2020… the year that so many want to end. Unfortunately, when the clocks tick over to 12:01am on 1 January 2021, our world’s waste woes will still be there to greet us, just like COVID, the housing crisis, climate change and everything else we might want to get away from. And just like everything else in 2020, it’s been a rollercoaster of a year for the zero waste movement, with some big setbacks followed by great advances. So here’s our summary of the best and worst in the world of waste for 2020.
The steady momentum of zero waste activities and growing awareness of the issues was continuing well in early 2020. More zero waste stores were opening, more cafes were going single-use cup free, new campaigns and initiatives started, the Government’s policy proposals continued to roll out one after the other… we attended our first legitimately zero waste festival, Evolve, in Nelson at the end of January (no single-use anything, only food scraps and glass recycling bins!). We were also continuing our travels around Aotearoa with as much momentum as always – speaking in Nelson, Wellington, Bay of Plenty and Auckland between January and March. And then…
Let’s get COVID out of the way first… As the pandemic got more and more serious, it started to have waste implications – and not just an arguably justifiable increase in the use of PPE. Hospitality businesses from multinational chains like Starbucks to local independent cafes started refusing to accept BYO cups. In many countries, the plastics industry took advantage of the situation by pushing their false claims that single-use plastic was the safest material of all. Some fell for it – plans and policies to ban single use plastics were halted or reversed. All of these actions were based on the assumption that single-use disposable packaging is somehow safer than reusable packaging, with little evidence that that was the case.
The global zero waste community pushed back hard against these cynical moves by the plastics and packaging industries. International groups such as Zero Waste Europe, Reloop, Greenpeace and UPSTREAM held webinars and released reports (like this and this) and factsheets on COVID’s effect on zero waste, and the safe use of reusables during the pandemic. In June, a group of nearly 120 scientists and medical professionals signed a statement confirming the safety of reusables. These evidence-based perspectives were summed up well by Tom Szaky of TerraCycle: “neither single-use nor reusables are inherently safe or unsafe, it’s how they are deployed.” Reusables can be sterilised (or can even involve a contactless method), whereas single-use packaging can’t – so there’s no knowing how many hands have touched these items.
Lockdown in Aotearoa presented several challenges for the zero waste movement. At first, there was the problem of what constituted an ‘essential business’ during Level 4. Did zero waste grocers count as essential businesses? Bin Inn was apparently told ‘no’ and closed its doors. GoodFor staunchly believed they were essential and stayed open. Other independent zero waste stores around Aotearoa speedily got their online stores up and running and provided contactless deliveries, while others understandably hunkered down and waited to see what came next. Personally, we were so lucky to be on Waiheke Island at the time and have the amazing Plastic Free Pantry deliver contactless groceries in reusable glass jars to our door throughout lockdown!
The shift to Alert Level 3 meant takeaways were on again – but what about reusable cups and containers? Again, confusion reigned while some repeated the fact-free claim that reusables were less hygienic than disposables, while those dedicated to being single-use free continued their ways. We scrambled to get some sort of official confirmation about this issue – many phone calls, emails, zoom chats to anyone and everyone who would listen. Days and days passed with no luck, but in the meantime a bunch of cafes allowed reusables anyway and started repping the ‘contactless pour’ – Takeaway Throwaways starting documenting the ever-growing list of cafes who did this during those uncertain times so those who wanted to get a waste-free brew knew where to go (the page is still live but now features great quotes from each cafe about why they chose to accept reusables safely during Alert Level 3). As cafe owners and the public continued to feel confused about how to do a contactless coffee, Takeaway Throwaways produced some nifty guides for Alert Level 3 and Alert Level 2. These guides were replete with excellent videos shot down in Wanaka demonstrating the approach, like this one for Alert Level 3:
Finally, after weeks of waiting, the government basically OKed the use of reusables at Alert Level 3, as long as businesses followed the usual food safety guidelines! Phew!
