Speech to the Packaging ForumEnvironment
Tena koutou katoa and thank you for coming along today I am particularly pleased to be here today, because, as we all know, New Zealand has a big problem with waste, and working with you is one of the keys to fixing it.
I don’t need to tell you the scale of the problem. New Zealanders are among the most wasteful people on the planet.
Every year we each send an average 664kgs of waste to the tip.
One of the major reasons for this is that here, only about a third of household waste is recycled, compared to two-third in similar countries.
This isn’t good enough, and I am committed to working with you, other parts of the sector, and with the people of New Zealand to turn that around.
When I first became the Associate Minister for the Environment responsible for waste issues, I gave a speech in which I said I hated waste.
It’s true. The idea that we are causing environmental and ecological damage by throwing away what could and should be useful resources appals me.
Like many of us, I have some experience of dealing with this on a small scale.
When my family built our house in Dunedin, we put a lot of effort into minimising the waste we produced.
It taught me that good intentions are not enough. You need a plan, and the resources to implement it.
Even at a domestic scale, nagging your kids to put those empty milk bottles in the recycling won’t work if they have to go out of their way to do it, and they can’t see the point in it anyway.
You’ve got take them with you. And that is at the heart of what I want to talk to you about today.
One of the things I’ve learnt in the three-and-a-bit months I’ve been the minister of waste is that there are many things that can, in theory, be recycled, but that’s not the same as them actually being recycled.
In real life, you’ve got to have the systems in place, and the people on board.
And that involves trade-offs.
I think of it as the margarine lid effect.
In theory, margarine lids can be recycled. That is, they’re made of stuff that can be recycled. So, not unreasonably, some people put them in their recycling bins.
The problem is, our materials recovery facilities, or what you all call Merfs – and I’ve been really fascinated to visit some of those and see how they work – are not set up to deal with them.
Margarine lids are flat – they’re two-dimensional, not three-dimensional – and the automated machinery that sorts the contents of our household recycling bins and bags thinks they’re paper and puts them in the waste-paper stream.
We could, and probably will, get machines that can distinguish between a margarine lid and a magazine, but that, in itself, isn’t enough.
People come into the equation. Our household recycling regime relies on people’s good will to make it work. They are the ones that have to wash, sort and put the recycling out.
The problem is, many find it confusing and – what’s worse, in my opinion – they don’t have faith in its integrity.
The Waste Strategy that my colleague David Parker released earlier this year is dealing with that confusion, by standardising the recycling regime across the country.
What you can recycle and the way you do it will be the same, whether you’re in Kaitaia or Bluff, Auckland or Dunedin.
And that does mean we’re making some trade-offs, because we don’t have the ability to recycle everything in every part of the country.
The integrity question is tricky too, because if people don’t believe that what they’re sending out for recycling is actually being recycled, they won’t do it.
To put it bluntly, if they think that the margarine lid is being burnt in a furnace in Malaysia instead of being turned into plant pots and pen holders, it’s the end of the road.
Not only for their willingness to deal with margarine lids, but for everything.
And that’s the trade-off we have to make; what’s physically possible to do, against what the public is willing to do.
Or course, flat lids are not the only problem. We have to figure out how to deal with aerosol cans.
And the lids from bottles… and a wee aside here - finding out that the real problem with leaving lids on bottles means there can be fluid in the bottles which contaminates the recycling process, and that the physical solution is a piece of kit that makes holes in the bottles so the fluid can drain out, was fascinating!
But I digress. The point is that there lots of technical solutions, and what we need is a plan to introduce them in a practical and affordable way, and to bring the public along with us as we do it.
So that’s what we’re doing. The Waste Strategy is our big plan to get New Zealand to a low-emissions, low-waste circular economy by 2050.
It’s the first time this country has had one, and it’s a gamechanger.
Under it, we’ve got a whole lot of things happening, as we head to the first target of getting the building blocks in place by 2030.
