Environment Minister Eugenie Sage this week announced the beginning of the end of Aotearoa’s unfortunate experiment with free-market waste management that has trashed our environment.
The introduction of the Regulated Product Stewardship Scheme is the beginning of the end of Aotearoa of local councils and taxpayers paying the bill for waste pollution.
Manufacturers, retailers and importers of harmful products such as tyres, plastic packaging and electronics will soon have to start cleaning up their own trash, or pay the price.
“We’ve had a 25-year wait for this policy,” chair of the Zero Waste Network, Marty Hoffart, told RNZ.
“Without regulation, the free-market has not solved our recycling issues.”
The new regulation, under the Waste Minimisation Act, marks a u-turn from the haphazard and ineffective voluntary approach that has been used since the legislation was enacted in 2008.
Aotearoa has had an appalling record on waste management. We produce over 20kg of e-waste a year, about the highest level in the OECD. Based on the households audited, Kiwis use an estimated 1.76 billion plastic containers each year and most end in landfill.
That means the average New Zealand family uses an estimated 37 kilos of plastic containers each year. Some 39 per cent of their plastic bottles and containers are sent to tips despite being fully recyclable. Each house on average uses 188 plastic drink bottles a year and 97 million plastic drink bottles end in dumps annually despite recycling options.
Once upon a time it was out of sight, out of mind for much of waste that was collected, but with China and others now refusing to take our trash, we can no longer wish away our waste, Sage said.
Movement on dealing with waste and turning around the free-market ethos on dealing with it has been painfully slow despite the Green Party being part of government for the first time.
Haffart said Aotearoa’s non-prescriptive approach had left it decades behind the rest of the developed world, including his country of birth, Canada, that has implemented measures such as deposits on bottles since the 1970s.
Adele Rose, CEO of 3R Group – a company that helps tyre companies and packaging companies set up good waste disposal methods, believes this week’s change will be transformational because it moves the cost of waste disposal from consumers and councils rightfully back to the producers, importers and retailers.
“The impact will be huge,” she told RNZ.
“Now the disposal scheme is paid for when you buy the tyre (or product),” said Rose, who is a member of the Product Stewardship Advisory Group.
Regulation will initially only cover six sectors, but they are high priority industries – plastic packaging, e-waste, tyres, farm plastics, agri-chemicals and refrigerants.
Sage said it is all part of the wider plan to cut the amount of rubbish ending up in landfills. She has announced a big hike in the landfill levy rate that will progressively increase over four years from July 1, 2021 from $10 per tonne to $60 per tonne. That is still low against $165 in New South Wales. From the funds collected, the Government plans to put $124 million into plastic recycling and reprocessing plants.
The stewardship scheme will still take three years to fully implement as some sectors get existing voluntary schemes accredited and others go through the scheme design and approval process.
Some industry groups with existing voluntary schemes in place welcome the new regime because it will force free-riders into the scheme. At present, players doing the right thing are essentially penalised. Now, importers and retailers covered by the regulation will have to show evidence that they are part of regulated scheme and they will have to meet the requirements of that scheme.
“The impact will be far-reaching,” Rose reckons.
Rachel Barker, CEO of Plastics NZ, gives a qualified tick to the new regime. Her gripe is that plastic packaging is covered but not all single-use packaging. She argues plastic is light (therefore uses less carbon in transportation) and usually recyclable. Some alternatives, such as laminated cardboard, or even glass, that needs high temperatures in recycling, may be less green. Compostable packaging is often not composed and in landfill simply creates methane.
“Placing a levy on plastics, as is usual with stewardship schemes, will drive producers to alternatives with no view to reduced environmental footprint.”
One of the great side-effects of this regulation, said Rose, is there is now a compelling reason to design products that fit a circular economy by reducing materials inputs and improving recyclability.
She said it won’t be long before the next lot of industries are brought into the regime. “Watch this space.”
Haaffart notes that a Colmar Brunton poll last year put the build-up of plastic above affordable housing as Kiwis’ top concern.
Greenpeace is disappointed the new scheme hasn’t been more far reaching and hasn’t fully tackled the issue of single-use drinks bottles.
Opponents argue the regulations will lead to higher prices for consumers, but estimates for nationwide recovery programmes have suggested extra costs are low. That included $5 per new tyre, $2 for a domestic fridge or $133 on a commercial refrigerated truck, and 36 cents per agrichemical container.
Dr Joya Kemper, a lecturer at the University of Auckland’s School of Marketing, sees the policy as a great step toward creating a “circular economy”.
“In the circular economy, materials should first be recovered for reuse, refurbishment or repair, and if that isn’t possible only then should remanufacturing and then raw material utilisation be used,” she said.
According one major report this year, less than 9 per cent of the global economy was circular, NZ Herald reports.
Last year, Chief Scientist, Dr Juliet Gerrard, investigated plastics use in Aotearoa in a document entitled Rethinking Plastics. Dr Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke, who produced the report, called for a National Plastics Action Plan and in the foreword, Dr Gerrard said there needed to be a systems-change to rethink use of plastics.
It may be just a baby step, but moving away from a failed free-market approach seems a good first step.
(Simon Louisson worked as a journalist for Reuters, the New Zealand Press Association, and The Wall Street Journal among others and worked two stints for the Green Party as a media and political adviser).