Plenary Session, International Solid Waste Assn (ISWA) World Conference

  • Simon Upton


The range of waste generated by human activity is as broad as our imagination and ingenuity. The field stretches from bulky but largely harmless lumps of concrete from demolition sites, at one end of the scale, to toxic organochlorine sludges at the other.

The Ministry for the Environment has recently published the first National Waste Data report (WDR) - a document which for the first time pulls together key information on waste in New Zealand. The report's findings present real challenges for us as policy-makers.

The overall message is that we have a serious information gap in the waste area. We know far too little about what waste there is and where it comes from. But, one thing we are pretty sure about is that the amount of solid waste being disposed of is on the increase.

The question often asked by the public is, what are we (and by 'we', they usually mean the Government) doing about it? I hope to give you some answers today.

We are, of necessity, operating within the confines of limited government resources. A government that doesn't want to strangle the vibrancy of an economy, either through heavy-handed taxation or regulation, is in the business of selection. It must decide what are the most critical issues and deal with them first. The Environment vote is no exception.

Until very recently the Government's efforts in waste management have been broadly based and focused on Voluntary Initiatives and cleaner production programmes.

The findings of the recent Landfill Census, National Waste Data Report and information collected by Ministry staff indicate that the current regime is simply not dealing with the environmental issues that surround hazardous waste management.

First, there has been anecdotal evidence that differences in disposal standards have led to 'regulatory flight' from one region to another. We are aware, for example, of waste from dry cleaning operations, such as Carbon tetrachloride, being transported to Wellington when no longer accepted by Auckland landfills.

Secondly, we have learnt that 98 percent of Auckland's hazardous wastes are disposed of straight into the sewer system. This has resulted in some damage to sewers. If it damages the pipe imagine what it does when it emerges into the environment.

Thirdly, old pesticides, oil products and other hazardous substances, dumped into landfills have been leeching into aquifers in Napier, Wellington and elsewhere.

Fourthly, 20% of hazardous waste is landfilled with no controls.

Fifthly, only one in ten landfills have internationally acknowledged acceptance criteria.

I have become increasingly alarmed about the potential these wastes have for causing serious environmental harm.

Over recent years, the Ministry for the Environment's Hazardous Waste Management work programme has focussed on contaminated sites, the organochlorines programme and on developing the HSNO legislation and regulations. But, of course, most hazardous waste going to landfills will not be controlled by the HSNO Act. The HSNO Act does not control the largest volume of hazardous substances which are the unwanted by-products of industrial processes: ashes, fluids and sludges generated by a wide range of industries such as metallurgical processing and oil refining, and other heavy industry.

The Landfill Census and National Waste Data Report tell us that it is now time to reassess the focus of our efforts. This research is telling us that hazardous waste management, hazardous facilities planning and pollution prevention should be to the forefront.

Hazardous substances are managed through both the Resource Management Act and the new Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. Both regional councils and territorial authorities have functions under legislation, with the regional councils retaining primary responsibility for clarifying specific responses through its Regional Policy Statements.

I am aware that many councils have been endeavouring to set controls but are struggling with their responsibilities for hazardous waste management. I believe it is time for them to be set and applied nationally.

The Hazardous Waste Programme.
In the 1997 Budget Green Package the Government approved funding for a new programme to address the thorny problem of hazardous wastes.

Over the next three years this $1.3 million initiative will regulate some of the wastes that have literally been falling between the cracks.

It will consist of the following elements:

First, we must define what is a hazardous waste. This seems like an obvious and bureaucratic point to make, but what we regard as being hazardous waste will be fundamental to the whole programme. We don't want to reinvent the wheel, so we will look to internationally recognised definitions. The challenge will be to adopt definitions of these substances in a way which is consistent with the RMA's effects based approach. To create the necessary certainty for Hazardous waste generators a certain amount of prescription will be inevitable, but we will be looking for ways that will retain the possibility of performance based assessment.

Secondly, regulations will be developed that will require the tracking and reporting of hazardous wastes. If we don't want to test every truck that turns up at a disposal site we need to be able to track a hazardous waste so we know it is what the disposer says it is. To achieve this, it seems likely that generators will be required to record the characteristics of the waste and certify that the substance at any given time meets defined characteristics.

Ideally we will develop a system whereby we know where particular hazardous wastes have been deposited and we know if there are quantities of hazardous waste unaccounted for.

Such tracking and monitoring has the potential to be highly prescriptive, involving copious forms in triplicate. We want to avoid such a regime, whilst at the same time developing a credible and informative system which creates a sound basis for managing environmental risk.

Thirdly, the core of the programme is the development of National Environmental Discharge Standards. These will be the first National Environmental Standards prepared under the Resource Management Act. Effectively, they will be acceptance criteria for the discharge of hazardous wastes to land, water and air. It is clearly not acceptable to wait until the problem hits you in the face as it comes out the end of the pipe. When it comes to hazardous waste we need to control what comes into the front end of landfills and other disposal systems. The standards will be developed over the next three years.

