New Zealand's litter scourge has been revealed in a sprawling, bleak stocktake.

The group behind a Government-funded nationwide audit, released this morning, said the alarming results showed litter remained a massive issue in all parts of our country.

In 2016, more than 190,000 tonnes of litter was collected from streets by Keep New Zealand Beautiful (KNZB) volunteers – the equivalent of 120 rugby fields piled half a metre high with rubbish.

That motivated the group to carry out an in-depth national audit to set a baseline and observe whether the problem was getting worse.

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The largest litter volumes, when measured per each 1000 sq m, proved to be at highway sides. Photo / NZME
The largest litter volumes, when measured per each 1000 sq m, proved to be at highway sides. Photo / NZME

If litter, collected from a 1000m2 area, was extrapolated across the country, figures would total 3,686,340,000 individual fragments, 258,043,800 litres worth of takeaway containers, 364,965,000 litres of disposable nappies, and 2142 cigarette butts for each person in the country, according to KNZB.

KNZB chief executive Heather Sanderson said, at railway sites around New Zealand, nearly 12 litres of litres of litter was being found every 1000 square metres.

"Extrapolated, that means 265,324,848 litres of illegal dumping – enough to fill 2123 rail carriages, which if you stack them on top of each other, would be as high as 151 Sky Towers."

'A huge issue'

"Litter remains a huge issue in New Zealand, and is occurring in all parts of the country," she said.

During the audit, litter was physically inspected and counted in a range of specific, fixed sites.

"We had two researchers who visited every site to ensure consistency, and for five months from February this year they travelled the country completing this project," Sanderson said.

They would arrive at a site, peg out the coordinates and sweep the site three times, bagging and tagging the litter.

After the physical inspection, which included a visual grading of each site, they would lay out all the litter collected from a site, group it into the pre-determined litter categories and count, weigh and calculate volume.

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This shows the number of collected litter items across each of the different site types. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful
This shows the number of collected litter items across each of the different site types. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful

The sites were a mix of urban and rural, and were a mix of public recreational spaces, car parks, industrial, residential and retail areas, and a mix of highways and railways.

Each local authority was visited and a minimum of five sites were audited in each local council area.

Industrial sites were found to be the most littered sites recorded nationally, ahead of retail sites.

Enough cigarette butts were collected to account for 2,142 for every person in the country. Photo / NZME
Enough cigarette butts were collected to account for 2,142 for every person in the country. Photo / NZME

Parks and residential sites were the least polluted spots – but litter was still common, with an average 80g and 370g per 1000 sq m being found respectively at each.

The largest litter volumes, when measured per each 1000 sq m, proved to be at highway roadsides – and when measured instead by weight per 1000 sq m, railway sites were the worst spots.

The most collected item per 1000 sq m were cigarette butts – but dumped paper and cardboard made up the largest volume, ahead of miscellaneous items like disposable nappies and cloth materials.

This graph shows the main material types of litter, by volume and items collected. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful
This graph shows the main material types of litter, by volume and items collected. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful

Glass bottles and other glass objects took up the most weight, but was found in fewer numbers, ahead of plastic.

While there were relatively little cases of illegal dumping, what was found was still enough to account for the third largest type of litter by volume.

The overall average number of items per 1000 sq m across the 413 sites surveyed in the audit was 118, while the average litter weight was 620g, and the average estimated volume was about 7.35 litres.

Doing the right thing

Sanderson said the baseline data would be used to inform policies at local and national levels.

Dumped rubbish made up one of the biggest proportion of rubbish types. Photo / NZME
Dumped rubbish made up one of the biggest proportion of rubbish types. Photo / NZME

"However, more research is required to actually ascertain how much litter is accumulating over a specified timeframe and how gauge how clean and green New Zealand actually is," she said.

This graph shows the type of litter items collected per every 1000 sq m. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful
This graph shows the type of litter items collected per every 1000 sq m. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful

"Our focus is on education and behaviour change. Each person needs to take responsibility for keeping New Zealand beautiful and to be mindful of disposing waste."

The group would meanwhile be working with government officials and industry leaders.

In a message in the audit, Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage noted survey findings showing that 99 per cent of Kiwis thought it was crucial for New Zealand to maintain its clean, green image – and 93 per cent thought it was important not to litter.

"It is heartening to learn that 84 per cent of waste that could become litter is dealt with appropriately, by being put in the bin," Sage said.

"That still leaves 16 per cent that isn't. In tonnage terms, this is significant."

And it still represented an unacceptable amount of litter pollution that ended up in our countryside, rivers, streams and oceans.

"We can and must do much better."

This graph shows the number of items and volume of litter collected across the different sites. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful
This graph shows the number of items and volume of litter collected across the different sites. Source / Keep NZ Beautiful

Sage said central and local government needed to make it easier - but individual actions around what products to use and consume, and what happened to our stuff at the end of its life, also made a big difference.

Last month, Sage announced a proposal to make manufacturers and retailers more responsible for minimising waste on products including tyres, iPhones, and everyday meal packaging.