So much rubbish: a story in search of some facts

Our politicians seem incapable of giving us straight facts on the serious matter of waste reduction. If only MPs would talk more rubbish...

The statistics defy comprehension. All of them are shameful; some should make you weep.

New Zealand in 2006 made 8.7 million tonnes of rubbish. That’s an average two tonnes per person of waste from all sources. The average Westerner produces 500 kg of “municipal waste” a year (which seems about right, as a proxy for household waste - a 10 kg bag each week). In a month, New Zealand’s rubbish would cover a rugby field and pile it 30 stories high.

“Wherever people have been -- and some places where they have not -- they have left waste behind,” the Economist reported last month. There’s so much junk in orbit now, it threatens space stations and satellites. A continent-sized vortex of plastic swims in the Pacific from California to Japan, trapped by prevailing currents: 100 million tonnes of plastic, twice the size of America. Japanese mountaineer Ken Noguchi claims to have collected nine tonnes of rubbish from Mount Everest in five clean-up expeditions.

Who knew? Nobody tells us this.

The three disposal methods -- burying, burning, and recycling -- are all imperfect. Modern household rubbish is full of toxic chemicals, so burying and burning have big pollution risks. Burning releases carcinogens and contributes to acid rain. In landfills, rotting organic waste gives off methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Modern landfill design is so dry and airtight -- trying to contain the pollution problems -- that rubbish can’t break down; some, like plastic, would in any event take centuries. Recycling prices have tumbled; the goods are being stockpiled. There’s no audit of what happens to them. A lot gets shipped to China. One suspects that, ironically, the same people likely to criticise Chinese labour and environmental standards in the context of free trade are probably keen recyclers.

In short, the rubbish that so conveniently disappears from your property doesn’t in fact go away.

There’s a fourth solution: make less rubbish, and that is the goal of the Waste Minimisation Act. The government’s issued a paper, prompting another swingeing press statement from the Greens by Russel Norman.

The paper depressed me, too, but for different reasons: it reminded me why government should be encouraged to do the least possible.

The paper sets a list of targets. The first target is, by 2015, to reduce the quantity of waste sent to landfills by 20% from a 2010 baseline. Other mid-range (2012-2015) dates are proposed for setting up different kinds of systems to measure waste and monitor progress. There’s a section about funding criteria, and another about what kinds of waste might require mandatory product stewardship (extended producer responsibility for the end of life of products). There are some plans for deciding on the plan: several targets about monitoring developments and assessing the need for government intervention. There are lots of assurances that there’ll be lots of consultation before anything substantive happens. Behind it lies an assumption that individual and voluntary initiatives are preferable. The overall impression is one of good intentions, but glacial progress.

Norman might not have been around government long enough: it really does take officials that long to do stuff. They are always going to under-promise to make sure they can deliver and they are always going to do it bureaucratically. This is not because officials are bloody-minded or stupid (or not all of them, anyway). Governance “best practice” requires it.

Yet again the Greens find themselves focused on what a bad job the government is doing, and how far it falls short of what they had previously agreed with Labour. Norman wants the public to write submissions. It’s a difficult paper to respond to sensibly, and the Greens are drafting a template. That kind of pro forma submission, I’d guess, won’t carry a lot of weight. The time might be better spent by people thinking about how to change their own behaviour.

Assuming “municipal waste” is a reasonable proxy for household waste, with the remainder of the two tonnes being things like tyres, used motor oil, wrecked cars, computers, construction and demolition debris, industrial waste and so on, that would mean households are directly responsible for about a quarter of total waste.

I was facetious before, about the government. There’s lots government should do, but in deciding what, the very significant limitations of the method need to be borne in mind. If quick wins are what the Greens are after, we could minimise household waste, reduce total waste to landfill by 22% tomorrow, and achieve the 2015 target with no bureaucracy required. (Consumers could probably also help with the other 1.5 tonnes; presumably much of it is domestic consumption-driven, but that is a harder sell.)

Nobody tells us this.

Take the average rubbish bag. Compostable food and garden waste comprise 45% of it. Another 20% is recyclable (source for both statistics: Now, it may well be that each home’s compost heap emits its own tiny methane cloud, or maybe the same doesn’t apply when the food gets eaten by worms. Whatever: the net environmental effect is positive. The compost will feed a garden, and the garden can feed you - no packaging, no transport, no chemicals if done right (organically), and a thriving little ecological community. In other words, if we changed nothing about our consumption habits, but started to consider domestic disposal - rigorously recycling and composting - we could reduce household waste by 65%.

Change consumption habits and the difference would be dramatic. For “change consumption habits”, read “think about rubbish at the point of purchase”: you can buy the same stuff, just consider its lifespan and packaging. Christchurch couple Matthew and Waveney recently completed a one-year rubbish-free challenge. The website is food for thought. If you budget money, power, petrol, water, why not do the same for rubbish? Let’s say: one 5 kg bag per person per month, 60 kg per year, which is 12% of the average Western 500 kg. That's an 88% reduction, and 88% of one-quarter is 22%. It scarcely seems credible, but it is. Do-able? Take it from me, you’ll hardly notice.

We can do this with no drop in standard of living. Quite the reverse. Cleanliness is one characteristic of a developed society. “Developed society” is a misnomer if all we do is substitute one form of squalor for another.