Another waste issue in lockdown was the temporary halt to much of NZ’s recycling collections. Of course, rubbish collections were deemed an essential service during Alert Level 4, but not recycling collections and there were concerns that people required to sort the recycling might catch covid from potentially contaminated items. So, in many places, recycling collections were off the cards… some councils told people to stockpile their recycling, then they said that was a bad idea because it would overwhelm the system when it came back on stream. And unsurprisingly, households produced more waste than usual during lockdown (although despite this, less waste was sent to landfill overall given the dramatic drop in commercial activity). The international shipping disruptions brought on by the pandemic meant much recycling could not be sent offshore to be recycled, and lots of it went to landfill. The inadequacy of the recycling system was just another issue that already existed, but whose flaws were exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.
And finally, now that things are somewhat ‘back to normal’, NZ is starting to get back to the pre-covid momentum of zero waste action. However, there’s one covid-related sore thumb – managed isolation and quarantine facilities are remarkably wasteful. This is a perfect example of the unfounded presumption that single-use packaging is somehow safer than reusable packaging and directly contradicts the government’s proposal to ban a range of hard-to-recycle and single use plastics (more on that below). There are so many little things that can be done to reduce waste in these facilities beyond a switch to reusables – it’s just a matter of putting the processes in place. Read a great analysis of the issues here.
Despite all the zero waste ‘negatives’ above, it’s undeniable that for a short window of time, Alert Level 4 lockdown exposed us to a world of reduced consumption, DIY everything and resilient resourcefulness – the kind of world that looks a lot more like the everyday life of zero waste lifestylers. While everyone’s lockdown experiences were not the same, there’s no doubt that the number of people making sourdough, cutting their own hair, and starting a vege garden certainly increased, while shopping sprees in malls were at an all time low (as we all know, even The Warehouse was forced to close). Many zero waste groups shifted to sharing tips for low-waste living in lockdown, including Para Kore, and also us with our daily #resilientandresourceful social media posts (see some images from those below, including obligatory sourdough picture). So there was that.
Enough now of COVID – let’s see what other exciting zero waste things happened in 2020!
This year saw the launch of a few new campaigns. Most excitingly for us was our launch of Takeaway Throwaways (or TATA) – a campaign and petition calling on the government to ban single-use serviceware on the one hand and mandate the co-design of reusable alternatives on the other. More than just a petition, TATA is a people’s campaign that supports and encourages everyone – businesses, events, humans – to play their part in shifting Aotearoa away from a throwaway culture toward a reusable culture. TATA was born from a collaboration with one of our favourite humans – Laura of UYO Responsible Cafe Guide and we also have the epic Kate Hall of Ethically Kate on the team! And although we conceived and launched this campaign pre-covid, many of the issues discussed above have made TATA’s demands even more relevant than ever. The website is full of resources, FAQs, alternatives, position statements, policy information and more – and if you haven’t signed the petition yet, make sure you do before it is handed to Parliament in 2021. Since the launch in February 2020, we’ve nearly clocked 4000 signatures (psst if you haven’t signed yet, you can do so here)!
At the beginning of the year, Refill NZ, a grassroots campaign that aims to end the single-use plastic water bottle by encouraging and supporting people to refill their own reusable water bottles, launched a petition calling on councils to install more public drinking fountains. As the year progressed, the Ministry for the Environment launched their own ‘Feels Good to Refill‘ campaign, encouraging the New Zealand public to help reduce plastic in the environment by filling their own water bottles. They launched the campaign alongside the video below. Plastic bottles also took a further hit when Greenpeace New Zealand announced their petition and accompanying campaign calling for the Government to ban ALL single-use plastic bottles. The petition is still available to sign here. Despite all of this, and the epic legal efforts of Ngāti Awa, in December this year the High Court rejected Ngāti Awa’s appeal to stop consents for a massive water bottling plant in their rohe.
