Speech to WasteMINZ and RMLA meeting on recharging New Zealand's recycling system

New Zealanders are increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of waste. The Ministry for the Environment’s environmental attitudes research shows that New Zealanders believe that dealing with waste is the second equal most pressing issue facing our country over the next 20 years. Poverty is number one.

Incredibly, New Zealand is currently one of the highest producers of urban waste in the developed world per capita.

The news is full of stories about plastic pollution in our oceans, stockpiling of low value plastic waste, illegal dumping, tyre mountains and occasional fires from waste stockpiles; and what happens when landfills are poorly sited and maintained. Once upon a time it was out of sight, out of mind.

Our waste ‘indicators’ are generally heading in the wrong direction with more not less waste going to landfill.

This situation challenges how we see ourselves as a country, how the world sees us, and the future we want for our children.

As a country we need to turn around our rubbish record on waste.

Government’s role is to set direction, provide leadership and put in place supporting regulations, incentives and investment.

Business and industry have a critical role to play by looking closely at their supply chains, manufacturing and retail operations to reduce the waste they create, manage their own waste better, and offer consumers genuine choices of lower-impact packaging and goods.

And of course consumers make important decisions about how they run their households, the products they buy, and what they do with those products at the end of their life.

But even with everyone doing their individual best to reduce waste we still won’t crack the problem entirely.

To effectively deal with waste we need some fundamental changes in how we think about and use nature and the resources that nature provides us and how we think about waste.

Our existing economic model is essentially one of taking the resources we want from nature, making them into stuff we can use, and then throwing those items away when they break, go out of fashion or our wants change. And we package products unnecessarily for convenience and presentation – packaging that goes directly to landfill at best, or at worst pollutes the environment.

Designers and manufacturers of products and packaging have typically taken very little care or responsibility for what happens to their products at the end of their life.

Today, expectations are changing. If a business creates a product or packaging, it needs to give some thought to, and take increased responsibility for, what happens to it at the end of its life. Consumers are calling for this loud and clear, and many businesses are starting to make changes.

We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift. The trajectory is that as a country we need to move away from the single-use, take, make and dispose model and towards a low emissions, circular economy where we take carefully from nature, make, use, then recover materials so they can be collected, remade or recycled, to keep valuable resources in our supply chains and out of landfills. 

This is not just about mitigating the environmental impacts of waste. It is an important economic shift as well.

The circular economy model is a system shift to a more efficient and resilient economy; one where there is less separation between people and planet.

We have one planet and currently we humans are over using its biomass, its water, its capacity to absorb pollutants and its oceans. When we mine minerals, take resources such as sand for glass, oil for plastic we need to keep those resources in circulation and providing jobs and livelihoods for people, rather than let them literally go to waste.

Until last year, China was the world’s largest importer of recyclable products. In February 2018 China enforced its ‘National Sword’ policy aimed at restricting the importation of low quality recyclable materials. The policy has resulted in an oversupply of some recyclable products to other overseas markets and a decline in international commodity prices – which is having significant impacts on New Zealand’s resource recovery industry.

Mixed, low value plastics and mixed fibre commodities, such as paper and card were particularly hard hit and this represents a significant challenge for many Councils and businesses. Ten councils have stopped, or are about to stop, collecting plastics 3-7. On the fibre issue, two of New Zealand’s largest councils have had to bail out their recyclers.

The need to take more responsibility for the waste we create has been highlighted by recent international negotiations. New Zealand and about 180 other countries, have agreed to amend the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.

This means that exporters of contaminated or hard-to-recycle types of plastic waste will need a consent from the governments of the countries they are exporting to, before shipping.  The amendment to the Basel Convention will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while also ensuring its management is safer for human health and the environment.

China’s National Sword has highlight the vulnerability of our recycling system to the volatility of the international markets.

