Waste starts with us and ends with us!

When we buy a product we also buy any waste associated with the product. We are all responsible for waste, it starts with us and ends with us.

The Importance of Recycling in New Zealand video shown below provides a simple and effective overview of why we need to act, and what we can do to help.

Product choice has increased in all aspects of our lives. Advertising tells us that buying things makes us happy. Our purchases have increased the flow of plastic and cardboard packaging. To pay for these products we now work more and have less time available. For convenience and to save time, more single-use, throw-away packaging is now in use.

Not all waste is recycled. A lot is still sent to landfills or is straying into our environment. Stray plastics are a huge problem, when thrown away they never go away. When you buy products, you also buy the packaging. You are responsible for the amount of packaging going into our waste streams.

Clean paper and cardboard waste is easy to recycle and it means fewer trees are felled. Glass, aluminium and steel containers are the easiest to recycle, they return as they started with no new minerals being mined.

Not all plastics are recycled. Some types (1,2 and 4) are easier to recycle than others. Some get contaminated with food waste and cost more to be recycled (take-away food and drink containers). Some plastic types (3,5,6 and 7) are simply not worth recycling. There is low value in the recovered plastics because they are harder to recycle and/or manufacturers struggle to make any profit from them.

A cradle-to-grave approach to product and packaging design is not sustainable. In leading countries, a cradle-to-cradle design approach is used. This approach involves making products, selling products, using products and returning packaging and any redundant products back to the manufacturer.

NZ is way behind the rest of the western world in waste management. It costs 15 times more to send waste to landfills in the UK compared to NZ. Higher landfill levies in NZ would reduce waste going to landfills. Do not assume someone else will do the right thing. It is likely that only 50% of what you think is being recycled is actually recycled.

Take ownership of your waste footprint. Choose products without packaging or small amounts of recyclable packaging. Say no to plastic bags. If you cannot find a local recycling bin do not place packaging in a rubbish bin. Take it home and use the systems set up by your local council.

The waste problem in NZ

Projections show that, with current population trends and without increased intervention, the annual amount of waste disposed to landfills will almost double within 10 years in Auckland alone. This is a staggering increase from 1.5 million tonnes of waste to 3 million tonnes of waste that Aucklanders currently throw away. As a result, Auckland Council have recently adopted a zero-waste policy: to progressively achieve zero-waste status by 2040. Many other councils are following suit. Zero-Waste is therefore a key goal for all New Zealanders.

A faster pace of living has led to us demanding convenience in all aspects of our lives. From the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the technology products we continually update, just about everything we consume comes to us unsustainably packaged in some way, shape, or form. Plastic, glass, paper, and aluminium packaging has met our need for convenience, but has come at a great cost to the environment, and as a result, to future generations.

Waste management is indeed a global problem, but some countries are better than others at managing the consequences of waste production. Europe is leading the way in avoiding waste to landfills and we could learn a great deal from their initiatives here in NZ. We have significant problems in NZ where in 2006, we sent 3.156 million tonnes of waste to landfills according to the five-yearly report by the Ministry for the Environment (MFE, 2007). However, according to a more recent report by the Ministry, we have improved due to better recycling methods, leading to a decrease in rubbish sent to land-fills, but we could be doing a lot better when we compare ourselves to similar countries.

We need to adopt a more serious approach to dealing with our waste. Economies of scale is as always a challenge for NZ as we have a very small population:land ratio and therefore have to tailor our waste management solutions.

This is a significant contributor to waste with around 352 thousand tonnes going to landfills each year. According to the Packaging Council of NZ, New Zealanders consume about 735 thousand tonnes of packaging every year and recycle only about 58% of it. With 97% of New Zealanders having access to facilities to recycle paper, glass, cans and plastics 1 and 2 (and in some places 1 - 7) we can, and must, do a lot better. Whilst the Packaging Council's members are working on ways to reduce and recycle packaging waste, we must all play our part to make a difference.

Plastic waste is a big problem as much of it does not breakdown. About 8% of New Zealand's waste stream by weight is attributable to plastic (MfE, 2009). Because plastics are lighter than many materials, by volume it is estimated they may use up to 20% of landfill space. Approximately 252,000 tonnes of plastic waste is disposed of to NZ landfills each year (based on 8% of 3.156 million tonnes of waste to landfill). Much of this is packaging from imported goods.

This kind of demand on the earth’s resources simply cannot continue if we want future generations to thrive. The reality is that we only have one planet and we have to operate within its means.

Ministry for the Environment (2011) figures showing a significant decrease from 2006 to 2010 due to improved recycling methods and data in NZ. Graph adapted from their "Solid Waste Disposal, 2010" report.

Global Issue with Local Problems

It is well documented and widely accepted that people are causing (possibly irreversible) changes to the conditions of our planet and the natural environment. The increased use of non-renewable resources, including oil, gas and minerals, as well as the continually growing global population, rising levels of affluence and standards of living, are all adding to increased consumption patterns and the degrading of our environment.

“We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal”
The latest Living Planet Report by the WWF published in 2012, reports that globally, we are all significantly overshooting the planet’s resources by nearly half a planet. That is, at our present rates of production and consumption, we are using the equivalent of 1.5 earths to meet our annual demands. If business as usual continues, trends show that the equivalent of two planets will be needed by 2030. The problem is that we do not have more than one planet at our disposal. We absolutely have to begin living within our means.

To make matters worse, developed, or high-income, countries have an ecological footprint five times that of developing (low-income) countries. The earth can viably reproduce renewable resources (including cropland, grazing land, forests and fisheries) for the current population if humans keep their demands at 1.8 global hectares (gha) per person. New Zealand’s current footprint as stated in the Living Planet Report is equal to 4.31 gha per person (Europe’s is 4.72); Australia’s is a staggering 6.68; and North America’s (The US and Canada’s) footprint is 7.12. Compare that with the average footprint of African countries at 1.45 gha per person, and we see that the developed nations are in massive overshoot of what the planet can regenerate.

If everyone in the world lived like New Zealanders, we would require two and a half planets to keep up with our demands!

At 4.31 gha per person, New Zealand's current levels of demand on the planet's renewable resources is equivalent to nearly 2.5 planets. That means, if everyone on the planet lived similar lifestyles of the average New Zealander, we would need an extra planet and a half to sustain our demand!

We need to change our mindset

One of the mantras that should be adopted today that would make a difference to the present state of affairs is to “consume less, and recycle more”. At the end of the day, consuming less in the way of unnecessary products, would be kinder on the pocket, and would ultimately ensure more quality time to be spent with family, friends, and in the community.

We need to take responsibility for our consumption and help out where we can. Recycling is one of the actions that we can all take to reduce the impact that we have on our environment. As an example, recycling one aluminium can would save enough energy to power a television for three hours (Planet Ark, 2007). Imagine how much energy the whole of New Zealand could save if we made sure that no aluminium makes its way to landfill!

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