Recycling in New Zealand: not so green, not so clean

Marty Hoffart

Well it’s official. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and a heap of other countries have left New Zealand in the dust. They are proving themselves cleaner, greener and 100 percent more pure than we might ever be, if we don’t get our act together soon. When it comes to recycling and reducing waste, we are in danger of becoming a global embarrassment hanging with the bottom of the pack. We may be talking the talk but we’re definitely not walking the walk.

Kiwis are good at doing stuff so surely we’re good at recycling? Everyone on my street seems to have a kerbside recycling bin and there are plenty of cars at the local recycling centre every Saturday, putting containers in the bins. We have it covered, right? Wrong. New Zealanders consume about 2 billion beverage containers each year and considerably less than half of those plastic bottles, glass bottles and aluminium cans are recycled.

Along with a host of other countries, even Estonia is kicking our butt. I had to check a world map to locate Estonia, but I can tell you they have 10 cent deposits on all beverage containers and much higher recycling rates than New Zealand. The northern European nation sits on a long list of countries offering refunds on bottles and cans and Estonians have been doing it since 2009. Their system, called Eesti Pandipakend, slaps an emblem on all beverage containers and ensures the discarded packaging has a monetary value. Estonians don’t leave their bottles and cans lying in gutters and parks or crammed into council rubbish bins as we do. Unlike us, they have given containers a reason not to be tossed away.

Despite years of repeated attempts by environmental groups, councils and plenty of concerned individuals aiming to bring back deposits on beverage containers here, our previous National government continued to ensure containers are worthless and become litter. In 2016, Local Government New Zealand endorsed the concept of a national-mandated beverage container deposit system with 90 percent of members in favour of it. However, millions of dollars of public money were given to vested interest lobby groups to install more public recycling bins on city streets. In case this seems like great idea, it’s not. Public recycling bins are internationally recognised as the most expensive and inefficient recycling system for beverage containers and they will never come close to competing with container deposit systems. Our national recycling rate continues to rank among the lowest in the developed world and it will continue to languish there without refundable deposits on containers.

Last year, Scotland announced the introduction of a return scheme for bottles and cans and the UK quickly followed suit and are now looking at it too. Their programmes will be based on the world-leading Scandinavian model, where they have been doing this for decades. In SwedenNorway and Finland, customers pay a small surcharge that is reimbursed when they return their containers. This means two things. Firstly, when people are out and about, they are less likely to dump beverage containers into council rubbish bins or toss them into a ditch. And if they do, some enterprising local will pick up the containers and cash them in for a refund.

Australian states are heading in the same direction. South Australia was the first state to introduce container deposit legislation in 1977, which means we’ve known about this programme in our backyard for four decades. We also know that the state has the lowest litter rate in Australia because of it. Several years ago, Northern Territory followed suit and in the past two years they’ve been joined by NSW, Queensland, Western Australia and ACT. What about us? Yeah? Nah!

We should have done this decades ago, too. We should have been first off the starting blocks on this, not last. It should be New Zealand leading the way towards zero waste for the planet, not Scotland or Wales, not China or Estonia. Why isn’t Middle Earth leading the pack?

An excellent report released by environmental consultants Envision NZ says that about 60 percent of all the beverage containers we consume in this country are going to landfill. They point out we fill two Boeing 747 jumbo jets worth and send them off to landfill every day. That’s about a billion containers a year. The report says a 10 cent deposit on beverage containers would create 2400 new jobs, double our recycling rates and add $45 million to the economy annually. In Germany, the landfill figure for beverage containers is less than 5 percent. That means their system for collecting back beverage containers is 95 percent efficient. Go Germany!

A similar, more recent report commissioned by Auckland Council was written by economist Preston Davies. It backs up the Envision report and says ratepayers would save up to $20 million a year in kerbside collection costs and an additional $8 million in landfill and litter clean up costs. The report estimates a container deposit system would lift recycling rates from about 40 percent  to more than 80 percent. And the cost to the consumer to implement this? About 1 cent per container. No money required by ratepayers, no public money from central government.

