Waste minimisation, writ short

The last New Zealand Waste Strategy had 30 targets. A 2009 discussion document proposed 14. The new strategy has … none

The new New Zealand Waste Strategy: Reducing Harm, Improving Efficiency is 12 (recycled, chlorine-free) pages long. Four of the pages are the appendices; one is a glossary; cover and contents fill two more. Until I came to the appendices, I thought I was reading the executive summary.

It tells a good news story, necessarily also quite short:

  • More access to recycling. “In 2006, 73 per cent of people had access to kerbside recycling, up from 20 per cent in 1996; and 97 per cent had access to either kerbside recycling or drop-off centres.”
  • Closing leaky dumps (probably). “In 1995, there were 327 operational disposal facilities. Today, 54 operational waste disposal facilities are registered with the Online Waste Levy System.”
  • Waste Minimisation Fund funding initiatives, for community recycling; e-Day and e-waste processing, including permanent year-round e-waste depots; Tyregone in Auckland, which recycles tyres into fuel and steel.
  • Accredited product stewardship, for plastic agrichemical containers, silage wrap and unwanted agrichemicals; refrigerants; used oil collection and disposal; the Glass Packaging Forum.

Submitters’ priorities in the 2009 discussion document were similar. This is good:

the most frequently mentioned were agricultural chemicals, waste oil, tyres, e-waste and packaging. ... Some commented on specific types of packaging (with many identifying glass, plastic bags and polystyrene in particular). Other products listed by submitters included mercury containing lamps, ‘liquid hazardous waste’ (ie, household chemicals, paint etc), treated timber, agricultural bale wrap, plastics (one specifically identified those plastics not marked with a recycling symbol), batteries, disposable nappies, refrigerant chemicals, and motor vehicles. … Tyres were discussed by a number of industry submissions … Refrigerant gases were discussed by a number of submissions.

The previous New Zealand Waste Strategy, issued in 2002, had 30 waste minimisation targets. The discussion document proposed 14. The new strategy has none.

The reason offered for this is a “change in context”: “The New Zealand Waste Strategy released in 2002 filled a gap in the legislative framework for managing and minimising waste by setting targets to move New Zealand towards ‘zero waste’. Since 2002, a range of activities and regulatory changes have resulted in progress towards these targets.”

Great news! We worked hard, and got results. We set goals, and achieved some.

Now, though, the gap in the legislative framework has new legislation to fill it.

Waste disposal facilities are in the ETS. The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 "comprehensive toolkit" has been passed, and implemented in part:

  • A levy of $10 per tonne on waste at the tip, half of which goes to councils, the other half to the Waste Minimisation Fund, for projects at the discretion of the Minister for the Environment.
  • Provision for accredited and mandatory product stewardship.
  • The power to make regulations, for collecting information and imposing dumping (or non-dumping) standards.
  • A Waste Advisory Board, to advise on these matters.

“But there’s still more to do,” the Strategy concludes.

This graph shows that the $10 levy, 18 months after introduction, is not reducing waste to landfill — exactly as predicted, because the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development said it would take a levy of around $30 a tonne to do that. The levy will be reviewed this year.

There are no mandatory product stewardship schemes (as opposed to the voluntary, accredited kind), requiring certain kinds of goods to be built with recycling in mind, and taken back at the end of their life. There are no regulations, other than for the levy.

Instead, the Strategy offers brief information, and a bit of exhortation, about its two new goals:

  1. Waste minimisation, by better resource use, at both ends of the consumption chain.
  2. Managing waste, by reducing its harmful effects.

“To support New Zealand’s moves towards improving efficiency, a change in the way we all buy and dispose of goods and services is needed.” [who knew?]

“When planning waste management and minimisation activities, local government, businesses and communities should assess the risk of harm to the environment and human health from waste to identify and take action on those wastes of greatest concern.”

“In the future, I encourage businesses to develop product stewardship schemes, particularly for products that may have a harmful effect on the environment when they become waste.”

In 2009, I calculated that households could reduce waste to landfill by 22 per cent tomorrow, saving bureaucratic waste as well — it’s not just about the government writing strategies. But what will the government do, to “support this move”?

The “taking responsibility” page of the Waste Strategy says that it will, um, issue the Waste Strategy.

It’s sort of like lying in the gutter, looking at the kerb: “While the ‘zero waste’ vision of the 2002 Strategy was ambitious, many of its targets were unable to be measured or achieved. The revised Strategy enables a more flexible approach to waste management and minimisation through two high level goals: reducing harm and improving efficiency.”

So: old Strategy unmeasurable, undeliverable, bad.

It’s logical then, of course, that all of the discussion paper targets, for putting measuring and monitoring systems in place, have been ditched. The waste section of MFE’s website (which may or may not be a euphemism for, well, the rubbish bin) still talks about the importance of good data, just without the ‘deliverables’, for holding anyone accountable. New Strategy: unmeasurable, too, but very … flexible.

We won't go backwards. We may or may not go forwards. And no self-respecting official or Minister would promise to collect lots of information, as per the discussion document, without some confidence that the story will be good.

For Nick Smith, who prefers blarney to the chilly regulating hand, it will be just dumb luck, if his Strategy has good outcomes. He’s decided it’s therefore unfair, to risk copping the blame for bad ones.