Lockdown inspired the creation of a range of ‘build-back-better’ campaigns and groups that often included a focus on waste. The amazing Shay Lawrence from Caliwoods initiated an open letter to our elected leaders for a sustainable economic reset, backed up by recommendations from experts in five key areas – mātauranga Māori, renewable energy, transport, agriculture and waste (guess who was the waste expert!). The letter was signed by 330 businesses and organisations, and supported by two webinars in which all five experts expanded on the issues. Greenpeace also developed their own call for a Green Covid Recovery with a few waste issues thrown in.
The equally amazing Kristy Lorson of EarthSavvy and founder of the Zero Waste in NZ! FB group started Reset Aotearoa – a project encouraging people to harness their newfound lockdown-inspired resourcefulness and creativity, as well as the vision of what the world could be with quiet streets and a resurgent natural world. Some of the mini-projects started via Reset Aotearoa were ‘Like a Boss’ and ‘Down to Earth’ – you can read more about these and other people’s ideas on the website.
And then of course there’s the Better Futures Forum – a wide range of concerned citizens and experts, brought together by Dr Mike Joy and Dr Catherine Knight, to develop plans, strategies and reports to seize the opportunities presented by the covid crisis to build a fairer, greener future. Hannah got stuck in early on in the piece and has become BFF’s ‘zero waste expert’.
Finally, Niahm Peren’s Thumbs Up New Zealand campaign submitted a petition to Parliament at the end of 2019 (with over 46,000 signatures), calling for mandatory product labelling of recyclability. This year, the petition was reviewed and commended by the Environment Select committee, but ultimately rejected. Although the committee agreed with the intent of the campaign, they said, “While we think it would be beneficial to further explore a labelling system for the recyclability of food and drink packaging, we are not convinced that the “Thumbs Up” is necessarily the right one.” The campaign continues to push for better information and labelling on packaging to help people navigate NZ’s ridiculously fragmented and confusing recycling collection services (and to better tell the story of where our recyclate actually goes). The campaign has some great resources – give them a follow on the socials!
2020 saw another wave of reports and articles highlighting the mess we are currently in and what we can do about it. There were some goodies in the plastic pollution space: Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance (APPA) members Stephanie Borelle (who led the study) and Laurent Lebreton contributed to a comprehensive and alarming report on the impact of current and proposed efforts to mitigate the plastic pollution crisis. The key finding? Unsurprisingly… we are not doing nearly enough and extraordinary efforts would be needed to actually get on top of the problem. Read a more digestible summary of the report’s key issues here. A broad international expert report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq on pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution, Breaking the Plastic Wave, was also released around the same time – some more light reading for you!
Another APPA member and Massey University academic, Dr. Trisia Farrelly, along with Auckland University environmental law student, Laura Green, co-authored a report on the global plastic pollution crisis for Victoria University’s Policy Quarterly publication. It contained a thorough analysis of NZ’s contribution to plastic pollution and what tools the government has to reduce our disproportionately large per capita plastic footprint.
NZ’s recycling system has been under intense and growing scrutiny from all quarters for its incoherent, confusing and ad hoc nature. Alongside many news media stories, there were two comprehensive reports on improving NZ’s recycling system by Sunshine Yates and WasteMINZ published this year – Rethinking Rubbish and Recycling, and Recommendations for standardisation of kerbside collections in Aotearoa. For anyone wanting a deep dive into the ins and outs of NZ’s recycling sector and some suggestions for improvement, check these out.
There have also been some excellent international reports on waste issues coming out this year. For a stark and incisive look at how big plastic polluters like Coca-Cola, Nestle and others distract, delay and derail meaningful action on the plastic crisis, have a read of the Changing Markets Foundation’s excellent Talking Trash report. Another report by international research and consulting company, Eunomia, and commissioned by epic international group, Break Free From Plastic, explored and analysed the use of Life-Cycle Analysis (or LCA) methodology in relation to single-use plastics, and found that despite its rising popularity among packaging companies, it has significant limitations and can be misused: “ask inappropriate, misleading, narrow or uninformed questions and the process will only provide answers in that vein.” (Our very own Hannah also co-authored a shorter piece on a very similar issue).
