Zero Waste in New Zealand in 2019: A Year in Review
What a year 2019 has been for the zero waste movement in NZ! While the movement has been growing steadily internationally for some time, 2019 felt like NZ’s year for raising the profile of this way of life. This is partly because loads of things happened in 2019 in NZ in the world of waste, not all good, but certainly all conversation starters. We’ve created a bit of a round-up, to remind us of the year that was.
Zero Waste Goes Mainstream
The zero waste movement got a big boost in the media in 2019, kickstarted on New Year’s Day, when well-known and thoroughly likeable TV Presenter Miriama Kamo publically resolved to try a waste-free January. By the end of the month she was hooked and keen to stick at it for the foreseeable. She’s now become a prominent advocate for the New Zealand zero waste lifestyle movement. Check out her interview on Breakfast TV with John Campbell, her segment on The Sunday TV Show, and a long-form interview on How to Save the World Podcast.
Zero waste also hit prime time telly when Kristy Lorson, the founder of the 28,000 strong FB group Zero Waste in NZ! and EarthSavvy featured in an episode of Wife Swap, bringing zero waste not only to her adopted family, but to all the households across the country that beamed in the episode. Kristy also featured in a great episode of Re: and even on Al Jazeera’s show The Stream (which, by the way, is an episode well worth watching for a great, multi-dimensional analysis of the zero waste movement).
Reaching people through bad news
In terms of reminding a general New Zealand audience about our urgent waste problems, it would be hard to deny the impact of the Fox River Landfill disaster. On 26 March 2019, an extraordinarily heavy 1-in-100-year downpour caused flooding in Westland, destroying the Waiho bridge and ripping into an old landfill on the Fox River. Half the landfill was decimated, spitting decades’ worth of rubbish onto the riverbanks and out into the ocean. Rubbish was subsequently dispersed over 70km+ of Westland coastline, in a World Heritage area containing marine reserves. Despite being dubbed NZ’s worst environmental disaster since the Rena oil spill, it took months for any significant central government response. The initial clean-up crew was entirely volunteer-led, coordinated by Westland resident and now local legend, Mike Bilodeau. We interviewed Mike for our podcast 7 weeks after the storm that caused the disaster. Then, in June, TVNZ Sunday ran an excellent story detailing the lack of support for the volunteer clean-up from authorities, the long-term implications, and the stark danger that a disaster like this will almost certainly happen again.
Eventually, DOC took over coordinating the clean-up from 19 June until its completion on 15 August (retrieving about 130,000kg of rubbish from the river and coastline), with support from Defence Force personnel, vehicles and equipment, and hundreds of volunteers from all over the country. Best effort must surely go to Te Kura Taumata o Panguru in Hokianga in the Far North, whose Principal, Mina Pomare-Peita, took two separate busloads of students on two back-to-back trips!!
While the clean-up job was laudable, untold amounts of rubbish was irretrievably lost at sea. The Fox River landfill still sits in a state of temporary protection; another large flood could still wash more out. Alarmingly, hundreds of closed, legacy landfills exist all around NZ, located near coastlines and waterways, also vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather events. The Fox River landfill disaster was a major wake-up call. The Ministry for the Environment is now leading a multi-agency effort to better understand the risks of NZ’s legacy landfills and what to do about them, so let’s hope something significant comes out of it.
Podcasts with a waste focus
Are you into podcasts AND zero waste? Well, this year was a good one for you then, as two new NZ-specific podcasts have launched that both have a strong waste theme running through them, bringing zero waste to yet more audiences:
How to Save the World, hosted by NZ’s original zero waste lifestyler, Waveney Warth, alongside comedian, Tim Batt. Although not exclusively zero waste focused, given Waveney’s background, many episodes are waste-related, really informative and NZ-focused (so highly relevant, to boot). In the first episode, Waveney describes how she and her husband, Matthew, embarked on their rubbish-free year way back in 2008. Another goodie is the ‘Is recycling legit?’ episode: an impressively insightful overview of the lay of the land in NZ when it comes to recycling, answering many common questions about what really happens to the stuff we put in our recycling bin
So Circular, hosted by Anthea Madill of Remix Plastic, alongside Helen Townsend of The Rubbish Whisperer. The lively podcast discusses sustainability and the circular economy and provides individuals with ways they can make a positive change in the world, alongside local examples of circular economy in action. Woohoo!
Zero Waste Business Initiatives
The rise of the packaging-free, zero waste grocery store
2019 saw a big spike in independent zero waste, packaging-free grocery stores opening across NZ. Auckland has had its fair share for a while now, thanks to chains GoodFor and The Source. In 2018, stores started opening elsewhere: Hopper, in Wellington, Be Free Grocer, in Palmerston North, The Sustainable Pantry in Waihi, Plastic Free Pantry’s zero waste grocery delivery system on Waiheke Island, and trend-setting Sustainance in Picton (sadly Sustainance closed this year – they were ahead of their time!).
In 2019, a whole bunch more stores opened: Refill Nation and Sprout the Grocer in Auckland, The Store Room in Te Awamutu, Re-Store in Thames, Unpakd in Napier, and Honest Wholefood Co in Wanaka and Hawea. Both GoodFor and The Source also branched out of Auckland this year—Goodfor now has a store each in Christchurch and in Wellington, and The Source has a store in Mount Maunganui.
