No More Time to Waste: Getting Action under the Waste Minimisation Act 2008!

No More Time to Waste: Getting Action under the Waste Minimisation Act 2008!

*** This post was most recently updated on October 2019 to reflect recent waste policy developments***

Key Points

  • New Zealand has a piece of legislation that allows us to make policies to reduce our society’s wastefulness. It’s called the Waste Minimisation Act (WMA) and it was passed 10 years ago.
  • The WMA includes provisions to make landfilling waste more expensive (the waste disposal levy); gives money raised from levying waste to waste minimising projects (the Waste Minimisaton Fund); requires councils to set 6-yearly targets for how they will minimise waste (Waste Minimisation and Management Plans); empowers the Government to ban/regulate certain problematic waste items and to accredit or establish product stewardship schemes (which are about making those who choose to make, sell and buy certain products, responsible for the waste those products produce).
  • The WMA has led to some positive changes, but it’s yet to be used to its full potential, especially when it comes to regulating problem waste streams and mandatory product stewardship.
  • Part of the problem is that waste has been low on the public and Governments’ agenda; those who are responsible for waste management and minimisation don’t have the power to make changes under the WMA; and industry lobbyists have successfully delayed attempts to make them responsible for the waste they produce.
  • While NZ has dithered over using the policy tools we have to reduce waste, other countries have left us far behind on waste statistics.
  • The current Associate Minister for the Environment with the waste portfolio, Eugenie Sage, has been slowly upping the ante on waste minimisation. In August 2018 the Minister announced a Waste Work Programme containing ambitious rhetoric. By the end of the year she’d followed through on a proposal to ban single-use plastic bags. In August 2019, the Minister launched a consultation document that has the potential to lead to New Zealand’s first mandatory product stewardship schemes. In September 2019, the Minister announced that work to design a container deposit scheme for beverage containers was underway.

Action Points

  • Get to know the WMA and what could be done under it – especially things that haven’t been done yet. You can read the Ministry for the Environment’s summary of the Act, and/or listen to our podcast with Nandor Tanczos about the Act. If you’re into an in-depth analysis, check out Hannah’s article on the WMA in the November 2018 issue of Policy Quarterly.
  • Keep an eye out for some of our future posts on things like bottle deposits and product stewardship, to understand how these could be set up under the WMA, and how they might work.
  • Keep your eye on the progress of the Government’s proposed product stewardship schemes and also the working group designing bottle deposits. It’s important that these schemes go ahead, and that they are designed to be as ambitious as possible, focusing on actions at the TOP of the waste hierarchy (waste prevention, reduction and reuse).
  • Write to Hon Eugenie Sage (Associate Minister for the Environment with the Waste Portfolio) and let her know New Zealand can’t afford to waste any more time to act on waste! Remind her that you support her using her powers under the WMA to do things like ban/levy single use plastic, reintroduce bottle deposits, and set up mandatory product stewardship schemes.


What is the Waste Minimisation Act?

The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 (WMA) is the primary piece of legislation regulating waste in New Zealand. The WMA’s main features are:

  • instituting a waste disposal levy (currently $10 per tonne of waste to Class 1 landfills) to incentivise waste reduction. Fifty percent of the funds from the levy go into the Waste Minimisation Fund, which is used to fund projects aimed at minimising waste. Anyone can apply for funds; the Ministry for the Environment decides the allocations. The other 50% goes to local authorities to help them achieve the targets they set in their WMMP.
  • empowering the Government to ban/regulate certain problematic/wasteful products
  • creating a framework for both mandatory and voluntary product stewardship schemes, which are all about making those who are involved in any part of a product’s life cycle (be it producers, consumers, retailers or businesses), responsible for any waste that that product might cause throughout its life and for what happens to the product at the end of its life.
  • requiring councils to develop a Waste Minimisation and Management Plan every 6 years (you may have seen or submitted on your own council’s plan). In these plans, councils must report on the waste situation in a district or region and set concrete targets for minimising waste over the 6 year period.

The Ministry for the Environment has a useful summary of the key features of the Act.

What has been done under the Act already?

  • Councils have been producing Waste Minimisation and Management Plans (WMMP) every six years. Have a Google and see if you can find the plan for your region or district (perhaps your region’s draft plan is up for public submissions!). On our trip, whenever we enter a new region we find and read the local WMMP. We find these Plans really useful for understanding more about:
    • The waste your region currently generates – how much there is of it, where it’s coming from, and what it’s made up of.
    • How waste is dealt with in your region or district – where your rubbish goes, how much of it is recycled, and where the recycling goes.
    • Targets which your council has set for reducing waste over the 6 year period (it’s handy to know these so that you can hold your council to account!)
    • Have a read of our post about WMMPs and why it’s important to read your local plan and submit on it.
  • Some voluntary product stewardship schemes have been accredited under the Act including the AgRecovery and Plasback schemes for certain types of agricultural waste, and the Fonterra Milk for Schools Tetrapak recycling scheme. You can read and watch profiles of some of these schemes on the Ministry for the Environment website.
  • We banned the manufacture and sale in NZ of cosmetics and cleaning products containing plastic microbeads (under s 23 of the Act).
  • The current Government banned single-use plastic shopping bags (under s 23 of the Act)
  • Anyone who dumps waste in a Class 1 landfill is required to pay a levy of $10 a tonne.
  • The Waste Minimisation Fund has supported many national and local waste minimising initiatives. Profiles of some of these can be found here, and you can also find a breakdown of what has been funded, and how much, since the WMF began.