In the area of reusables, the Sustainable Event Alliance led the development of a set of best practice guidelines for the hygienic use of reusables at events. These guidelines provide events and festivals with certainty, assurance and a range of options and resources to help them implement reusable serviceware (cups, containers etc.) safely and effectively at their event – in covid times and beyond. Check out who was on the working group (his name starts with ‘L’)!
Finally, this year has also seen a growing scientific consensus around the potential toxicity and harmfulness of food contact materials (including packaging) due to a wide range of known and unknown substances (some of which are known to be harmful to human health) that get intentionally and unintentionally added to things like packaging. One of the more worrying are perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS is what’s known as a ‘forever chemical’ in that it NEVER biodegrades, meaning it keeps accumulating the more it is used. It’s been linked to a range of human health and ecological problems, and it’s ending up in compost, soil and food. While the harmfulness of PFAS and its presence in lots of packaging is not a new discovery from 2020, this year has seen a definite rise in the dissemination of research highlighting the alarming issue of PFAS compounds being used in fibre-based compostable packaging – that’s all the non-bioplastic stuff like cardboard, potato starch and sugarcane. This year the old PFAS issue is now being reported on in the media with much more regularity (for example, this piece recently in The Guardian).
2020 saw more NZ cities do something about their organic waste. A number of councils began rolling out kerbside food scraps collections – Hamilton and Ruapehu District this year, and New Plymouth right at the end of 2019. Wellington also began a combined kerbside collection and home composting food waste trial in Miramar, while Auckland delayed its roll out of its food scraps collection to 2023 (!) due to covid. Nelson has also started a food waste trial employing the services of local small-scale, decentralised composting group, Community Compost.
While most of these new services will end up having the scraps turned into that black gold known as compost, last year Auckland decided to go down the road of anaerobic digestion, or AD (as we noted in our 2019 zero waste year in review). AD got more attention in 2020 with construction starting on NZ’s first commercial scale facility in Reporoa, with some media stories repeating its sustainability claims. For those pointing out the harms of conventional farming practices, compost is key – it produces a fertile soil conditioner that feeds the soil food web and helps to sequester carbon in the ground. AD, on the other hand, extracts as much carbon as possible from organic waste to create biogas (aka methane) to be burnt for energy, leaving a by-product known as ‘digestate’ which is claimed to be suitable as an agricultural fertiliser. Members of the Urban Farmers Alliance, who champion regenerative farming practises, have taken issue with the claims about AD’s green credentials – see Kaicycle’s Kate Walmsley break these issues down in this article for The Spinoff.
To be sure, not all the composting services are perfect – most of the food scraps collected end up being transported long distances – sometimes hundreds of kms (e.g. New Plymouth’s are going 300km to Hampton Downs north of Hamilton) – but then again, Auckland’s food scraps will travel at least 270km to the AD plant in Reporoa. These problems can be attributed to the complexities of resource management law. But that’s why we’re super excited to see how Nelson goes with its localised, community-oriented food scraps trial!
At the end of last year, Wellington City Council decided that the best option for the Southern Landfill, which is set to run out of space as early as 2023, was to extend it further into Carey’s Gully – mere metres from Zealandia. At the same time, there began a series of debacles with Wellington’s sewerage pipes – most notably the unexpected failure of the 9km long Mount Albert pipes that transport 15,000 tonnes of sewage sludge per year from the Moa Point wastewater treatment plant to the Southern Landfill, meaning the sludge had to be transported by a daily fleet of trucks instead (affectionately known as ‘turd taxis’). The breakdown was so deep within Mt Albert that specialist German engineers had to be flown over during Level 4 lockdown to supervise the repairs.