There’s the rationalisation and standardisation of the kerbside recycling scheme, and, by 2030, the introduction of kerbside collection of food scraps right across the country.
There’s the work we must do, under our climate commitments, to reduce emissions from waste. Much of that is funded by the Climate Emergency Response Fund, and I was pleased to announce food waste reduction project funding recently.
There’s the increase in the waste levy, which is generating funds that are being invested in the infrastructure we need, which will be based on the Action and Investment Plan.
We all know that this country has an estimated $2.1 billion to $2.6 billion waste infrastructure deficit, and we can’t fix it overnight.
Work on the first Action and Investment Plan, covering the next three to five years, is under way and should be in place in the first half of next year.
I expect a draft to be ready for consultation later this year, once the new government is formed, and that engagement will continue with local authorities, the waste management sector, community organisations, iwi Māori, and businesses across the sector.
The waste disposal levy expansion has recently passed a significant milestone, with the levy on class 1 landfills increasing from $30 to $50 per tonne and the expansion to class 3 and 4 landfills on 1 July this year.
Class 2 landfills that accept construction and demolition materials have been subject to a levy since July last year.
To make sure everyone is doing what they should, we’ve increased the compliance, monitoring and enforcement capability, and we’re keeping a close eye on things to make sure our approach is working.
The Waste Minimisation Fund has about 100 applications in progress. They’re for a range of projects, including kerbside collection assets, infrastructure, and to support the roll-out of services for household food scraps and green waste.
The Government is also supporting the industry in the development of new organic waste processing facilities, construction and demolition resource recovery facilities, and transfer station upgrades.
Money from the levy also goes to the Plastic Innovation Fund, and I’ve been pleased to see some great work being done there.
The Plastics Innovation Fund is $50 million over four years focused on plastic waste minimisation, and is also funded from the waste levy.
The fund is designed to support the goal of the New Zealand Waste Strategy, Plastics Research Innovation and Investment Priorities, and Plastics Action Plan.
Eight projects are now under way, and another seven have been approved.
Together, they’re getting $15 million in funding, and those projects range from milk keg systems to reduce the use of single-use bottles, to recycling farm plastics and expanding new processes for construction and demolition waste streams.
Combined, these projects will reduce thousands of tonnes of plastic waste to landfill every year.
Expressions of interest for the next round of funding open on 1 November.
On top of this, $68 million from the Covid Response Recovery Fund went into improving recycling sorting at recovery facilities across the country, including $16.8 million for projects to replace and upgrade the optical and supporting sorting equipment in the EcoCentral-operated materials recovery facility in Christchurch.
This has improved the quality, efficiency and market value of sorting plastic, paper and cardboard from kerbside recycling collections from Christchurch, Waimakariri, Selwyn, and Ashburton councils.
A further $16.6 million has also gone to Auckland Council for a project to install new sorting infrastructure at the material recovery facility in Onehunga, to improve the separation and quality of plastics, paper and cardboard materials.
This project has decreased contamination rates and increased in the facility’s processing capacity by 40,000 tonnes per annum - from 140,000 to 180,000 tonnes – meaning more recyclable material can be accepted and processed from outside Auckland.
More modern collection and sorting equipment means an increase in the quality and amount of fibre, paper, cardboard and plastic packaging materials that can be sorted.
The Action and Investment Plan will provide greater clarity and certainty about and infrastructure priorities over the medium-term, filling the gap between our longer-term strategy and shorter-term investment signals.
Container returns scheme
Which brings me briefly here to the container returns scheme. I know some of you were unhappy with the decision earlier this year to not proceed just now with the scheme that was being developed.
An issue with that scheme was that it required either changes to existing legislation or new legislation to be passed, and it’s highly unlikely we would have been able to do it before Parliament rises.
What we are doing, though, is working on new legislation for extended producer responsibility.
That would see producer responsibility organisations (PROs) established, and a beverages PRO would be able to establish a container returns scheme within that legislative framework, without a specific law change being needed.
