Turning a Blind Eye: Backyard burying and burning of rubbish in New Zealand

Turning a Blind Eye: Backyard burying and burning of rubbish in New Zealand

This post is part of The Rubbish Guilt-Trip series. Before you read on, we recommend reading the initial post (if you haven’t already), which describes our intention behind this series and the straight-up communication style we will be adopting.

Burying and burning household and plastic rubbish on private land remains common across New Zealand, despite extensive evidence that this practice harms us and the environment. Equally commonplace is our tendency to turn a blind eye when family, neighbours or friends adopt this method of ‘waste disposal’. Along with individuals who choose to torch their trash, our Kiwi non-confrontational culture and a fear of ‘interfering’ in what happens on others’ property helps to perpetuate a reckless practice that risks long-term degradation of our soil, air and waterways.

Hidden in plain sight

It’s the middle of winter in the winterless North. We’re in a ute, driving through the quiet roads on the Northern side of Hokianga. We’re taking a detour to drop something off at the home of an acquaintance. As we pull up the driveway, we stop next to a small outdoor slide and trampoline. To our right, is the house—modern, with a stunning view over the Hokianga harbour. To our left, wedged between us and the slide and trampoline, is a smouldering burn pile of black plastic bin liners full of household rubbish. The singed bags are curling back, revealing the contents, while half burnt food wrappers lie scattered around. Another full bag sits further back, awaiting its turn to go on the burn pile too.

This scene would have shocked us in the early days of The Rubbish Trip, but no longer. Sadly, burning and burying rubbish on private land, in farm pits, and even household fireplaces, remains commonplace in New Zealand. Anyone working in waste knows this. We’ve seen council waste officers roll their eyes while discussing attempts to deter the practice. We’ve heard waste educators affectionately refer to people who use this method of waste disposal as the “burn and bury brigade”. We’ve conversed with transfer station operators who explain how local landowners covertly offer their land as a dumpsite to neighbours, undercutting the landfill tipping rate by 50% to make a quick buck, while giving their neighbours a great deal. And we’ve smelled the night air thick with the odour of burning plastic when leaving small town venues after delivering our zero waste presentation.

Our evidence is anecdotal, but some studies do exist (though they mostly focus on farm waste management practices). Two separate reports into rural waste disposal in Canterbury (2013), and Waikato and BOP (2014) found that 92% and 100% (respectively) of the rural properties surveyed buried, burnt or bulk stored at least some of their waste. Between them, the two studies surveyed 122 rural properties across the three regions. The reports make alarming reading. For example, the Canterbury study estimated that 192,000 tonnes of waste is buried, burned or bulk stored each year in Canterbury alone, while the Waikato and BOP study found that 50% of the farms surveyed had a burn pile or farm dump less than 40 metres from a water course or field drain.

Is burying or burning household waste on private land really a problem?

The practice of putting rubbish in pits or setting it alight spans generations in New Zealand. Our grandparents, and their parents and grandparents did it. Back in the day, no rubbish trucks came past your home to take away your waste. This is still the case today for many rural, isolated parts of the country. In such contexts, people take the No 8 wire approach and deal with their rubbish themselves. For many individuals, this resilient independence is virtuous: “I’m taking responsibility for my own waste, rather than relying on someone else to deal with it for me at the ratepayer’s expense.”

The problem today though is that our rubbish looks pretty different to that of previous generations. For a start, there’s a truckload more of it as per capita waste production continues to rise. Furthermore, the rubbish has an entirely different make-up—it’s full of plastics, which when buried break down into microplastics over time and then get into everything – soil, water, air. This is horrifying enough, but then add to that all the toxic additives that go into making each different polymer and the picture grows more disconcerting. Electronics are another new waste stream packed with bio-accumulating toxins—cadmium and mercury, to name a couple—and constructed of brominated flame retardant plastic (yet more toxins). Furthermore, many rural properties use agrichemicals that didn’t exist 100 years ago. Agrichemicals are toxic by design; the last thing we want is for the containers they came in to get biffed into pits.

We’ve heard the argument (more than once) that rubbish taken to a transfer station or collected at kerb simply goes to another hole in the ground, which is no better. However, when it comes to waste management, not all holes in the ground are created equal. Modern landfills have heavily engineered multi-layer liners to prevent the toxic leachate that seeps from our rubbish from getting into the soil, groundwater and waterways. The leachate that’s captured is stored in giant ponds and then reticulated back on the landfill. Landfill operators must regularly monitor surrounding waterways to ensure no toxins are escaping. This protective infrastructure costs millions. And even with all of that, landfills still pollute. So, what can we expect from backyard/farm pits that have none of these protections in place? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Then we get to burning…

Burning plastics is similarly terrifying. When we talk with people who burn their household rubbish, they’ll often say “but it gets rid of it” or “it makes it go away”.

Now we don’t think anyone truly believes that burning plastic makes it go away. However, we accept that there’s probably a real lack of awareness about just how dangerous this practice is, and the nature of the substances that are left behind.