It soon emerged that these two issues – the stinkingly large amount of sludge going to landfill and the landfill extension – are intrinsically connected. In order to be landfilled safely, the sludge needs to be mixed with a ratio of 4 parts general waste to 1 part sludge. That means 15,000 tonnes of sludge requires a minimum of 60,000 tonnes of general waste – and Wellington doesn’t produce much more waste than that. What does that mean? That as long as the sludge is going to landfill in such quantities, Wellington has to keep producing at least as much waste as it currently does. That stinky fact perhaps explains why the council decided to extend the landfill over other options, as well as the unfortunate fact that Wellington raises roughly $7million per year from landfill charges, which it uses to fund its recycling system. Everything about the situation is shite…
But the good new is that all of the shitty press about the sewage and the unpopularity of the landfill extension, plus the council’s own plans to reduce sludge volumes going to landfill, have caused the council waste team to put the landfill extension plans on hold and do more consultation. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this one!
Despite all the worry about the possibility of a keep cup covid cluster or someone’s covid bubble being burst by a bulk bin, there were some great strides in the world of zero packaging or reusable takeaway packaging this year. In fact, lockdown inspired a couple of projects to get up and running – such as Good to Go Waiheke, who delabel and sterilise glass jars (with the help of Plastic Free Pantry) and offer them to local hospitality businesses to use instead of single-use disposable cups. Wanakup got going with a similar service in Wanaka, but with the addition of mugs and their own beautiful double-walled stainless steel cups. Grey Lynn 2030 also got their #kohacup project underway in July, hoping to collect some useful data to help similar projects get going elsewhere!
New reuse businesses started up and existing ones expanded their scope too. In August 2020, Reusabowl got their Wellington trial underway, with four local businesses participating and using their bowls instead of single-use containers, and their stats so far are impressive: 900 bowls have been reused 6,500 times so far! They’re already planning phase two, with 10,000 new bowls coming soon. Globelet launched a new reusable coffee cup scheme as did Chunky down in Queenstown, to add to the existing CupCycling, Again Again and Wanakup schemes, while Again Again reached their equity crowdfunding target of $300,000 to develop an app to make the management of reuse schemes easier and more efficient for everyone, while working on a collaboration with Garage Project to design a reuse scheme for refillable beer riggers and also with Mobi2Go to work on a reusable food container.
Zero waste grocers are also continuing their glorious ascendance. 2020 saw 13 new zero waste grocery stores open, on top of the 19 stores already operating at the end of 2019, taking us to a total of 31 stores nationwide (don’t worry, we can do maths – there was one store closure this year – GoodFor New Lynn). That’s an increase of 63% for 2020 – an amazing feat, despite covid’s hygiene-induced fear!! Here’s the list of stores that opened in 2020:
In addition, a bunch of New Zealand’s zero waste stores came together in June to form the incorporated society, Sustain Aotearoa: Independent Zero Waste Grocers. Sustain Aotearoa exists as a forum for all the independent stores to band together and amplify their voices and buying power, and further extend the influence of zero waste grocers. As Bron Green, the Sustain Aotearoa President stated: “we created Sustain Aotearoa as a support network for the stores. We all recognise that by collaborating, we can grow the zero waste sector and magnify our positive impact.”
Apart from zero waste grocery stores, we discovered that Wellington had cracked the holy grail of zero waste… wine on tap! However, we were super slow to the party because these options were actually already available in 2019 (lol) – both at Garage Project and Everyday Wine. However, the inclusion of this discovery in this year’s year in review is totally relevant BECAUSE 2020 saw Auckland join the ‘wine-on-tap’ party, with both Garage Project and Everyday Wine opening up their free-flowing alcoholic grape juice up in Tāmaki Makarau too…
The 2020 reuse calendar ended with a bang on the second annual Use Your Own Cup Day, 11 December. A spectacular number of cafes went single-use cup free for the day, and BYO cups were out in force. The highlight for us was being involved in the launch of Wastefree Waterfront – an effort to get hospo on Wellington’s waterfront to work towards zero waste. It was all instigated by the amazing Simon Edmonds of Tuatua Cafe who started his cafe’s own zero waste journey, with the help of Laura from UYO, Ali from Waste-ed, Miro from Para Kore and many more awesome volunteers. Together, we provided the waterfront cafes with sterilised glass jars and mugs to use instead of single-use cups (while of course encouraging people to use their own cups or sit in with a ceramic cup) and drop off points where borrowed cups could be returned – all delivered and managed on bikes with trailers! Keep your eyes peeled for more Wastefree Waterfront shenanigans in the new year!
