• Simon Upton

Thank you for inviting me here today. I thought I would take the opportunity to outline the Government's thinking on the management of waste in New Zealand.

The framework for the management of waste in New Zealand is the Government's 1992 Waste Policy. The Policy adopts a voluntary approach to waste management and ensures that:

* as far as practicable, New Zealand's waste generators meet the costs of the waste that they produce; and
* the implementation of the internationally recognised hierarchy of reduction, reuse, recycling, recovery and residual management is undertaken by all involved in waste generation and management in New Zealand.

Landfills (residual management) have been the traditional means of disposing of the majority of solid wastes in New Zealand.

Prior to the Resource Management Act 1991, we lacked immediate controls on landfill disposal. Many of these old "tips" were sited in estuarine areas or on river banks, as this was thought to be the best means of waste disposal. Often these old tip sites were poorly managed and there was a lack of control on the acceptance of hazardous wastes. Consequently, New Zealand has a significant legacy of hundreds of landfills, many of which are likely to pose a medium to high risk to human health and the environment.

In addition to controls under the RMA, New Zealand has to date adopted a largely voluntary approach to improving landfill management practice in contrast to other OECD countries where landfills and hazardous waste disposal are heavily regulated. This approach allows landfill operators the flexibility to stage improvement of their landfills to suit their financial constraints and recognises the long development period necessary for new landfills. However, landfills still need to meet the requirements of the Resource Management Act 1991 and resource consents.

The Ministry for the Environment's Landfill Guidelines, 1992, were developed after a review of international approaches and were based on the UK model of landfills as "waste treatment" facilities (bioreactors). In the absence of good understanding of environmental effects, the Guidelines adopted a cautious best practice approach.

The Centre for Advanced Engineering, University of Canterbury is currently reviewing the Landfill Guidelines, in a project supported by the Sustainable Management Fund. The sections on hazardous waste management and landfill engineering need updating to reflect changes in the waste management industry (for example, the recent development of regional landfills) and case law developed since the introduction of the RMA 1991.

The 1995 Landfill Census

In 1995 the Ministry for the Environment conducted the first national census of landfills in New Zealand since the introduction of the RMA. The census showed:

* a variable pattern of landfill consents around the country, with a number of regional councils yet to receive resource consents for operating landfills;
* poor management of hazardous waste at landfills throughout the country;
* open burning at landfills was a common practice; and
* the need for landfill operator training to improve performance.

It was decided then that to monitor trends and to see if landfill management practice was improving, a further census should be conducted in a few years.

The 1998/99 National Landfill Census

Another National Landfill Census was conducted between November 1998 and January 1999. The census covered both open and closed municipal landfills, dedicated landfills and cleanfills.

209 questionnaires were sent out to regional councils, private landfill operators and territorial local authority landfill operators. The overall response rate was approximately 60%. We received responses from all 12 regional councils, 69 out of 74 territorial local authorities and 43 private operators.

Preliminary findings from this census indicate some improvement in landfill management practice, although further progress is needed to reach an acceptable standard in a number of areas. In brief, the census results indicate:

* an improvement in the number of consented landfills. However, there are still 50 landfills operating around New Zealand that do not have the necessary consents to operate. There are a number of unconsented landfills with resource consents pending;
* a poor performance by some landfill operators in the management of hazardous waste. The Hazardous Waste Management Programme (HWMP) is currently addressing these issues and will result in National Standards governing the release of hazardous waste to land, air and water;
* a decrease in open burning at landfills, however burning is still occurring at some small rural sites; and
* an improvement in landfill management training, although this practice needs to continue.

Although this census does show an improvement in landfill practices, preliminary analysis indicates that progress is limited. If the 1998/99 National Landfill Census does not show sufficient improvement in landfill management practice - and preliminary indications are that it does not - then I shall be promoting regulations under the RMA. I don't believe a food producing country that is increasingly seeking to differentiate its products by promoting the clean environment in which they are produced can make high environmental standards for waste disposal an option that bad performers can ignore.

