For a country that prides itself on being "clean and green", New Zealand's track record on waste is pretty rotten. We rank poorly in the OECD when it comes to both progressive waste policies and the environmental impact of our waste.
According to Paul Evans, CEO of WasteMINZ, the largest representative body of New Zealand's waste and resource recovery sectors, the challenges hindering our waste industry performance are threefold.
The first - excessive levels of edible food entering the waste-stream. It's an increasingly topical issue, particularly as food security has become ever more shaky worldwide and as increasing numbers of underprivileged Kiwi kids are starting their school day on empty tummies.
Recent studies by WasteMINZ found that 80 kilos of perfectly good food is thrown out by the average Kiwi household each year, costing the family $563. That's $872 million of otherwise edible food nationally going into the bin. Adding the InSinkErator scraps, this figure rises to close to a billion dollars.
From an environmental standpoint the embedded energy usde to produce wasted food is huge. More than 130,000 trees worth of CO2, or 118,000 annual cars on the roads, says Evans.
Further, not all New Zealand landfills are created equal. While Auckland has many A-grade landfills sites with world-class practices that capture methane and generate electricity, our planning laws and lack of stringent waste levies at most disposal facilities have allowed other environmentally hazardous fills (often termed clean or managed fills) to proliferate. Industry and households currently have free reign over how much and how they dispose of waste - and practically for free. Research into rural waste recently revealed that nearly 24 tonnes of waste is produced annually per farm, including non-natural, organic and domestic waste. In 2012/2013 this roughly equated to the amount of waste sent to landfill by Christchurch city. Nearly all of this is buried or burnt, polluting the land and permeating into water tables.
"Tonnes of building demolition and construction materials, agricultural and toxic e-waste just get thrown into a hole in a ground, or get burnt. It's not only a significant risk to human health and environment but totally at odds with New Zealand's clean and green image".
Further tainting our waste record is the lack of product stewardship and extended producer responsibility, says Evans. He says more thought is needed further up the waste hierarchy, around the way products are designed and manufactured - particularly in the agrochemical and packaging industries.
"From the product design phase, how and what products are made of, to product take-back laws, New Zealand's Waste Minimisation Act is far too relaxed. More work is needed to ensure brands and manufacturers are responsible for these products at the end of life and funding for the disposal and/or recycling of these products."
But it's not all bad news. Exemplary work is being undertaken in a raft of industries to pave the way towards a less wasteful and polluting future. Fuji Xerox funds an accredited product stewardship process and zero landfill initiative that takes back all products to ensure they are reused, recovered or recycled appropriately. Ecostore source non fossil-fuel derived plastic for its product lines. And Christchurch City Council now implements a three bin waste system so households can sustainably separate and dispose of all weekly food waste. Auckland Council is in the final stages of signing off its own version which will also likely determine direction around how other councils go, says Evans.
And WasteMINZ is tackling behavioural change with its three-year "Love Food Hate Waste" campaign, a nationwide partnership with councils that aims to educate and arm Kiwis with the skills and knowledge to reduce waste.
But, says Evans, the bulk of NZ's waste initiatives are still volunteer-based. "We need some leadership from the government. The government needs to send some strong messages about waste, product design and end-of-life and how this is funded. We have developed pathways through legislation but there is really no reason for manufacturers to engage with it." While the voluntary approach is always the first preferred option, Evans says where there are clear market failures sensible support and regulation from the government is necessary. "There's nothing that makes industry move more quickly than the "threat" of additional regulation - particularly when you want to create significant change".