The PRO would work through the “how” questions, like whether the containers are returned to supermarkets, or collected in good-old-fashioned bottle drives by community groups, or perhaps community facilities such as Wanaka Wastebusters.
Cabinet has already agreed to a minimum of 10 cents for a beverage container return scheme, and that hasn’t been undone.
New waste legislation
So to jump back a step and to talk a bit more about that new legislation, it would be called, for now, the Responsibility for Reducing Waste Act – RRWA.
As you may be aware, we recently released a number of Cabinet papers seeking policy decisions on the content of the new legislation to replace both the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 and the Litter Act 1979.
These papers detail decisions about legislation to provide tools to move from focussing on managing effects of waste disposal to moving up the waste hierarchy.
The Government’s new waste legislation will support the transformation of Aotearoa New Zealand’s waste system.
The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 and the Litter Act 1979 are dated and have limited tools to address our environmental issues.
The new legislation will allow us to fix the gaps in the old legislation.
It will also help make the waste levy more effective by broadening the scope of what it can apply to and what those funds can be spent on.
This includes proactive action to remove vulnerable landfills at risk of being trigged by severe weather events, avoiding incidents such as the Fox River disaster a few years back.
And this week I was in Nelson and they have a similar problem there, and where I’m from in Dunedin there are similar problems, and in fact all around the country.
The new framework and powers will help improve results for products and materials, enabling the transition to a circular economy.
We’ll be able to ban certain products, set recycling standards, and make companies responsible for their products’ entire lifecycle.
We'll be able to establish new tools to regulate how the waste management and resource recovery sector operates, including waste tracking, national standards, and national licensing.
Ultimately, the legislation will change how we manage resources through their life cycle.
These are big changes, and we will work with the sector, local government and the industry as we create tools to address our waste problem.
And I’ll make the comment here that those Cabinet papers that have gone through made the policy decisions on this legislation, and that there’s a lot of work that’s gone on, so congratulations to everyone who has been involved in that process, we just now need to make it a bill.
We intend to progress the new waste legislation through Parliament next term, with an ongoing programme to consult on and implement the new regulatory tools – the PROs and the container return schemes.
Improved household recycling
Returning to kerbside recycling, from February 2024, household kerbside recycling services will begin to collect the same set of recycling materials across the country. All urban areas will have that by 2027.
One in 10 kiwis believe that all plastics collected in kerbside recycling are landfilled and half believe they would recycle more if they trusted the outcomes of recycling.
As well as infrastructure investment and improving our legislative framework we need to bring New Zealanders along with us on the journey to improve waste minimisation in this country.
We must build trust by ensuring our systems can recycle the materials we collect. And we must build understanding through clearly and consistently communicating what these materials are, avoiding confusion and contamination.
This is a tricky communications challenge, where we are asking some individuals to recycle fewer, in order to, as a country, recycle more.
However, people support these changes. Consultation feedback showed strong support (87 per cent or higher) across all recycling and food organics proposals.
And there was 95 per cent support for collecting a standard set of materials in household kerbside recycling and for most of the specific materials in the standard set.
I do want to acknowledge some frustration about why particular materials were excluded from the accepted list of materials – namely, the likes of aerosols, lids, liquid paper board, and soft plastics – and that on some materials, companies who produce and use different forms of packaging often have different views from those that have the job of sorting and recycling it.
The principles to guide whether items are included or excluded were:
- Can the item be collected, sorted, and recycled safely and effectively through our kerbside system?
- Are there sustainable end-markets for the recycled commodities?
- Does the item affect the quality of other materials or cause contamination?
We must carefully balance these principles against our broader environmental aspirations.
Because if we jump too far ahead and accept materials at kerbside that cannot be widely recycled, we risk losing public trust in, and understanding of, the system.
The kerbside standard materials list reflects the current realities of what can currently be successfully recycled via kerbside systems in New Zealand.