What more could be done under the Act?

Good things have happened under the WMA, but the really meaty sections of the Act have been very under-utilised. The WMA could make happen a lot of things that the public want done about waste, but curiously these things have not happened.

For example:

If you’d like to understand more about what could happen under the Waste Minimisation Act, but which hasn’t happened, listen to our podcast on this issue with Nandor Tanczos.
  • Section 23 of the Act could be used to bring back bottle deposits or to ban/regulate a whole range of single-use plastics (just like it was used to ban microbeads and plastic shopping bags). Did you know that there are lots of countries around the world that have banned (or are considering banning) things like single-use plastic cutlery, plates, takeaway containers, straws, disposable nappies etc? We could do this too under s 23 of the WMA. If you’d like to learn more about how we could go further on plastic waste, read our post on this very topic.
  • Part 2 of the Act could also be used to control problem waste streams like plastic packaging, electronic waste, and tyres, through mandatory product stewardship schemes. The GREAT NEWS is that the present Government is finally considering this. Even though previous Governments have consulted with the public about a lot of these problem waste streams and received clear indications that something should be done about them, in a decade, we’ve yet to see one mandatory product stewardship scheme. If you’d like to read a very comprehensive report on successive Governments’ total inertia since the WMA was passed, check this one by Jonathan Hannon on behalf of the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council or Hannah’s article in Policy Quarterly. Now that the present Government is looking at this again, it’s EXTREMELY important that we continue to follow the progress of these proposals to ensure that a) they go ahead and b) that they are not watered down in the design phase.
  • The waste disposal levy is currently set very low and only applies to about 11% of NZ landfills managing just 30% of NZ’s total waste stream. At the time of the WMA’s passing it was understood that after the first 2 years the levy amount would be reviewed and perhaps increased. No increase or expansion of the levy has ever happened, even though most commentators agree that it’s currently too low and narrowly applied to really trigger waste reduction (see the report on this issue by international waste consultancy, Eunomia). There is a counter argument that a higher levy might result in illegal dumping. Either way, the topic has been inadequately addressed in the three Ministerial reviews of the levy that have occurred so far, and is overdue for consideration.

Why all this delay to use the WMA?

There are several reasons that we can think of.

First, a lack of political will to act on waste. For a long time, waste has been low on both the public and successive Governments’ agendas. In 2011, a UMR survey showed that 93% of the public had little or no idea the WMA existed… We do believe public awareness about waste is increasing, so we’re keen to keep up the momentum, but also channel that momentum towards informed advocacy that refers to the powers the Government already has (under the WMA) to make change. We are optimistic that although lack of political will has been a major roadblock in the past, the tide is definitely turning and the present Government appears keen to act. However, we mustn’t get complacent, and should continue to make clear that we support the Government’s proposals to do something.

Second, those with actual responsibility to manage and minimise waste in New Zealand aren’t the ones with the powers under the Act to make much-needed policy changes. Local authorities have the statutory duty to manage and minimise waste using ratepayers’ money. So when local authorities overwhelmingly support action under the WMA, it’s probably worth listening! In a recent waste manifesto, the WasteMINZ Territorial Authority Forum set out what it considered should be waste policy priorities: increasing the waste levy, improving data collection on waste, introducing container deposit schemes, and implementing mandatory product stewardship schemes.

Unfortunately, local authorities have no power under the WMA to make these things happen. That power lies with the Minister for the Environment (i.e. central government). For the past 10 years, this centralisation of power has led to stagnation in our waste policy, perhaps because central government doesn’t feel the same sense of urgency or responsibility on waste issues because it’s not statutorily responsible for cleaning up the mess.

Finally, industry lobbying against mandatory measures to minimise waste is an on-going and undeniable problem in New Zealand. Big industry has lobbied against banning and levying plastic bags, mandatory product stewardship schemes, and bottle deposits. From their perspective, the status quo (where ratepayers/councils and the public cover the fiscal and environmental costs of industry waste), is preferable to mandatory product stewardship schemes.

Is it really a big deal that we haven’t used the WMA?

The stalling of our waste policy is holding New Zealand back. Some local experts have dubbed aspects of our country’s approach to waste “idiotic“. According to the WasteMINZ Territorial Authority Forum, “a lack of supporting Government policy and action has constrained councils’ ability to address waste issues effectively.” We don’t think it’s a coincidence that in 2012 the World Bank released data showing that New Zealand is the most wasteful OECD country (per capita) and the tenth most wasteful country in the entire world (per capita). Basically, while New Zealand has been ignoring the tools we have at our disposal to reduce waste, others have been getting on with it. We can’t afford to keep wasting our time and carry on with business as usual.