Discharge standards will be developed in conjunction with the regulations under the HSNO Act. Particular care will be taken to ensure compatibility between regulations prepared under the HSNO Act and those developed under the RMA. We should apply the same level of risk aversion to both.

One consequence of tightening up acceptance criteria is that rather more hazardous wastes will fall into the 'problem waste' category, that is, wastes for which there is no acceptable means of disposal.

The Government, finally, is recognising this by developing a strategy for problem wastes to complement the National Environmental Standards. Obviously the organochlorine programme has been one major initiative dealing with a nasty category of problem wastes. Others are unlikely to be quite so difficult. Nevertheless, there will be a role for the government to play in facilitating the introduction of new disposal methods and technologies. We don't expect these to be on the same scale as the organochlorine programme. In many cases we expect a growing number of problem wastes to present market opportunities to waste disposal companies.

Effects on industry and local government
Obviously, industry and local government stand to be directly affected by all of this.

The final shape of the regulations has yet to be decided, but it is clear that the new programme will place greater controls on those generating hazardous waste. Local government, too, will face increased responsibilities in the enforcement of new regulations.

Industry will have far more certainty over acceptance criteria and practices for the disposal of hazardous wastes. Generators of hazardous waste will know exactly what will be allowed to be discharged and where.

The process of defining a hazardous waste will help us to decide what the regulations should apply to, the form the regulations will take, and the allocation of regulatory and monitoring responsibilities.

Expect requirements for defining, reporting and tracking hazardous wastes, with disposal standards for landfills. Implementing these regulations will be the responsibility of waste generators. This area is likely to be the first priority for regulation.

A discussion document setting out the principles for these standards and setting out roles and responsibilities will be issued by the middle of next year. At the same time we will closely scrutinise the environmental and economic implications of the new programme.

It is therefore essential that key players play a part in the shaping of the regulations and their detail as they are developed. The new programme includes a consultation phase dealing with the principles of the new regime. This will require input from industry, local government and environmental groups. We will be consulting widely as part of the decision-making process. I urge you all to take part.

Pollution prevention
The new Hazardous Waste Programme will operate within the context of a number of parallel work programmes within the Ministry for the Environment. Pollution prevention was another area of activity to win funding in the 1997 Green Package. This is explicit recognition that regulations take us only so far. Equally important is preventing pollution before it has a chance to turn into a problem. The work programme therefore includes a number of important initiatives with this in mind.

Last year's Coalition Agreement sought to phase out persistent chemicals such as organochlorines by the year 2000. This year's Budget set aside money to enable the Ministry to apply to the Environmental Risk Management Authority to phase out the IFCS's 'nasty nine' organochlorines.

We will also be drawing up a list of priorities for the next set of substances to be considered for phase out. This will depend on exactly what substances are agreed through the international process.

ERMA has been set up under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to deal with risk analysis and decision-making on the appropriate controls to be imposed on hazardous substances that are imported or manufactured. It is the agency with the appropriate expertise and understanding of hazardous substances to make decisions about them.

Naturally I cannot guarantee the outcome of any reassessment, but I remain confident that the information on hand will show that the 'nasty nine' organochlorines should not continue to be used, imported or manufactured in New Zealand.

The Government is funding these applications for reassessment because we believe that a phase out is needed urgently. This is in keeping with the commitment contained within the Coalition Agreement between the National and New Zealand First parties.

The Coalition Agreement also sought mandatory environmental reporting and the development of a toxic release inventory.

By the end of this year, we will be in a position to develop the legislation to introduce company reporting. This work will look at the appropriate legislative vehicle and what form these will take.

The Ministry for the Environment will, of course, be seeking the views of industry and environmental groups in shaping this legislation.

The Ministry also plans to investigate the use of toxic release inventories as a possible tool for pollution prevention. A number of countries - such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom - have already established these kinds of release inventories. Mostly they involve prescriptive schemes where polluters must report releases of chemicals or contaminants, especially those defined as toxic or hazardous.

Before any moves are made to introduce such an inventory here in New Zealand we need to form a very clear view about what we are seeking to achieve. This will determine the design of any scheme we may choose to adopt.

Information about emissions of hazardous substances could prove to be a useful tool to help achieve our overall aims in tidying up hazardous waste.

This new activity will complement the overall Ministry framework for managing hazardous substances, including hazardous waste.

I hope this brief overview will be of interest to you. I appreciate that as solid waste disposal experts your attention is on a much wider range of waste substances, all of which raise their own particular challenges and excite particular public concern. However, with limited resources available to us, Deborah Morris and I have decided that hazardous substances have to be the Government's focus of attention if we are to make useful progress in the short term.