Is this out of my hands?: The role of the individual in waste policy change

Is this out of my hands?: The role of the individual in waste policy change

Key points

  • As individuals we have an important role to play in reducing society’s waste by making changes in our own lives.
  • However, societal waste reduction is not up to us alone; businesses and governments also need to step up.
  • In New Zealand, the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 would allow the government to make lots of policy changes to regulate the waste that businesses produce and pass on to consumers.
  • However, the Waste Minimisation Act has not been used to its full potential.
  • Individuals have a role to play to let politicians know that we’d like to see them use policy tools, like the Waste Minimisation Act, to help New Zealand become less wasteful.

Action points

  • Have a read of some of our Be a Tirading Kiwi policy posts to learn more about New Zealand waste policy and what you can do to call for change.
  • Talk to your friends, family and colleagues about waste minimisation and see if you can support others around you to take small steps to reduce waste at home and at work – the more people on board, the louder our collective voice!




What’s policy change got to do with efforts to reduce household waste? Aren’t these different roles for different people?

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, often 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.

First, 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.

Second, 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 walk 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.

Having said that, we strongly feel that it’s not up to individuals alone to solve society’s waste problems.

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 they currently do). There are some products that are difficult to avoid (like car tyres or medical-related waste) and without proper recycling or stewardship schemes for when these products reach the end of their life, the capacity for individuals to reduce their waste footprint is compromised.

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. We simply cannot wait around in the hope that businesses and governments will regulate themselves without us applying pressure, but we need to apply pressure in an informed, effective way.

We need to know what is possible and what’s standing in our 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 a piece of legislation called the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 (WMA), which could allow us to make huge leaps forward in our waste policy (e.g. banning or levying many problematic products like single-use plastics, introducing bottle deposit schemes, and making businesses like electronics or textile producers responsible for the waste their products produce). However, when we do our talks and workshops across the country and we ask “who’s heard of the Waste Minimisation Act?”, hardly anyone puts up their hand, despite the fact that our audience attendees are usually, at least partially, waste conscious (many very much so).

We want people to know about the WMA, for two reasons:

  1. The WMA could allow us to make sea changes in our waste policy.
  2. In 10 years of its existence, the parts of the WMA that could be used to reduce our society’s waste production and to regulate business’ waste have almost never been used (except for the implementation of a very low waste disposal levy, the banning of microbeads, and the ban of single-use plastic bags).

It’s a scandal that the WMA is so under-utilised. While other countries are developing and innovating with effective waste policy, here in New Zealand we don’t even use 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 are quite one-sided.

And so we say, it’s time for all of us to push for real action on waste, help to reduce New Zealand’s dismal waste statistics, and see government and industry keep step with the waste minimisation efforts currently being taken by community groups, small businesses, and everyday people.

To find out more about the Waste Minimisation Act, check out our next post about it.

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