World Bank data shows that NZ is 10th most wasteful country in the world, per capita. Photo Credit: Eco2Greetings/World Bank

Will our current Government bring change?

The current Government’s rhetoric has made us hopeful. In January 2018, Hon Eugenie Sage (the Associate Minister for the Environment with responsibility for the Waste portfolio) stated: “This [waste[ is a serious problem and I am reviewing implementation of the Waste Minimisation Act to see how it can be more effectively used. It’s a good law, with effective provisions, but they haven’t been used to the extent they should have.”

In 2018, the Government banned single use plastic bags under s 23 of the WMA. This is a good start and certainly won’t make things worse. For us, the best thing is that it shows a willingness to use the WMA. The same year, Eugenie Sage announced that Cabinet had approved a waste work programme, which would include investigation into:

  • expanding and increasing the waste disposal levy
  • improving NZ’s on-shore recycling/processing infrastructure and shockingly bad waste data, and
  • whether to use more product stewardship (including mandatory schemes).

In August 2019, Minister Sage announced a Government proposal to to declare certain problematic waste items “priority products”. Namely: 

  • Tyres
  • Electrical and electronic products
  • Agrichemicals and their containers
  • Refrigerants
  • Farm plastics
  • Packaging (including single-use plastic packaging – YAY – and beverage containers – which opens the door to start talking seriously about a bottle deposit scheme – FINALLY!)

This is a big deal and could trigger a bit of a sea change in NZ’s waste woes (if you’d like to read further on what this could means, check our posts about it here and here). 

In September 2019, the Minister announced that work had started to design a nationwide bottle deposit scheme for beverage containers

We strongly encourage you to follow the progress of both of these proposals to ensure that any schemes that are designed focus on actions at the top of the waste hierarchy and also ensuring that the Government passes regulations to make them mandatory, not voluntary.

We’d prefer action sooner rather than later…

We would like to see the Government’s consultation transitioning in to actual policy action before the next election. We’re especially encouraged that the Minister has proposed making priority product declarations by the end of 2019 (i.e. before the next election), so a change process will essentially be fixed in, regardless of what happens at the ballot box in 2020…

This is important because New Zealand has a long history of being slow (or backtracking) on waste policy, regardless of which party is leading the Government (even the WMA itself did not start life as a Government bill, as you’ll see in the history below). If you have a look at Ministry for the Environment publications, you’ll see that successive governments have held repeated consultations on substantially similar waste policy topics. People, stakeholders, industry, local government make submissions, mostly demonstrating overwhelming support for mandatory government intervention then… nothing happens…

Ultimately, we don’t see waste as a party political issue. We think that it doesn’t pay to be complacent. It’s important to keep the pressure on and to make clear to whoever is in power that we want to see action on waste (especially at a time when the Government is looking at using the WMA more and deciding what actions to take). By the same token, it’s important that we know about the WMA and/or what it could achieve, so that our advocacy is sufficiently focused on the powers that the Government already has to make change.

In our view, as soon as the public makes clear that, not only would we like particular things done about waste, but that we know that the Government has the power to make these changes without needing to pass legislation, it starts to get a lot more awkward for the Government to continue doing nothing.

So, we encourage you to take some time to read about the WMA and then, let the relevant Ministers know that you’d like the Act to be used (if you agree it should be!). Our message is twofold: we can’t afford to waste more time and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Act is already there and has been for a decade. Parliament already debated it, taking 2 years to arrive at a piece of legislation the parties could agree on. We don’t have to do this again, we just need to use it!

So, who are the relevant Ministers that we need to speak to?

Hon David Parker is the Minister for the Environment. Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage has responsibility for the waste portfolio. Write to them to tell them that you’d like to see them take action under the WMA to make New Zealand less wasteful.

For extra reading: A little history of the Waste Minimisation Act 2008

In many ways, we’re lucky to have the WMA; it was not a foregone conclusion. The WMA was introduced to Parliament in 2006, but it was not initiated by the then Labour Government (legislating on waste was not on the Government’s agenda). Rather, the proposed legislation started life as a private member’s bill in the name of Mike Ward, and then later Nandor Tanczos took it up (after Mike Ward lost his seat in the previous election). The bill was eventually pulled from the ballot in 2006, to start its course through Parliament.

What do we mean by “pulled from the ballot”? This is the process for private members bills – they are not automatically introduced into the House. Instead, proposed members’ bills go on a list and are assigned a number. Every few weeks, numbers are pulled out of a tin in the Table Office in Parliament. The bills whose numbers correspond with the numbers pulled from the ballot, get to be introduced into the House – meaning that it’s a stroke of luck whether or not a member’s bill ever gets to see the light of the Parliamentary day or not. We should thank fate that we got the WMA at all.

After Introduction, the bill made it through its first reading (though it was opposed by National and United Future). It then got stuck in Select Committee for 2 years (the usual time is 6 months) as all the parties took time to rework it substantially. After this long select committee process, which ultimately garnered the bill cross-party support, the reworked bill then made it through the rest of the stages of the House with near unanimous support.

You can read how the bill developed and changed, and also how different parties supported/opposed it at different times, in the Hansard and select committee documents on the Parliament website.