The uncertainty of covid meant many of New Zealand’s annual waste-related conferences and events that would normally have been in person were beamed online instead (and we were stoked to be involved in lots of them!). A few notable ones were the Plastic Free July launch party, involving a line up of some of Aotearoa’s coolest zero wasters giving little workshops and talks on tips for going plastic free (check out some of the videos here)! The Zero Waste Network Aotearoa also hosted the online Our Zero Waste World Summit in November, which featured presentations and panel discussions on a wide range of topics involving a stellar line-up of local and international zero waste experts. You can still watch ALL of the content for free here – highly recommended!
Also during Plastic Free July, APPA hosted an excellent panel discussion at Te Papa Tongarewa entitled ‘Plastics and the Pandemic’ that provided some unique perspectives on the current and future state of plastics – through the lenses of activism, art, mātauranga Māori and the future of food. You can watch the full discussion here.
The annual WasteMINZ conference also went ahead this year (entitled ‘Be the Change Summit’), despite covid, with a funky ‘regional hubs’ model so that you could still attend in person, but in much smaller groups. It was kind of like a fun movie night with mates, except that lots of the people in the room were strangers, and the film was actually pretty intense and involved talks about rubbish, and nothing was happening at midnight. But aside from that, it was exactly the same. In all seriousness, the Be the Change Summit was a very successful event with a range of excellent presentations ranging from building local economies, through to best practice in collecting and processing organic matter, and lots of pithy panel discussions on snazzy topics like product stewardship and increasing the landfill levy. The fact the WasteMINZ team pulled the regional hubs model off so successfully was super impressive!
Last but absolutely not least, we turn to look at what this year held for waste policy. You’ve made it this far, don’t leave! Despite the very dry sound of the syllables contained within the words, ‘waste policy’, we assure you it’s very exciting!
There really are no two ways about it… 2020 was quite the year for waste policy. To start with the obvious, we began the year with Eugenie Sage as the Minister with the waste portfolio, and we ended the year with a new Minister, Hon David Parker. We want to give a shout out to Eugenie Sage for her incredible mahi stewarding New Zealand’s approach to waste for the past three years. It is generally agreed within the zero waste community that Sage has completely transformed how the New Zealand Government approaches waste – taking us from a pretty entrenched ‘do nothing’ approach that undoubtedly played a role in New Zealand earning the dubious honour of being one of the most wasteful countries in the world, and that led to successive New Zealand Governments being told off by the likes of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the OECD. In contrast, Sage has made lasting, positive change, and started many policy and work programmes that had been sorely neglected for decades. It is yet to be seen what direction the new Minister will take, but many of the changes described below are ‘baked in’ thanks to Sage’s mahi, so work is unlikely to be derailed. Labour has also committed to continue with the proposal to phase-out some hard-to-recycle and single-use plastics.
So, here’s a brief timeline of what happened in the world of waste policy in 2020, and we’ll try to be brief, despite being nauseating waste policy geeks:
There are almost certainly 100,000 more things that happened this year – any omissions are entirely our fault! But 2020 is the year of brain fade and a reduced sense of time and space, so forgive us. Here’s to 2021 – let’s hope it brings many more zero waste wonders and far less rubbish!
And one more thing… you might have noticed that we aren’t nomads anymore… This year we have settled back in Wellington full-time, which means The Rubbish Trip is evolving! We’re still keeping up The Rubbish Trip, 100%, but we’ll be developing things in 2021 and may even do a bit of a ‘rebrand’, lol! So stay tuned…