A tonne a year. That's how much rubbish, on average, a New Zealand household produces. There's a marked spike this time of year too: our rubbish output nearly doubles in the week after Christmas and stays nearly a third higher throughout the holiday period, according to recycle.co.nz.

There has been spirited debate in the letters to the editor page of late about the merits of wheelie bins vs rubbish bags, sparked by EnviroWaste's decision last year to phase out its collection of bags. Competitor Waste Management is considering doing the same.

The problem with wheelie bins is, if you've paid for the space already — whether you use it or not — you're perversely incentivised to put out more rubbish. And so we end up with lawn clippings and garden weeds as well as recyclables going out in the general waste, where it all ends up sealed in landfill.

Around three-quarters of the 2.5 million tonnes of waste buried in landfill each year could have been reused, recycled, or composted, says recycle.co.nz.

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It's easy to lapse into a mindset that sees rubbish as going somewhere "over there". This is particularly the case in Whanganui. Taking rubbish to a waste transfer station less than two kilometres from downtown is quick and easy. Our collective waste's journey to the landfill site at Bonny Glen is shielded from our view.

It's a very different experience in Wellington, for example, where it's a slog out to "the tip" in the Happy Valley. That's a visceral experience, where you smell the rubbish before you see it.

Wellington City Council is working hard to divert rubbish from landfill. Before getting to the drop-off zone, you must pass a large recycling station, plus a shop that accepts household items in saleable condition.

Theoretically, paying for the actual amount of rubbish disposed of — ie a rubbish bag, as needed — creates an economic incentive to minimise your rubbish.

But in reality, it's still cheap to have rubbish collected at a couple of dollars per bag: very cheap relative to other countries. For the majority of households, that cost is not a barrier and is likely barely calculated.

Families living in poverty have more pressing challenges to deal with. In a hierarchy of needs, where food is coming from far outweighs where the rubbish goes.

There are various examples around of people who have gone the whole hog. Waveney Warth and Matthew Luxon managed to send nothing to landfill for a year. That was a big commitment and required significant changes. But tellingly, they told New Zealand Geographic's Dave Hansford that eliminating the first 80 per cent of rubbish was "surprisingly easy".

Few people will follow their zero rubbish example, but change could happen on a huge scale if everyone just made the easy changes. What can you do this year to produce less rubbish? (Tip: there are lots of ideas at this site: bit.ly/LLULM.)

To really get to grips with rubbish means thinking about what we buy and how we buy it. Delving deeper, we need to consider the bigger question of why we buy what we do. We could investigate for ourselves whether buying stuff really does bring about happiness; don't just swallow the story advertising tells us.

Meanwhile, it will be an unfortunate backwards step if rubbish bags end up not being collected locally.

Waste Management could earn valuable PR points for continuing to grab the bags. That would be good for its business as well as our environment.

Rachel Rose believes that, things being as they are, we need to focus on regeneration rather than conservation. More information and sources can be found at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer