The Christmas break is just around the corner, and after the year we've endured, most of us are more badly in need of it than ever.
As we kick back and enjoy precious time with friends and family over the coming weeks, let's spare a thought for those who won't yet be getting a break, and who'll be hard at work behind the scenes to allow it all to happen.
For the people who collect and recycle our waste, the festive season is as busy as it gets, certainly when it comes to household waste.
Thousands of men and women will be working overtime to deal with the mountains of extra food scraps, empty bottles, packaging and so on that Kiwis will generate. It's their hard work that ensures Christmas and New Year leftovers aren't left to rot in the summer heat, and holiday hotspots from Whatuwhiwhi to Whangamata – where the population suddenly swells – don't get swamped in waste.
Waste collection and recycling is one of those industries that modern society can't function without, but one that, for a whole lot of reasons, people prefer not to think much about.
This needs to change. In an increasingly resource-constrained world, we all have to be far more aware of the volume of waste we generate through our choices and behaviours as consumers, and of what we each can do to bring that volume down.
Now is the perfect time for the public to get engaged. The Government has embarked on a historic reset of the waste industry, with a view to radically reducing waste generation, and increasing the volumes we recycle, reuse, and recover. All of this is welcome, but if it's going to succeed, it needs be shaped by the way individuals behave, and therefore needs a strong degree of public input and buy-in.
In the past week, the Government has wrapped up public consultation on the high-level thinking behind its long-term strategy for waste. Over the coming year, it will be looking for feedback as it nails down specifics.
There are five key areas where waste collection and recycling companies are calling for strong and clear leadership from the Government:
1. Deposit scheme
The Government plans to introduce a deposit scheme for drink cans and bottles, to incentivise reuse and recycling. That's a good start, but it needs to go a lot further. We'd like to see a small, redeemable deposit placed on a much-wider range of products – i.e. all glass jars and bottles, and all plastic packaging, sold in supermarkets. This would encourage consumers and producers to take greater responsibility for waste, and increase the range of materials that could be recycled and recovered in an economically viable way.
2. Clear rules for recycling
While we need to see a change towards materials and packaging that can be reused, there will always be products that have to be recycled. The rules for what can and cannot go into recycling bins are confusing and complex, and change from one part of the country to the next. The vast majority of consumers out there want to do the right thing, but so often don't know how. We need clear and consistent rules across the country, supported by a simple, consumer-centric labelling system for recycling, with a nationwide communications programme to educate the public on how to use it.
3. Targeted investment
Big increases are under way in the Government's waste disposal levy and, as a result, hundreds of millions of dollars more will be available each year for waste minimisation initiatives. This new source of capital represents an exciting opportunity, but it has to be managed really carefully – through strong investment guidelines and criteria – to make sure levy funds go where they will generate maximum benefit. Early priorities for investment include cleaning up historical landfills, public education, and data systems; further ahead, money needs to go towards world-class, low-carbon recycling and recovery infrastructure.
4. Dealing with unmanaged landfills
Most of the harmful emissions from solid waste in New Zealand come from smaller, unmanaged landfills around the country – landfills without gas capture capability, and farm fills. A lot more work needs to be done to monitor and restrict what goes into these facilities. Many of them will need upgrading, and many will simply need to be closed down.
5. Clear objectives
Possibly most importantly, all of this needs to be guided by a really clear understanding on the part of the Government of what it's trying to achieve. At the moment, the Government's waste policy is pursuing multiple objectives (reducing emissions, increasing recycling and recovery rates, minimising waste generation), without prioritising between them.
The problem is that, when all steps in the chain are considered, the objectives are often in conflict. For instance, new regional facilities may be proposed that increase the amount we can recycle or recover, but also lead to increased CO2 emissions as a result of extra transport of waste.
Our firm view is that the over-arching objective must be to address climate change. First and foremost, government decisions on waste must be guided by how well they contribute to reducing carbon and methane emissions.
• Simon Moutter is chairman of Smart Environmental and a spokesman for the Waste Management Industry Forum, a group of waste collection and recycling companies that, taken together, manage about 85 per cent of the waste and recycling flow in New Zealand.