How would this be done? It’s called product stewardship. It means the cost of recycling something is built into the purchase price. It’s fair and it puts the cost of recycling where it should be – shared between the consumer and the producer, not the taxpayer or the rate payer. It happens all over the world, but not here.

The government previously tried to improve recycling rates by imposing a landfill levy, but it’s not working either. The Ministry for the Environment tells us the amount of waste sent to landfills in New Zealand has grown by 35 percent since 2009. Yikes! It’s not a bad idea but it’s ineffective largely because the rate is too low — among the lowest of its kind in the world.  Basically, it’s not a deterrent to dump. And guess who has reviewed the levy three times since its introduction and said the rate is just fine? Our previous National Government. 

Yet another recent report, commissioned by a consortium of councils and waste and recycling companies and published last year, showed substantial benefits to New Zealand if the levy was increased. The report says that by increasing the levy, we could create up to 9,000 new jobs and create a net benefit to the New Zealand economy of up to $500 million per annum. I may as well return to my brick wall to read my favorite sign – bang head here!

How much evidence do you need?

The sad thing is, we used to be the ‘go to’ country for waste reduction in the late 1990’s. People came here to see what we were doing and other countries looked to New Zealand’s zero waste policies for inspiration. The Scots, the Welsh, the Americans and the Canadians came here to learn about zero waste. Back then, ten of our councils announced they were aiming for zero waste by 2020 and some communities have since made amazing progress towards this goal.

So what happened? Well, a lot of people, politicians included, started to say this was an impossible goal and enthusiasm fizzled in many places. However, Kaikoura, Raglan and Opotiki stuck to their guns and are already about 70 percent there. Zero waste is a policy driver, a goal like any other. It is similar to zero accidents on a work site or a zero emissions if you are a manufacturer.

The goal is zero, which means we keep diverting material away from landfill and continue to look at innovative ways to get as close to zero as we can. We exert more pressure on producers and we introduce government regulations that have teeth. We adopt the best programmes that are working overseas and then we keep chipping away at the fiddly bits that are preventing us from zero. If we reach 85 percent, we certainly haven’t failed. It needs government support to regulate producer responsibility.

As we do nothing, others stride ahead. In 2016, France passed a law to banning all plastic cups, cutlery and plates, meaning disposable picnic ware sold in France must be made of biologically-sourced materials so it can be composted.

Eight years earlier, China banned single use plastic shopping bags, garnering great accolades and keeping tens of billions of bags out of landfills and the environment. Everyone else around the planet seems to know that a 10 cent charge on single use shopping bags leads to an 80 percent reduction in consumption. People don’t like to pay for bags, so they bring their own cloth shopping bags. When Dublin did the same thing a decade ago, they saw a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use. Within a year, nearly everyone brought reusable cloth bag. Meanwhile, we’re still disposing 1.6 billion of them every year. On average, these bags are discarded within 20 minutes after walking out of the shop.

Want some more bad news? We’re not doing so well with electronic waste, either. According to a United Nations-backed report, every year we landfill about 84,000 tonnes of electronics containing gold, silver, copper and other precious metals. These old televisions and other electronics would fill about 50 shipping containers a day. We stick them in the landfill mate! Have we followed other countries by regulating return programmes or made any announcements about recycling electronics? Nope, just chuck it in the rubbish bin mate, we’re clean and green already. New Zealand was “named and shamed” in the report published by the UN-funded International Telecommunications Union (ITU) last year. We were singled out as producing some of the highest volumes of e-waste in the world and the report says we are currently dumping more than 20 kilos of this stuff per person per year. Wow, bring on the tourists. We could start doing landfill tours rather than bussing our visitors to Hobbiton.

And then there’s tyre recycling. Or non-recycling, to be accurate. The Canadians recycle over 95% of theirs, while the Europeans banned them from landfills in the 1990’s and recycle almost all of them. What do we do? We stick the vast majority in landfills. Yes, we can throw a few on the silage stack but around 80 percent end up dumped in landfills. We wear out about 3.9 million car tyres and 1.2 million truck tyres every year. That’s about 22,000 car tyres worth of rubber every day, enough to fill 54 shipping containers. What other country does this?

