Waste-to-Energy: Sending Zero Waste Up in Flames

Waste-to-Energy: Sending Zero Waste Up in Flames

Key Points

  • Waste-to-energy incineration proposals for municipal solid waste are popping up around NZ.
  • Regardless of what waste-to-energy proponents claim, burning rubbish is not zero waste. It’s a continuation of the linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy, which is unsustainable and the anathema of zero waste.
  • We need to focus on reducing our waste in the first place through better collection and sorting of material streams, and much better waste policy. Big investments in infrastructure like waste-to-energy that feeds off linear approaches will simply delay zero waste outcomes.

Action Points

  • Listen to the Waste-to-Energy episode of the How to Save the World podcast.
  • Listen to this interview with Zero Waste Network Chairperson, Marty Hoffart, on Newstalk ZB about why waste-to-energy incineration of our household rubbish is a bad idea.
  • Read this position statement from Para Kore on Waste-to-Energy incineration.
  • Read this article by Dr Trisia Farrelly on The Conversation.
  • Check out the Regeneration Not Incineration FAQ sheet.
  • Sign the Regeneration Not Incineration petition if you agree that waste-to-energy incineration of municipal solid waste is not our future.
  • Share this information with friends, family and Councillors, including those who think waste-to-energy incineration of household waste is a good idea. You can find a whole range of NZ-specific waste-to-energy information and community resources on the Zero Waste Network website here.

Have you heard about waste-to-energy technologies? It’s the answer to all this plastic we don’t have anything to do with – we can just BURN it all! Or, we can put it in a machine where you deprive it of oxygen and turn it into gas and then we can BURN the gas! Or, we can put it into another machine that will turn it into fuel and then we can BURN the fuel! Have you seen what they do in Scandinavia? Don’t all the hippies love those Nordic countries? You all must LOVE how they make their rubbish disappear while turning it into energy. Plastic recycling sucks so why not BURN it?

IT’S ZERO WASTE. If we say it enough times, does it make it true? Burning waste is zero waste. Make the waste, then you burn the waste. Some waste minus burnt waste = ZERO WASTE. Makes perfect sense, right?


Eep! So, straight up, The Rubbish Trip does not support waste-to-energy ‘solutions’ for mixed household waste. We take this position while also advocating for a move away from landfills. How is that possible? Because we’re spending every iota of energy we have on advocating for a zero waste approach to waste. The zero waste approach to waste is pretty much the circular economy concept.

In a nutshell, burning or burying waste once you’ve already made the waste are both linear ‘take-make-dispose’ approaches that do nothing to challenge or disrupt continued waste creation. Continuing to create and dispose of waste means continually having to extract raw materials and make new products from scratch. Last we checked, climate change and resource depletion make this untenable in the long-term.

If we want to be zero waste, we need to stop making so much waste. That’s the only way. Burning or burying waste that we cannot do anything else with is not, never has been, never will be, zero waste.

But let’s be real.

Our society makes waste, that’s why we have landfills… What are we supposed to do with all the waste, you Smart Alec party poopers?

Good question. We need to tackle the direct problem and take action to change our society’s continued production of waste. And yes, it’s very urgent that we do this.

First, is all this stuff even waste or is it just misplaced resources? Most of what households send to landfill in NZ is reusable, recyclable or compostable. However, our collection systems frequently involve mixing different material streams together, causing contamination and thus reducing reusability, recyclability or compostability. We’re taking resources, jumbling them together, then creating a big mess. This is silly. An obvious place to start to fix this is to implement a few bans on landfilling certain types of materials, ALONGSIDE investing in better sorting and collection infrastructure (including community resource recovery centres). This way we can get recyclables and compostables OUT of our waste stream and recycle and compost them.

Then, we need to start regulating the stupid shit that we can’t recycle or compost so that we actually stop making and using it all the time. Like single-use disposable plastics. This is why The Rubbish Trip went all loopy loo about the Government’s proposed product stewardship schemes because this could actually mean we make less waste in the first place, while implementing proper systems that ensure we recycle and compost all the stuff that we can.

But can’t we do all this stuff and burn residual waste?

Have you heard of the concepts of ‘path dependency’ or ‘lock in’?  Getting to zero waste requires us to start doing things a bit differently. Changing the status quo is hard enough as it is. Can you imagine the impact that investing gazillions of dollars in a waste burning plant would do? Large scale incinerators need to be fed huge volumes of waste each year in order for investors to get a return on that investment. This is obviously going to create a great big fat disincentive to reduce waste generation.

Regeneration Not Incineration – the petition and FAQs

Given our views expressed above, and given our concerns about waste-to-energy proposals cropping up around the country (for example, on the West Coast, Huntly and now Waimate), various waste-to-energy investors attempting to woo communities across NZ, and local government representatives apparently impressed also, we were starting to feel a slight sense of urgency and alarm. Others were too.

So, we linked up with Zero Waste Network Aotearoa, and some other zero waste advocates, to create the Regeneration Not Incineration petition, which calls on the Associate Minister for the Environment to rule-out waste to energy incineration for mixed municipal solid waste in New Zealand. If you agree with this petition, feel free to add your signature.

When we threw this petition out to the universe, we got lots of questions. So, we created this FAQ document. If you have any questions, please refer to this FAQ document first. If some things are unclear or unanswered, feel free to ask us further questions. 

2 thoughts on “Waste-to-Energy: Sending Zero Waste Up in Flames”

  • But if you re referring to large-scale trash incinerators, often called waste-to-energy plants, then the picture gets a lot fuzzier. Such plants torch garbage at very high temperatures, creating steam that is then used to generate electricity and sometimes also heat buildings. They are quite popular in Europe, where they don t have nearly as much open space to fill with landfills as we do, but they remain rather controversial around these parts.

    • Hmm… can’t say that we’d agree that the picture gets fuzzier. In fact, the focus of this post is large-scale trash incinerators. Many people feel that the picture gets fuzzier when you’re looking at small-scale incinerators or gasification that doesn’t require the same level of through-flow (we still think they’re problematic unless there’s a commitment to get into some really detailed policy stuff about in-built obsolescence to avoid path dependency and so on). For large-scale trash incinerators, we feel it’s pretty clear cut, particularly from a circular economy or zero waste perspective.

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