The Rubbish Trip talks focus on reducing rubbish at home, but we don’t think the buck stops there. We see individual waste reduction and advocacy for policy change as interrelated, complimentary and mutually reinforcing rather than either/or. Often, people who are really into reducing their household waste think that the world of policy and law is too complicated for them. However, we see household waste reducers as waste minimisation experts in their own right, with perspectives that are valuable to businesses and government.
On the other hand, other people say to us “you can try and reduce waste at home, but the real change needs to come from businesses and governments”. This statement implies that the responsibility and power to do something about society’s waste lies outside the hands of individuals. We find this viewpoint defeatist and disempowering and we also disagree with it.
All levels of society have a role to play because everyone produces waste. Most people would probably be surprised by how much waste individuals do produce as a proportion of the total waste stream. Read any council’s Waste Minimisation and Management Plan and you’ll see that roughly 20-30% of what goes to most landfills in New Zealand comes from domestic kerbside/household collections (i.e. not insignificant). And that’s just what makes it to landfill, but what about the stuff that leaks along the way? Individuals are intimately connected with the litter that surrounds us. For example, 77% of what Sustainable Coastlines finds in their beach clean-ups in New Zealand and the Pacific are single-use plastics, with food and household related products contributing a sizeable proportion of the rubbish. Given that so much of this rubbish is avoidable, we believe that individuals have both the duty and the power to reduce this waste stream.
Also, individuals, businesses and government are interconnected, not separate, because businesses and governments are made up of individuals. The more people who take on the task of reducing their waste at home, the more people there will be bringing this behaviour into workplaces and government. Our experience is that those who walk the talk by doing what they can in their own lives are almost always better at getting things changed in their schools, communities, businesses, governments and institutions. Ultimately, if you aren’t willing to at least try to make personal changes, you’ll be hard pressed to convince anyone else to.
Government policy can make it much easier for individuals to reduce waste (for example, by funding national, coordinated recycling systems). Furthermore, businesses should be made to take responsibility for the waste that their products generate (rather than getting a free ride, as too many currently do). Some products are difficult to avoid (like car tyres or medical-related waste), so individuals need access to proper recycling or stewardship schemes for these products when they reach end-of-life, in order to do the right thing.
However, that doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and say “it’s up to government and businesses to sort this out”; individuals play a very important role in making this high-level change happen. It would be dangerous to wait around in the hope that businesses and governments will regulate out of the goodness of their hearts. We need to apply pressure, but it’s best if we can do so in an informed, effective way.
One big barrier holding the public back from pushing for high level change is the apparent gap in our knowledge about what is possible. In New Zealand, we have laws like the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 (WMA) that can enable us to keep pushing forward with waste policy (e.g. banning or levying more single-use plastics, introducing bottle deposit schemes, and making businesses like electronics or textile producers responsible for the waste their products produce). In the past, when we did talks and workshops full-time around the country, even the very waste conscious people that would be in our audiences had never heard of the WMA.
We think it’s important that people know about the WMA and the ability for the government to legislate to bust waste because it really helps to highlight the gulf between what could be possible in New Zealand versus our present reality.
The WMA has been in place since 2008 and it’s only until very recently that any government has been interested in doing anything with it. This is actually quite scandalous, when you think about it. While other countries have been active developing and innovating with effective waste policy, here in New Zealand we have barely used the tools we have to better our approach. It’s no surprise, therefore, that New Zealand is the most wasteful country in the developed world (per capita) and the 10th most wasteful country in the entire world (per capita).
The reasons for the WMA lying dormant are complex, but in part relate to the fact that, while large swathes of the passionate, waste-conscious public do not know about the Act, industries that benefit from the wasteful status quo are very aware of this legislation and the threat it presents to them, and they lobby hard to avoid its implementation. And so, the voices getting through to the relevant Ministers and government officials on waste issues have, for quite a long time, been quite one-sided.
The tide has turned a lot since Eugenie Sage was the Minister in charge of waste between 2017 and 2020 – there’s a lot more activity going on at Government level to reduce waste, and a new piece of legislation is even on the cards to give the government more superpowers to move towards zero waste.
However, knowing the history is pretty useful. It goes to show that we can’t be complacent. As individuals and communities, it’s important that all of us continue to push for real action on waste. We need to keep on the pressure to reduce New Zealand’s dismal waste statistics, and to see government and industry keep step with the waste minimisation efforts currently being driven by community groups, small businesses, and everyday people in Aotearoa.