Far from magically and miraculously deleting plastic from the face of the Earth, burning plastics (especially at the low temperatures produced by private burn pits) simply transforms plastic into a less visible, more mobile, highly toxic product. Burning plastics releases noxious gases into the air (and CO2), along with dioxins that result specifically from burning plastic. Dioxins are highly toxic to humans; exposure has all kinds of dire health consequences, including neurological diseases and cancer.

Dioxins also don’t go away; they bio-accumulate, particularly in the fatty tissues of animals (so the more plastic we burn, the more dioxins unleashed upon the world). Dioxins settle in areas around where plastic is burnt: they can land on rooves, so if people are catching rainwater, they can expect contaminated water supplies; they end up in the grass and soil, so in rural areas dioxins may be eaten by livestock and become entrained in dairy or meat that then ends up on our plates; and they wash off land into waterways to be ingested by fish and shellfish (also consumed by people).[1]

If these practices were widespread in any developing country, we have no doubt this would lead to patronising comments from inhabitants of well-off nations about how those people “just need to be educated”. Applying this logic, do we need some sort of mass waste re-education campaign here in New Zealand?

Not just farms and rural properties

You’d be wrong to think that burying and burning plastic and household rubbish only happens in rural areas or on farms. We were quite surprised when, after our public talk in Dunedin in April 2018, a regional councillor came up at the end and said “great talk, but you really need to add a bit letting people know not to burn their plastic waste in their home fireplaces.”

Quite seriously, we had never considered including this in our talk because we had absolutely no idea that this was a thing. How naïve we were. Just a month later we were in a backpackers in Southland picking plastic muesli bar wrappers out of the fireplace. A month after that, on the West Coast, the smell of burning plastic around Hokitika and Greymouth was striking. We were told by home-based aged care workers in Greymouth that it was common practice, when going into the homes of the elderly, to bag up individual portions of coal into supermarket plastic bags to make it easy for the elderly person “to throw it straight in the fireplace”.

We’re not sure when putting plastic in home fireplaces became acceptable, but it’s clearly not new. Recently, we found a clipping from a major NZ newspaper from back in the ‘90s when the dairy industry was shifting from glass bottles to plastic bottles. Facing public backlash against this switch, many milk companies (like the one featured in the ad we found, below) launched into full PR justification mode, extolling the virtues of the plastic milk bottle. Note in particular the compelling argument number three put forward in this advert… With messaging like this in mainstream newspapers, perhaps people can be forgiven for getting confused about appropriate and inappropriate things to put in the household fireplace.

“Plastic Milk Bottles Make Good Fire Starters” according to an advert in a NZ Newspaper from the 1990s

Businesses do it too

Shaken by the discovery that private plastic burning was not only a rural thing but also something townies do in their own homes, we were further dismayed to learn that some businesses process their waste like this too. Early this year we connected with a woman on a working holiday visa. She recounted her time working in a resort in a touristic part of New Zealand just months prior. She had been pleased to get a job there as the resort marketed itself as an eco-lodge. Unfortunately, a few days in she learned that this marketing really was nothing more than marketing when she witnessed the owner take the resort’s waste and recycling out the back to burn in batches. She told us, “I was going to all this effort of cycling to work every day to reduce my footprint, and making all these changes to reduce the waste in my life, so seeing this was really disheartening.”

On another occasion we were in a mid-sized South Island town doing research for our shopping guides. We were chatting with a shop owner about what we were doing and how it was great she stocked zero waste friendly items. As we were chatting, her partner came into the room with a handful of mail. As she introduced us to him and explained what we were about, he opened up a plastic courier bag, put the bag in a rubbish bin, picked the full bin up and said, without batting an eyelid, “yes, rubbish, it’s a problem… just so much of it… I’m endlessly having to burn this shop’s waste in the incinerator out back”. And off he went with the bin.

Normalisation and Nonchalance

In a small rural primary school on the West Coast, our session with the students is running as normal. We’ve just asked the standard question we ask all school groups—“what happens to your rubbish after you put it in the bin?”—when we get a rather non-standard answer back. A child in the back row throws up her hand and squeals “IT GOES TO LANDCORP”. Immediately, the teacher on the side of the room stifles a shocked snicker. It appears that the child has just told a room of roughly 50 co-habitants that her family’s rubbish goes to the local farm dump. The tone she’d used was the innocent one of a child who’s proud to be able to answer a question with information she knows is correct. For her, the actual content of the answer was nothing out of the ordinary.

For us, the disturbing thing is not just that people routinely bury and burn household rubbish in New Zealand, but that it’s still socially acceptable. We have so many anecdotes to share not only because we’ve received them second hand from horrified bystanders, but because so many people openly divulge their waste burying and burning antics with us. In March 2018 we had a stall at the Ashburton Farmers’ Market, promoting our upcoming zero waste talk. An older man strode up to us and said “I’ve got a much better solution than whatever you’re proposing”, then he paused and smiled and said “get a match”, and walked off laughing.

It’s not like people are shamefully and secretly sending their trash up in smoke. Some may be, but countless others are not. We travel the country by bus. During such journeys, along with being uncomfortable and getting berated by bus drivers, the main activity is to stare out the window. Wherever we are in the country, we see piles of rubbish and silage wrap sitting inside great bonfire stacks of wood and greenwaste, obviously ready to be burnt. Though landowners probably don’t intend to advertise their waste disposal practices to the world at large, their decision to locate burn piles in view of the state highways indicates no efforts are made to cover them up.

