The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 (WMA) is the primary piece of legislation regulating waste in New Zealand. The WMA’s main features are:
The Ministry for the Environment has a useful summary of the key features of 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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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!
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.
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.