Rob Fenwick: Recycling food is the new frontier for every household

Organic waste accounts for about 50% of Auckland's landfill waste. Photo / NZ Herald
Organic waste accounts for about 50% of Auckland's landfill waste. Photo / NZ Herald

There is a "new frontier" in household waste recycling happening across the world, and it concerns collecting and composting organic waste.

There was plenty of coverage last week of shenanigans at the Auckland Council, but as usual we are overly focused on the ephemera as opposed to the things that really make a difference to our lives and the environment in which we live.

Putting aside all other issues, there is one thing that is absolutely true: the most frequent point of contact the council has with every one of Auckland's 500,000 or so households is when it collects our rubbish every week.

At that moment of connectedness, we expect the council to provide a reliable, reasonably priced service that disposes of our waste (currently about a million tonnes a year in Auckland) and, provided the council makes it convenient, we'll do the right thing by separating stuff that could be recycled or re-used.

Currently Aucklanders have a "free" collection service (i.e. it's covered by the rates bill) for landfill waste in the red-top bin. For about the past 10 years we've had recyclables collected which has led to a creditable reduction in Auckland's total landfill waste, but other cities do much better. There is a "new frontier" in household waste recycling happening across the world, and it concerns collecting and composting food waste and green waste.

It makes sense because this waste-stream represents about half of the total stuff we throw away; it's waste that's harmful to the environment when it's landfilled, and when it's composted it has real economic value for farmers, market gardeners and commercial growers by improving soil productivity and reducing their reliance on chemical fertilisers.

Christchurch is just one city that has left Auckland in the dust in this regard. For several years, Christchurch City Council has been collecting from residents' kerbsides their separated organic waste - food scraps and garden waste - in a green bin, totalling about 60,000 tonnes of material a year. The compost has been used by Fonterra dairy farmers, Waipara vintners and landscapers around Canterbury.

Other cities around the world have been doing this for ages. Across Europe and Australia, it's commonplace. New York City is trialling a system of collecting food waste at the kerbside. The Nordic countries are predictably miles ahead in this area, while the Swiss have turned their food and green waste to "Kompost" for around two decades already.

For Auckland, organic waste makes up about 50 per cent of our landfill waste, so it's the obvious target for the city if it is going to reduce landfill volumes. It's the stuff that belches methane into the atmosphere when it rots, so last year's decision by the council to collect organic waste separately from every urban household was timely.

The council's decision comes as central government is becoming increasingly active about waste reduction. A wasteful, throw-away society makes bad economic sense and sends negative messages about our environmental performance.

One example is the Government's successful television take-back scheme which has resulted in thousands of analogue televisions being gathered and their parts recycled in preparation for the national roll-out of digital broadcasting.

The Government's waste strategy, designed to help councils draft meaningful waste minimisation plans, prioritises waste streams which are harmful to the environment including agricultural chemicals, tyres and organic waste.

Before amalgamation, Auckland's five councils all had different rules about waste reduction and handling. Now the Super City is able to implement an integrated waste minimisation plan for all waste collection.

At its heart Auckland's new plan contains a fairer concept of user-pays - the more you throw away, the more you'll pay.

Not only is it a way of focusing people on sending less reusable waste to landfills, it also aims to make the scheme fiscally neutral. (Using pricing indicators to change behaviour, like a carbon charge or a congestion levy, makes more sense than taxing things likes savings!)

Auckland's new rubbish collecting scheme will begin in July 2015. Research shows that most city residents want to do the right thing and create less waste. But it needs to be convenient.

Increasingly, people also realise that if they're reducing waste, they're also reducing cost. Not a bad incentive.

• Rob Fenwick is chairman of the Government's Waste Advisory Board and co-founder Living Earth.

- NZ Herald

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