It’s nice to see coffee cup recycling talked about and I’ve noticed a few people walking around with their reusable coffee cups. Good on them. Too bad 98 percent of us don’t bother. That means about 350 million coffee cups go to landfill every year in this country. Over in the UK, British parliamentarians rang in 2018 by calling for drastic action to tackle the mountain of unrecycled disposable coffee cups. Their ‘latte levy’ will place a 25 pence tax on every one of these cups to encourage people to reuse and recycle. Currently, they’re chugging through 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups in Britain alone, enough to circle the planet five and a half times. Unfortunately, you need to hit people in the back pocket to induce behaviour change.

In short, the whole planet seems to have figured it out while we scratch our heads and keep doing what we’ve always done. For the last decade, New Zealand’s central government has refused regulation and mandatory product stewardship schemes on scrap tyres, electronics, beverage containers and a host of other materials being dumped in landfills every day. The previous government has preferred the voluntary approach and it clearly hasn’t worked. International experience shows there are advantages to imposing product stewardship responsibilities on producers, to offset recycling costs and slash waste.

Product stewardship shifts the cost of a product’s environmental impact away from ratepayers and taxpayers. Instead, consumers and producers pay the cost for recycling and recovering materials at the end of their life. It makes sense that the people who make and use all this stuff also pay. In practice, this means we’ll all pay a small “environmental fee” when we buy a toaster, instead of paying a disposal fee when we’ve finished with it. It means old tyres, televisions and other electrical equipment can go to your local recycling centre for free because the recycling fee has already been paid. This is what needs to start happening here.

Central government has the power to make all this possible. From what I’ve been reading and hearing in the media lately, our new associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage is the first minister in a long time that sounds like she really gets it. The voluntary approach used for the last 40 years hasn’t delivered and it is time to roll out economic instruments. We are simply falling way behind everyone else and the clock is ticking. It’s time for the good ole carrot and stick. If we can actually do this, it is looking like 2018 could be a great year for Middle Earth. Maybe I’ll be able to put my crash helmet away and just admire that brick wall from afar.

About the author

Marty Hoffart

Marty Hoffart

Marty Hoffart straddles diverse sectors of the waste industry – commercial, community and education. The director of Tauranga based waste minimisation consultancy Waste Watchers Ltd is also an advocate for the not-for-profit sector in his role as Chair of the Zero Waste Network. He is co-founder and Chair of EERST Trust with its award-winning Paper4trees programme, as well as Chair of Keep Tauranga Beautiful and committee member of the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council.

A Tauranga resident of more than 20 years, he credits his Canadian education and upbringing with sparking his ongoing advocacy for zero waste, product stewardship schemes and producer responsibility.

His B.A. in Sociology and Psychology has proved useful in developing behaviour change programmes. He holds three industry-specific NZQA qualifications in zero waste and resource recovery and has worked as a waste minimisation consultant and educator at primary through to tertiary level.

His professional relationships span the length of the country and the breadth of the waste industry, from remote schools to major corporates, local government to education institutions.


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there should be a deposit on everything that can go into recycling,they have deposit here but theyve recently made it difficult by disallowing the returns to be done at stores and making people take the to a far away location ,mainly because poor people were able to use deposits as a small source of income by rounding up unwanted tossed in the trash containers .they dont like anyone being able to source a few untallied dollars they cant keep track of .so now ,only people with cars can take cans and bottles in ,and if they set up an account ,they can have it all put onto a card ...which will later ,im sure,be taxed if they find out the low income or homeless people are benefiting at all .everything is so intentionally ridiculous it disgusts me 

"intentionally ridiculous"... for sure Deanna!

Part of the plan to basically f8k everyone up in the head which seems to working well on the general population who don't seem to have much of a clue. Humanity is heading for a cliff, trouble is..its gonna be awful hard to not get sucked along with it.


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