Over the next few weeks Auckland Council will debate and ultimately adopt a new waste management and minimisation plan which, like so many things the huge new enterprise undertakes, will have a profound impact on the country's overall performance, in this case achieving its waste reduction targets.
The size of the challenge shouldn't be under estimated. Each of the seven former councils in Auckland had quite different approaches and pricing systems. Some had wheelie bins and some had bags; some absorbed the cost in the rates and some charged on a polluter pays basis, and each followed a different waste minimisation plan. Overall, ratepayers spend $85 million a year on waste services which reduces to a net $65 million after income from council operations.
There are also a variety of waste processing options at work in Auckland with an unusually high degree of private sector involvement. The two largest landfills are privately owned, a third smaller one is part owned by council and a private waste company. The region's transfer stations are largely privately owned. There are recycling facilities like Visy which receive a bundled recycling stream; there are other industries that require sorted recyclables and there are operators, like Living Earth converting garden waste to compost, who are supplied by privately owned garden bag collection companies.
Council will need to deliver a new plan which not only attempts to extract the best elements of what's been inherited, but it must also lift the city's game in response to new legislation and society's growing demand to generate less waste; reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote better use of resources.
New Zealand is attempting to catch up with other western economies where tough regulations and steep waste levies combine to force waste volumes down. This in turn creates new industries that produce value from diverted resources such as compost and energy from organic waste streams and a huge variety of innovative businesses making things from recycled paper, metal, plastic and glass.
The Waste Minimisation Act started New Zealand on this journey in 2009 but with a rather timid levy of $10 a tonne on waste to landfill. The main feature of the legislation is how it makes local government accountable for achieving new waste reduction targets, hence the pressure on Auckland Council to come up with new solutions.
Two issues will weigh on councillors. The first is the need for all Aucklanders to start paying directly for the waste they create so the council can tell them precisely what that cost is to each of us. Most of the seven councils had a universal charge for waste services in the rates bill. This meant those of us who faithfully recycle and reduce waste subsidised those who don't.
Under a polluter pays scheme residents will pay directly for the waste they produce and are therefore rewarded if they produce less. It encourages the right behaviour and it's long overdue in Auckland.
Initially council may have to use relatively blunt instruments such as offering different sized wheelie bins at different collection prices to give residents the opportunity to commit to putting out less waste. Before long waste collection contractors may electronically weigh your bin and generate an invoice to your address based on how much waste you produce every week.
The second issue is the realisation that the organic fraction of the waste stream garden waste and food waste is about half of all the waste we dump and it's also the stuff that belches greenhouse gas methane when it rots inside the dump. We need to get it out of the landfill.
For 20 years Auckland has been well served by garden bag collection businesses that collect garden waste. More than 80,000 Aucklanders currently use these services. This leaves food waste - the kitchen scraps - which represents about 25 per cent of Auckland's waste stream and which council must now consider how best to collect and process.
Last month the waste and recycling industry's annual conference heard how residents of most Australian cities separate food waste from their rubbish for processing by the council. The added cost is partly offset by a combination of reduced landfill disposal fees (where more aggressive levies apply), the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the value of the finished product whether it's energy or compost.
In Christchurch which now provides all residents with a green bin for organic waste, thousands of tonnes of compost is sold to dairy farmers and vineyards throughout Canterbury curbing their dependence on chemical fertilisers and which in turn reduces nitrate loadings in soils and groundwater.
As New Zealand debates the brand value of its green growth economy we should reflect on the fact that we still rank as one of the world's most wasteful countries and Auckland produces a third of the country's waste. The tools, both regulatory and processing, are now available to make a difference. Councillors must decide how best to use them.
* Rob Fenwick is chairman of the Ministerial Waste Advisory Board and a director of Living Earth.