Most of New Zealand’s materials recovery facilities do not yet have the technology needed to safely and efficiently process the materials that have been excluded from the standard materials list.
However, the Government is committed to reviewing and updating the list of materials accepted in the kerbside collection system.
I recognise that with investment and development in technology and markets, what we can recycle through kerbside services may need to change over time.
Let’s talk about how that would happen. The process for updating standard materials will have to balance packaging design and recyclability, producer responsibility, stability for processors and of end markets andhousehold behaviour, with the flexibility to respond to change – and of course, the principles I just outlined.
I have recently asked ministry officials to bring together the various stakeholders with a role to play in kerbside recycling – such as the waste sector, manufacturers, packaging sector, councils, businesses and other stakeholders – to identify solutions to the current barriers that are limiting what we can and cannot easily recycle in New Zealand.
I also note that the mechanism for updating the standard materials list has been designed to be flexible.
It’s done through a Gazette notice, rather than an Order in Council, or primary legislation, and you’ll appreciate that that’s a simpler process.
However care will need to be taken to ensure the list of standard materials is not updated too often. Frequent changes would cause public confusion and erode public trust that I’ve been talking about.
Finally, on kerbside collection, I want to note that there is value in aligning our approach to kerbside recycling with Australia and the wider Pacific – opening opportunities for more efficient trade and stronger end markets, and in the Pacific, with our role of helping our neighbours.
However, there are challenges to full alignment.
The current Australian Government recently committed to working towards kerbside standardisation though this is still at an early stage and their own list of national standard materials is yet to be announced.
This makes alignment decisions in this context challenging, however, I am encouraging officials to continue to look for those opportunities.I am also aware industry are leading work to further roll out the use of the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) in New Zealand.
There is ongoing work to align the Australian and New Zealand versions. However, first and foremost, we must accurately reflect what can be recycled in New Zealand, bearing in mind that we are much smaller than Australia.
Ultimately, it is essential that we restore public confidence in our kerbside recycling system, so New Zealanders have trust that it’s worth making an effort to do the right thing.
Food scraps and food waste
In addition to recycling, all urban areas will have a household kerbside food scraps collection by 2030.
As well as recycling, organic material – such as food or garden waste – does not need to go to landfill.
For example, food waste can be turned into compost, used as stock food, or used to generate energy through anaerobic digestion.
Preventing organic waste from being sent to landfill also reduces emissions – with food scraps producing around 22 per cent of the emissions from municipal landfills as they decompose.
However, reducing waste in the first place is the preferable option, with disposal of and value extraction from waste as a last resort.
For example, every year, we waste enough perfectly edible food to feed more than the populations of Dunedin and Hamilton combined.
The 157,000 tonnes of food wasted every year in this country could feed 336,000 people for a year.
This is a huge waste of money and resources, especially when many people are finding it tough at the moment.
This is why I was pleased to recently announce funding from the Climate Emergency Response Fund towards four projects working to tackle food waste at its source.
These projects include reducing waste in marae-based settings; a voluntary national agreement in which major food businesses commit to reducing food waste; public education on how to cut waste at home; and reducing the amount of food being wasted in large retirement villages and rest homes.
Collectively, the projects will receive $4.6 million over three years from the fund.
Container return scheme
Jumping back to regulated product stewardship, I’ve already spoken about how the Waste Strategy and new legislation has a strong focus on responsibility across the whole supply chain.
The kerbside collection system primarily focuses on recovering materials from the household.
The container returns scheme was designed to significantly improve recycling for beverage containers, particularly for drinks that are bought, consumed and disposed of when people are out and about.
Product stewardship schemes aim to tackle waste at its source, placing responsibility for managing end-of-life products on producers, importers and retailers rather than on communities, councils, neighbourhoods and nature.
I’ve just been at the beach this morning with Sustainable Coastlines, doing a litter survey. They are collecting really good data about how much litter there is on the coastlines. We looked at the site – we had an area of 67 metres in length and 14 metres in width – and we looked at the area at Little Shoal Bay and thought ‘there’s not much litter here’, but then we collected 230 pieces of litter.
