still get through, so it cannot be considered to be renewable energy. And thirdly, it just masks the real problem – overproduction of plastic generally. Dr Neitzert also acknowledged this, saying the best approach would be to simply produce and consume less in the first place.

Battery recycling facilities

This suggestion came in from Richard, who said there were pretty much no good or convenient options for recycling either single use or recyclable batteries once they reached the end of their life.

“I think any retailer that sells batteries or items with batteries in them should be required to have a battery disposal collection point. And then aggregators could come around the retailers and collect them, and then the batteries could have some elements harvested and recycled and have other materials disposed of properly. In fact this could create a mini-industry. Batteries could have a 2c per battery tax to help fund oversight and administration of regulation around this.”

Reusable bottles for all kinds of drinks

Somehow swappa crates for beer haven’t caught on when it comes to other types of drink, and as a result there’s a hell of a lot of single use plastic from beverages. Sky had two suggestions on this:

“I was in Chile 20 years ago and as well as still having small reusable glass bottles for soft drinks, they had reusable big plastic bottles for soft drink, 2 or 3 litres. They were really thick, like a soda stream bottle, and you brought your empty bottle back to the supermarket to get a discount on the next one, making it cheaper than the single use ones available.

“The other example is one which is being used on a small scale in NZ currently, but could be scaled up. Some dairy farmers are choosing to sell their milk directly to the public with vending machines. You bring your own bottles, put it in the machine and it fills it with milk. You wash the bottles yourself, cutting out the massive infrastructure required for collecting, washing and delivering glass bottles like in ‘the good old days’.”

A global ban on the manufacture of new plastic

Now, a caveat for this one – Ari who suggested it admitted straight off the bat that it was pretty extreme. But we live in a time of crisis, and it costs nothing to make suggestions that address the scale of said crisis. It would certainly give people incentives to go and do something about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“The current nature of the global economy is linear, when it needs to be circular. What does that mean? I think a global ban on the production of new plastic is a good place to start, since the vast majority of it that has ever been created still exists. I can only imagine this would make that existing plastic far more valuable and therefore offer the incentives needed to get it all out of the natural environment.”

Build packaging and plastics responsibility into our trade policy

Another extreme suggestion, but one worth exploring, came from Loren. “At a trade level I think packaging should be addressed – certain non-recyclable items should simply not be allowed to be imported. This goes against the idea of free trade, but much of free trade is built on negative externalities and these need to be accounted for. This could work hand in hand with the idea of forcing the producers to be responsible for the recycling of waste. A more strict version of banning imports might be to ban the import and production of all non recyclable materials. This is something NZ could do to lead the world in sustainability, its also something it could support Pacific nations to do as they also drown in plastic without any means of recycling due to cost, biosecurity and distance.”

Council collection of food and garden waste

Kathryn suggested “council collection of green garden waste. Also, council collection of kitchen scraps for those people who don’t have the space for compost bins.” Now, there is a programme currently being trialled by Auckland Council on this, and my understanding is that there will be more information coming out soon about it.

Using composting techniques to detoxify waste like asbestos

This is an idea that has come from a recent piece on The Spinoff, about some research currently being done at Unitec. Basically, all the asbestos that has been (rightly) ripped out of houses has ended up being dumped in landfills. But instead of just burying it deep in the hazardous waste section of the tip, it could be possible to detoxify it using microbes and plants.

Using more compostable processes and packaging generally

A lot of people suggested this one too, and pointed to companies like Ecoware who make compostable packaging. It’s certainly a more environmentally friendly material than plastic, but like with much of this stuff, the devil is in the detail. Do enough composting facilities actually exist? Are home-compost bins set up properly? It’s an emerging area, and my understanding with this one too is that there will be much more news to come in the near future. But it needs to be done right, and the stakes here are pretty high, because a huge chunk of what currently goes to landfill is food waste. There could be all sorts of benefits to getting better infrastructure set up in this area.

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Don’t ever stop looking for new ways to improve

This suggestion came in from Jamie, and I think it’s a really pertinent one to finish on. The plastic bag ban is now in effect. What is the next issue that needs to be tackled, and how quickly can we start pushing through new ideas? Here was Jamie’s piece:

“The government should institute a program where there is a professional team working full time to sort out idea after idea, one after the other, with businesses and consumers expecting a push for changing habits with something new every 4/6 months. First, plastic bags, second glass, third fancy cardboard, fourth FMCG cardboard boxes, fifth shampoo + plastic bottle recycling.

These would be incremental changes, each changing consumer habits and manufacturing habits, each only adding a small cost to the product but over time, each being common sense, and yet all making a bigger and bigger difference. Pick the low hanging fruit first, quick wins, cheap wins, introduce the culture of continuous improvement along with it. And along with this, is the concept that we in NZ should be recycling our NZ-generated rubbish, and not exporting it.”


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