In the meantime, Revised Landfill Guidelines will provide operators and councils in the waste management industry with up-to-date guidance and good practice on landfill management including consents, design, siting, operational issues and monitoring. I must say, I am doubtful about whether the publication of these guidelines will sufficiently improve landfill management practice.

Any consideration of standards will have to ensure that those who have already invested in stringent performance specifications are not undermined. Standards would also need to be sufficiently flexible to take account of specific circumstances such as siting and technology.

While disposal to land has always been the preferred option of waste disposal in New Zealand, with the closure or near closure of many old tips and landfills, other options such as incineration are being considered by communities. I do not think we are in a position to say which means of disposal is preferable from an environmental perspective. Rather, the effects of disposal options should be considered on their merits.

Incineration is the preferred disposal option overseas in some developed countries, but I am advised that this is often due to the simple reality that other developed countries have insufficient space for landfilling. While incineration may solve some of the issues associated with landfills, it is not without environmental effects of its own. There are significant issues relating to the emissions of dioxins and disposal of ash which need considering.

New air pollution control technologies can be expensive and where suitable land is available at a reasonable cost, landfilling might often remain the choice for waste disposal. We need, however, to ensure that the pricing signals for all options are accurate - I'll return to that later.

Within most OECD countries, increasing emphasis is being given to reducing the volume of wastes. This has led to the establishment of cleaner production and "eco-efficiency" programmes. In the long term, the sustainability of recovery and recycling operations will depend on their economic viability. Where recovery and recycling works and is economic it changes the meaning of waste as one person's waste becomes someone else's contribution to another useful product.

Our current work programme gives only modest attention to this aspect of waste management, although support is being provided through the Sustainable Management Fund for Cleaner Production initiatives including Target Zero. As priority work on hazardous wastes is completed, there will be an opportunity to give more attention to waste minimisation policies.

The Government, local councils, and other organisations require better information about waste management and recycling options for decision-making. The costs of landfill operation and thus the avoided costs from recovery and recycling operations may have a critical influence on the economic viability of these operations. Two projects under the Sustainable Management Fund will provide such information:

* A life-cycle assessment project involving the development of a computer model to help decision makers assess the environmental and economic costs of waste management options. The model will be flexible enough to address local circumstances, such as transportation, kerb-side collection and sorting costs, landfill prices and replacement costs.

* A study that looks at the way the market for waste products works in New Zealand. This will identify factors that encourage waste recycling and recovery, and institutional and other barriers that may be disincentives to effective waste management. Understanding the market will also assist local councils plan waste management programmes and their public education strategies more effectively.

Waste management solutions should take account of the full costs of their operations. If the full costs are not being taken into account by operators and covered in charges to users then the price signals will encourage disposal at the expense of material recycling or recovery.

Full costs of waste disposal include the direct costs of establishing, operating, closing and the after care of a landfill. But it also includes the externalities or environmental effects such as odour, nuisance and the risks of water and air pollution.

The principle of full costing should apply to the whole of any waste management system, including administration, refuse collection, planning and the handling of any special or hazardous wastes.

The landfull census undertaken in 1995 by the Ministry for the Environment indicated that landfill charges covered only a subset of the full costs incurred during the life of a landfill. Anecdotal evidence gathered at the time of the 1999 landfill census suggests that councils still do not accurately reflect the full costs of waste disposal.

Operating costs are usually easy to identify and might be met through direct user charges or through rates, but the costs of environmental effects have often not been met and many older landfills cause significant environmental externalities. The treatment of depreciation and the cost of capital tied up in the facilities should also be considered.

There are various ways to approach the economic costs of depreciation and provide for the eventual replacement of an existing landfill, but in any case users of a landfill should be contributing to the replacement costs.

Because new facilities are often large sophisticated landfills, the costs of replacements can be significantly higher than the costs of operating existing landfills; these future costs should be reflected to some degree in current operations.

Sensible decisions about waste management options require good knowledge of the costs of the options and operators and users confronting the full costs of the options. The two Sustainable Management Fund projects will greatly assist decision makers in the future.