Evidently, we haven’t reached the point in New Zealand where burying and burning is so frowned upon that people do it in secret (let alone not do it at all). This nonchalance is reinforced by our Kiwi culture of turning a blind eye rather than calling people out. It’s also reinforced by the hands-off approach of officialdom. Most Councils know that burying and burning of inappropriate waste on private land takes place. However, they do little because enforcement is virtually impossible. In some districts and regions, burning and burying plastics on private property is still not even fully illegal.

It’s not that the burn and bury brigade are dickheads

It’s important to understand the many reasons why people would bury and burn their rubbish at home. As one man interjected at a talk of ours in Kerikeri, “but it’s cheap!” Others tell us that the inconvenience of driving rubbish to a transfer station, let alone sorting it into recyclables, is off-putting. Exposés about NZ’s plastic “recycling” getting burnt in South-East Asian countries has vindicated some who simply burnt their waste at home without the additional carbon footprint of getting it to places like Malaysia. Still others are fearful of change—“we’ve always dealt with the rubbish this way”—or reticent about having the conversation with family members or colleagues who control household or workplace waste management practices.

All these reasons prove how important mandatory product stewardship is, so that the burden and cost of waste is taken off the shoulders of individuals and put back on manufacturers. While the present Government is finally considering these options for a wide range of products (some of which are covered by voluntary schemes that could be made more effective if they were mandatory), the fact this hasn’t happened yet is a factor contributing to why people still choose to bury and burn their waste at home.

But the time to take responsibility is now

While it’s important to keep pushing for Central Government regulation, as communities we can’t keep twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. Private burials and burnings of household and plastic waste is harming our environment and our health by filling our land and waterways with toxins that never go away. Not only that, but it’s probably also loading those toxins into primary products that our economy relies upon.

We reckon most people in New Zealand probably do NOT bury and burn their plastic waste. However, most people probably know at least one person who does. Simply refusing to engage in this practice ourselves is not enough. Even if you, or we, don’t burn or bury our (plastic) rubbish at home, the negative impacts caused by those who do are not confined to the boundaries of their private property. We have to shake off our nonchalance and start speaking out about this practice, rather than muttering about it behind closed doors or tacitly accepting it. There’s a tendency to worry about judging or interfering in what other people do on their own private property—the ‘each to their own’ philosophy. However, this cautiousness generally doesn’t extend to talking to a neighbour if their trees block your light, or if excessive noise from their house disturbs your sleep. Why is it tolerable when their activities are causing long-term environmental damage and harm to human health?

How to go about these hard conversations?

Speaking up and being confrontational are not necessarily the same thing. Personally, we don’t pick fights with people about their waste disposal practices. Instead, we try to focus on the positive alternative to burning and burial, rather than pointing out why burying and burning is bad (though this post obviously shares this info for those who are interested).

For us, zero waste is the priority. We want to encourage people to find ways to prevent and reduce waste in the first place, and we vibe off Rekindle’s notion that resourcefulness is the opposite of wastefulness. We don’t really want to spend time helping people understand that landfill is a few steps better than torching their trash. If people can agree that striving to have less waste is better, what they would otherwise do with the avoided waste becomes less important. Basically, if people make less waste, there’s less left to bury or burn.

In this endeavour, the real problem we face is discerning whether those who bury and burn their rubbish really are open to conversations about waste minimisation. Because this is crucial; the longer we think it’s acceptable to use stuff then chuck it in a hole or burn it in a fireplace, the longer we delay increasingly urgent conversations about waste minimisation, product stewardship, and product redesign. Arguably, the detination-less stockpiles of farm plastics collected back from farmers through the Plasback recycling scheme sends a far stronger message to producers that their product needs to change than the plastic’s magic disappearance in a puff of dioxin-ridden smoke.

Our plea to New Zealanders is that we don’t continue to burn or cover up the evidence of our wasteful society at home, or turn a blind eye when others do. We must face the scientific facts about how dangerous this is, rather than burying our heads (and our rubbish) in the sand. Yes, our grandparents’ generation burnt and buried their rubbish, but they were far more resourceful and much less wasteful than we are today. If we want to hold-up old school ways of doing things then let’s start slashing back our rubbish by refusing, reducing, reusing, recycling, composting. And let’s also be old-school and have straight-up conversations with each other. It’s time we recognise that we all have some real skin in the game, and that getting others on board, regulating producers, and moving towards a true zero waste society is urgent.


[1] More sources on the harmful effects of burning plastics: Verma et al (2016) “Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste – A Review” Procedia Environmental Sciences Vol 35, 701-708: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proenv.2016.07.069; World Health Organisation. (2016). Dioxins and their effects on human health; Women in Europe for a Common Future (2004-2005), Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste Fact Sheet (Germany: WECF); Sonneverra international corp (2011) Ontario Agricultural Waste Study: Environmental Impacts of Open-Burning Agricultural Plastics (Cananda).



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