The need to concentrate on developing onshore recycling infrastructure has never been more in focus. We can no longer expect to send our waste away and have others to deal with it (including more than 40,000 tonnes annually of plastics from New Zealand, the majority of which went to China before National Sword). We need to invest in more onshore innovation, infrastructure and reprocessing capacity here in New Zealand to recover and re-use materials.

Last month I announced our plan to help recharge New Zealand’s resource recovery and recycling sector as part of our response to China’s National Sword. Many of you have and are working closely with the Ministry for Environment team on this programme of work.

Government does not have all the solutions but from July the Ministry will be implementing all of the recommendations from the taskforce on resource recovery which was established last year. Currently there is no standardised template contract across councils and recycling and materials recovery operations. This has contributed to the plethora of systems, inconsistency in what materials are recovered, and what level of contamination is acceptable. So even something as simple as developing model contracts for the sector should help reduce contamination, increase transparency and ensure recyclables are separated so they can get better market prices.

There is a high level review of kerbside collection and processing systems to identify how to increase the quality of recyclables to ensure more materials can be recovered and recycled instead of going to landfill.

I am well aware that more action is needed by Government to reduce waste to landfill and help shift New Zealand towards a low emission, circular economy.  That’s why I was very pleased that Budget 2019 provides an additional $4 million in new funding over four years for the Ministry for the Environment to increase its policy work on waste.

Extended producer responsibility or stewardship is one tool available under the Waste Minimisation Act to help design waste out of our economy and shift the costs of minimising harm, away from nature, councils and the wider community and onto product designers, producers and users. Product stewardship, voluntary or regulated, means participants take responsibility for life-cycle impacts of products. Participants include producers, brand owners, importers, retailers, consumers, collectors, and re-processors.

 

Industry and community groups operating voluntary product stewardship schemes have regularly told Government over the last decade that a ‘level playing field’ and better incentives for diversion are required to achieve significant waste minimisation. There is strong industry support for Government to play a more significant role in product stewardship.  

Government is working with industry to co-design regulated product stewardship for problem products like tyres, lithium-ion batteries, agrichemicals and refrigerants.   There will be public consultation on proposed products for regulated or mandatory product stewardship and proposed criteria for accreditation of such schemes in the next couple of months, subject to Cabinet approval.

Another of my priorities is to ensure that more landfills are covered by the waste disposal levy, not just the current estimated 11 per cent of them, taking municipal waste.  We also need to increase the levy charged at landfills, which currently sits at just $10 per tonne and is too low to incentivise waste minimisation. In 2017, the Ministry for the Environment reviewed the landfill levy’s effectiveness. The review recommended expanding the levy across additional classes of landfills; potentially raising the levy rate to incentivise waste minimisation and recognise the costs of disposal; and improve waste data.

And so I have asked officials to develop options to expand the waste disposal levy for the Government to consider. I expect consultation to occur later this year, subject to Cabinet approval. Officials are considering which additional landfills should be made subject to a levy; whether a differential levy rate should apply to different disposal facilities and/or types of waste; and what rate or rates the levy should be set at. , and how revenue generated is best recycled through the Waste Minimisation Fund.

Putting a realistic price on what goes to landfill should help incentivise innovation and change. 

Increasing the cost of waste disposal could affect consumers, ratepayers, and businesses. How much they will be affected depends on the new levy rate, and how effectively businesses and communities change their practices to reduce waste production. We need to make sure we support this transformation through spending of levy funds.

I would like to emphasise that revenue from the levy does not go into the government’s purse. It is all recycled to help minimise waste by going to councils or into the Waste Mininimisation Fund to assist progressive businesses and community organisations through grants from the Fund.

Officials are working on an investment strategy to ensure levy funds are spent effectively, and to better understand the infrastructure necessary for national resource recovery and where investment is potentially best directed, which is something I know many WasteMINZ are concerned about.