So we do have to worry about nature.
In July 2020 the Government declared six priority products under the Waste Minimisation Act.
The Ministry for the Environment is progressing regulations to support product stewardship schemes for tyres, large batteries, refrigerants and farm waste. The Ministry is also working with stakeholders with scheme decisions for e-waste and plastic packaging.
For example, the Ministry has provided funding to enable the packaging and manufacturing industry, working with others, to design a plastic packaging scheme, aptly named the Plastic Packaging Product Stewardship Scheme Project. This scheme will play a critical role alongside our kerbside system in lifting our recovery and recycling of plastic resources.
While it’s a key part of the system, recycling and resource recovery is much bigger than what happens at the kerbside.
You will no doubt be aware that a number of single-use and hard-to-recycle plastics are no longer available.
Again, this is part of New Zealand’s transition towards a circular economy. As a nation, we embraced the 2019 single-use plastic shopping bag ban, which has meant more than a billion fewer plastic bags ended up in landfills, or the ocean, or on the beach, each year.
Last year, we banned polystyrene takeaway food and drink packaging, single-use plastic drink stirrers and cotton buds, and plastics with pro-degradant additives.
In July this year, we banned single-use plastic produce bags and tableware, restricted single-use plastic straws, and began a transition to compostable plastic produce stickers by 2025.
By banning single-use plastic produce bags, we are removing 150 million of these a year from New Zealand’s environment and landfills – that’s 17,000 plastic produce bags every hour.
In 2025, we’ll be banning all other PVC and polystyrene food and drink packaging.
These phase outs will prevent more than 2 billion plastic items going to landfills or into the environment every year.
Shifting away from hard-to-recycle packaging like PVC and polystyrene will simplify the materials in circulation and reduce contamination in our recycling system.
It will also encourage businesses to make thoughtful choices in replacing the products that are being phased out, to instead use packaging that is reusable or readily recyclable.
Again, these phase-outs work directly alongside the other changes I’ve spoken about today.
Other environmental policy work
Our waste reduction programme is just one part of our wider environmental reform agenda.
Allow me to briefly touch on some other policy initiatives.
The Emissions Reduction Plan sets out actions across the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across every sector of the economy.
The plan set out how New Zealand can meet its first emissions budget, which is2022 to 2025.
The ERP puts New Zealand on track to achieve its 2050 target and contribute to global efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.
Encouragingly, the last emissions reduction inventory showed that we’re on the right track, with emissions from waste reducing between 2020 and 2021 by 0.7 per cent.
However, there is obviously more work to do.
The second ERP will build on the momentum of the first plan and take us further.
Through their recent consultation on its draft advice, the Climate Change Commission has identified the need to focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of landfill gas capture systems, along with a wide range of potential focus areas for the future, including the potential for organic waste disposal bans.
We have now built ourselves a strong platform to tackle our country’s waste – the different programmes I’ve spoken about today each serve distinct but complementary purposes.
We have a waste strategy to provide clarity of priorities and targets.
We have funding streams and a policy framework to enable investment.
We have a comprehensive suite of tools and solutions to address the diverse challenges acrossdifferent settings, such as homes, businesses, and public spaces.
However, I appreciate this remains a deeply technical area of work for our Government.
In addition to delivering on what I’ve outlined today, we must remain committed to communicating our plans – and today is by no means the f only opportunity to do so.
I remain committed to our Government working alongside yourselves and wider sector to ensure we get this right and communicate it well.
There are many challenges ahead, but I think I can say with confidence that the future is looking more positive for waste – or less positive for waste!.
We must work alongside local authorities, the waste management sector, manufacturers, packaging sector, community organisations, iwi Māori, businesses, and – critically – New Zealand households to make this work - working towards a low-waste, low-emissions more circular economy for Aotearoa New Zealand.
Thank you all.