Aucklanders sent more than 1.6 million tonnes of waste to landfill in 2016. That's more than a tonne each. And it's growing. Is the city's dream of zero waste by 2040 remotely credible?
Clearly not if we keep doing what we're doing. The city's current waste minimisation plan isn't working and its new plan, still with a zero waste target, was recently out for comment.
To be fair, it's not easy for the Auckland Council. It has less control over what happens to waste than other regions. For example, two private landfill companies compete for volume and are driving down the disposal price. Cheap disposal is a disincentive to separating waste streams and recovering resources.
To make matters worse, by far the majority of waste that ends up in the landfill is waste the council doesn't collect. Its kerbside bin collection is small compared with privately collected commercial waste. Recent increases in construction waste have blown the council's waste reduction targets.
So what are some levers the council and Government can use to reverse the upward trend?
Firstly, reducing waste and recovering resources makes economic sense. When we throw a resource away in a landfill or in the ocean or an incinerator, we are destroying wealth. When waste is reused we're creating wealth.
Some waste streams are more damaging to the environment than others. For example, organic waste, which makes up about half an average city's waste stream and includes food and garden waste, creates the greenhouse gas methane when it's landfilled. Modern landfills capture much of the gas for electricity but the organic resource is wasted. And plastic waste, which disastrously is growing significantly in Auckland, is a blight on our coast and threatens creatures living there.
If we want to change outcomes we must change behaviour. Councils and the Government can do a lot to encourage this. Here are a couple of principles that drive waste reduction.
First, setting high disposal prices encourages more waste separation, enabling more resource recovery and less waste sent to landfills. Everyone can recycle.
The national waste levy, set at a measly $10 a tonne eight years ago, has made no impact. In Britain the levy is £85. A meaningful increase in the national levy and the council rolling out a transparent, whole-of-council waste collection fee would be helpful price indicators.
Second, make waste separation easy for people. The council is introducing a green bin collection service for food waste, which causes environmental damage. What hasn't been resolved is what the council is going to do with it? Surprisingly, this is not addressed in its draft waste plan.
Let's hope ideas of high-cost waste-to-energy plants have been shelved. Auckland has plenty of renewable energy, and what it needs is compost to help commercial growers and market gardeners feed the rapidly growing city.
The Ministry for the Environment says about 190m tonnes of topsoil is lost in the sea every year, a problem compounded by market gardens being swallowed up for housing. Over time, organic waste can be converted into millions of tonnes of compost to enrich market gardens.
Two urgent environmental issues - reducing the city's waste and preserving food-producing soils - are coalescing in a council commitment to support a municipal composting plant, a commitment long talked about. That's what a circular economy would look like.
Food waste can be simply bolted on to one of the consented composting sites already operating. It's not rocket science.
Zero waste by 2040? Maybe. The council will have to make a few bold decisions. More delay will make the target impossible.
• Sir Rob Fenwick was co-founder of composting business Living Earth and inaugural chair of the national Waste Advisory Board.