I’m aware that impacts of waste disposal are also managed through the Resource Management Act. Landfills operate under consent conditions such as requirements to control noise, odour and leachate that are produced by landfills. These conditions mitigate and manage any impacts on land and water (eg, landfills that accept active waste need to be lined, and any discharges are collected and managed).

WasteMINZ, with support from the Ministry for the Environment and local authorities, are working hard on updated landfill disposal guidelines. These guidelines will assist in the work around levy consultation so that is clear what types of waste, landfills are able to accept. In time, the guidelines (expressed through Regional and Local Authorities along with landfill operators), will become the standard for all landfill sites across New Zealand.

While the Government can set direction, make rules and invest in change, this on its own will not be enough. Government intervention can be slow, and in many cases is best used to set a minimum standard.

Industry can be far more effective at leadership and innovation. Businesses have resources, ideas and you understand your customers.

There are also opportunities for business to collaborate across industries, to look at end-of-life solutions for products and by-products. Like the old adage, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure”, the waste products of one industry can be valuable inputs for another.

We’ve seen some great examples of this thinking in action in New Zealand such as the Flight Plastics plant to reprocess PET plastic bottles into packaging.  With genuinely circular design this process may be repeated at least eight times reducing the need to extract natural resources.

The consumer-led demand to prevent waste in the environment is growing rapidly, and retailers are paying attention.  It was customers who drove retailers to begin to remove single-use plastics bags from their checkouts which Government ensured across a level playing field with regulations banning single use supermarket bags coming into effect in 1 July.

Consumers are now asking businesses to provide products that can be repaired, re-used, remanufactured, recycled or safely returned to nature.

New Zealanders also have a responsibility to choose sustainable or zero waste products when they shop, if these options are available to them, to think more about the amount of waste they are individually creating and to support their local recycling schemes.  There are now businesses making money from providing services, such as Lime scooters, so that people pay for the service they need, instead of the product itself. Concepts like the ‘sharing’ economy can increase efficiency and reduce the impact on resources.  

The transition towards a circular economy allows New Zealand to build onshore capability and capacity to tackle the current trend of an increase in waste to landfill. This is particularly noticeable with the international pressures placed on New Zealand’s resource recovery sector and local government following China’s National Sword policy and similar policies in other countries.

New Zealand is now on the path to a low emission, climate resilient future. Last month the Government introduced its Zero Carbon Bill to Parliament.

The Bill provides a framework by which New Zealand can develop and implement clear and stable climate change policies that contribute to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The Bill will set a new greenhouse gas emissions reduction target to: firstly, reduce all greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) to net zero by 2050. And secondly, reduce emissions of biogenic methane within the range of 24–47 per cent below 2017 levels by 2050 including to 10 per cent below 2017 levels by 2030.

There will be a series of emissions budgets to act as stepping stones towards the long-term target.

The target provides a signal to the economy of the change needed. This will be matched against a series of emissions budgets. These will have impacts for all sectors of the economy, including waste.

The biogenic methane gross emissions are to reduce between 24 – 47 per cent below 2017 levels by 2050. An intermediate requirement is to reduce gross biogenic methane by 10 per cent below 2017 levels by 2030. Biogenic methane is defined as all emissions from the Waste and Agriculture sector as these are reported in the NZ GHG emissions inventory.

You may be aware that for the waste sector the methane emissions come from the breakdown of organic matter such as food waste and green waste.

The Bill has had its first reading and is now open for public submissions.

New Zealand’s future prosperity depends on us making a transition to a sustainable, low emissions circular economy.

This is a significant shift. It is as much an economic one as it is an environmental one. It comes with opportunity, and challenge.

Some of the challenges may seem insurmountable to start with. Some will require system-wide rethinking. 

However, we have a range of initiatives heading us in the right direction. And importantly these are and will be more successful because of input from your sector.

Thank you to WasteMINZ, Resource Management Law Association and your members for contributing to the work programme. Your input and work means these initiatives will be more successful.