Deep pockets will boost recycling and reuse – but who’s going to pay?

Landfill operators are expanding their recycling capacity, but New Zealand’s mounting waste pile continues to grow bigger. How can recyclers shrink the waste pile without hitting Kiwis in the pocket?

This year every Kiwi will send an average of 734kg of waste to landfill. We love chucking things out – and we did, even long before tidying experts flashed up on our TV screens, goading us to declutter.

Meanwhile, now even less of our waste is recyclable, following China's decision to close its borders to the world's low-quality recyclables, resulting in local stockpiles of 24 grades of waste, including household plastics, mixed paper, PVC, low density polyethylene beverage cups, and more.

Minimising waste

More companies are taking responsibility for the waste they produce, but there’s still a long way to go. Consider construction and demolition waste, which represents around half of what's ending up in New Zealand’s landfills. Research conducted by AUT estimates that the average Auckland house build generates five tonnes of waste, equating to $30,000 of materials. Numbers like these will hopefully encourage more builders to start examining their processes.

Contaminated soil is another waste category bursting at the seams, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch, the major hosts to the country’s building and infrastructure boom.

Unlike clear plastic grade one and two bottles, there isn’t an export market for contaminated soil. What’s more, one of the technologies to recycle it – called thermal desorption – is prohibitively expensive. The process essentially cooks soil in a fully-enclosed system to break down contaminants into carbon dioxide and water, and neutralise acidic gases.

Great technology, but look at the price

There’s plenty of advanced technology to deal with a galaxy of waste, but it costs huge dollars to get your hands on it, never mind additional investment to establish collection systems and processing facilities to do the job. Even so, modern thermal desorption facilities are limited to processing around 20 tonnes of soil an hour – a rather modest achievement when you consider the thousands of tonnes of soil that will be uplifted for the Auckland Airport runway extension, alone. 

Larger countries, such as Australia, have the population and scale to offset costs. Road builders in Australia pay around $300 ($250 levy plus landfill charges) a tonne to deposit contaminated soil in a landfill. On this side of the Tasman, the average fee hovers around $80 a tonne. When you’re paying $300 a tonne to deal with contaminated soil, recycling it is imminently feasible. The trouble is, consumers – road users – end up wearing the cost. But with around six times the population of New Zealand, combined with higher waste levies, Australian road users pick up a much smaller tab.

What to do?

Pressure will come from above. Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage has said the government will review recommendations made by the National Resource Recovery Taskforce, as well as examine how New Zealand’s resource recovery system functions, and how it aligns with the government’s ambition to support more onshore processing of recyclables. There’s also a move to increase the $10 a tonne levy to as much as $140 a tonne over time. Ouch.

Ministry for the Environment-accredited Product Stewardship schemes are making good progress. For example, a company called Envirocon turns wet waste concrete into a modular wall system called Interbloc, chipping a decent chunk off the quarter of a million tonnes of waste concrete generated in New Zealand each year. Unwanted paint and paint packaging can be returned to designated Resene ColourShops, as part of the Resene PaintWise programme.

Start small, scale up

Right now there are only 15 voluntary product stewardship schemes. We need more, both voluntary and mandatory, for all classes of waste. It is this approach – small wins from the fringes – that will drive New Zealand toward a greener and more sustainable future. Starting small is affordable, and when the model works, capacity can scale to meet demand. That’s the way things work in a country of small to medium sized businesses. It’s happening now.

Down in Invercargill, recycling plant Southland disAbility Enterprises processes around 1,000 tonnes baling wrap a year, which it breaks down and exports overseas, where it is made into drainage pipes. They’re doing the same to drench and agrochemical containers. Also on the farm, Christchurch-based Plasback collects silage wrap and, with recycler Astron Plastics, turns it into plywood replacement product Tuffboard.

Closer to our own backyard, EnviroWaste is helping farmers dispose of old and unwanted spray and chemical containers. Part of the Agrecovery product stewardship programme, EnviroWaste’s mobile shredding units have so fardiverted  560 tonnes of plastic from landfill and other forms of harmful disposal, such as burning. This collection and recycling initiative turns the containers into pellets for another round of plastics manufacturing, and partial funding keeps the service free of charge.

Everyone has a role to play in creating a more sustainable future. Creating less waste is a good start. But the real magic is bridging the gap between stable sources of raw material – such as agrochemical containers and bail wraps – with small-scale recyclers who can turn a profit by creating a new material of higher value.

The modular development of EnviroWaste’s Hampton Downs facility reflects this approach, with landfill likely to make up just one of a six-to-eight stage development managing waste and resource recovery, as economics change and new technology becomes more accessible.

Even today, we’re harvesting gas that generates 7MW for the national grid. The volume of food and organic waste we turn into compost continues to double year-on-year, providing the ingredients for EnviroWaste's stock-feed, composting, and vermiculture operations. And our reverse osmosis plant treats thousands of litres of leachate for contaminant-free release. 

Managing waste and its recovery has never been as exciting. I really mean that, because it wasn’t so long ago that a hole in the ground worked for most people. We’ve come a long way in a short time. But keep watching this space, and keep in mind that the waste your business produces could be the magic ingredient for someone else’s business.

By Carl King, General Manager, Post Collections

Pictured below is EnviroWaste's organics processing facility in Hampton Downs

SM Aerial Hampton Organics 1