All up, that’s a 110% increase in zero waste stores this year! While we’re still only at 19 stores nationwide, if things carry on at this rate, we’re expecting to see many more by the end of 2020. We already know that Forward will be opening in Whangārei very soon, so the pattern continues…
Zero Waste Spot
Do you want to know where all the waste-free shopping options are in your town? In 2019, we totally revamped our Regional Zero Waste Guides to be much more user-friendly AND we also launched Zero Waste Spot, with the help of Sugarcube Studios and Ana Aceves. Zero Waste Spot features our shopping guides in an interactive map, which works in lovely harmony with our text guides. If you haven’t checked these resources out already, do so now! Please, help us keep them up to date too, so they can be as useful and relevant as possible!
Innovation is the name of the game!
It wasn’t just packaging-free stores on the up this year. Heaps of enterprising people are innovating ways of getting all kinds of different goods to consumers with less waste. Reusable kegs have been a bit of a theme. In Dunedin, Spout Alternatives launched their keg system to get cow’s milk from the farm to cafes without any disposable bottles in sight. Meanwhile, toiletries and cleaning products company Kahuku Natural started using reusable kegs as bulk dispensers for their products. These go direct to bulk stores, allowing consumers to refill their bottles and the stores to return the empty kegs for endless refill too. 2019 was also the year that Glen Herud smashed his crowdfund campaign to create a ‘milk factory in a box’, which pasteurises milk on the farm and then goes straight to the café or outlet as a packaging-free dispenser. This could be a game changer for unpackaged milk – definitely one to watch.
Other businesses also have their sights on busting disposable takeaway cups and containers through innovations that vibe off the circular and sharing economies. Throughout 2019, Again Again coffee cup lending system, which launched in Wellington in late 2018, has spread across the country like wildfire, facilitating some important wins, like Auckland Zoo going single-use coffee cup free! The pre-existing Cupcycling scheme has also expanded around NZ, including into Nelson. In Wellington, Reusabowl launched a crowdfund campaign to create a reusable takeaway container service, with the plan of launching in Wellington in 2020. Watch this space!
Major supermarkets stop rejecting BYO containers at delis
And… 2019 was the year that NZ’s major supermarkets FINALLY agreed to allow BYO containers at their delis, after steadfastly refusing over previous months. Foodstuffs announced first, and Countdown followed. The next morning, everyone got food poisoning and died. Jokes, that didn’t happen. It’s all been fine. Note that while Countdown’s BYO policy is nationwide, Foodstuffs is restricted to the North Island (for now… *conspiratorial cackle*).
Exodus from the single-use coffee cup
In the wake of the launch of Again Again, the groundwork laid by Steph Fry of Cupcycling, and the extraordinary advocacy of Laura of UYO Aotearoa Café Guide, 2019 saw a big leap in the number of hospitality businesses ditching disposable coffee cups entirely. From Arobake, Lashings, and Sweet Release in Wellington, to The Roastery Door in Dunedin, Cartel HQ in Hastings, Auckland Zoo, the University of Otago, the Remarkables Market, and many more in between, brave businesses have been taking that first awkward step on to the dance floor and saying ‘actually, we don’t want to be a part of perpetuating this throwaway culture any longer’.
These hospo businesses have created a precedent likely to continue into 2020. In fact, in the fast growing #ReuseRevolution, an unspoken competition unfolded this year to see who/where will be crowned Aotearoa’s first disposable coffee cup-free town. Leading the pack is the SUCfree (Single-Use Cup-Free) Wanaka campaign. In the short time it’s been running, SUCfree Wanaka has gained a lot of traction, with a bunch of cafes in town already ditching disposable cups altogether. Keep up-to-date by liking them on FB, or why not get your town to start its own SUCfree campaign and beat Wanaka to it!
2019 was also the first year to host Use Your Own Cup Day – 11 December – which was a raging success! Put it in your calendar for 2020. Hopefully by then there will be MANY more throwaway cup-free zones to frequent across the country 🙂
Campsites and Festivals Rethink Waste
The laid-back, carefree Kiwi summer vibes that many holidaymakers try to create don’t always end well for our environment. However, in 2019 it seemed awareness both grew and translated into action. We’ve written previously about our shocking experience at Tōtaranui campsite in the Abel Tasman National Park, DOC’s largest campsite, where we witnessed campers throwing mountains of crap quality camping equipment (tents, foldable chairs, tarpoulans etc), recyclables, food waste straight into a skip bin that was emptied daily over the summer period. The camp managers who invited us were also utterly dismayed by the waste and wanted to do something about it…
Well, they did! Both Tōtaranui and DOC’s Coromandel campsites, who were experiencing similar problems, implemented a ‘Pack In, Pack Out’ policy for the 2018-19 summer – getting rid of the costly rubbish and recycling facilities, while encouraging campers to minimise the waste they brought with them in first place. DOC also put in place composting, worm farm and bokashi facilities for food waste in all these campsites. While there were unsurprisingly a few naysayers (and an unfortunate situation with a portable rubbish compactor), the response was largely positive – most campers (The Rubbish Trip included!) appreciated DOC’s efforts to reduce the waste being brought to the beautiful, wild, pristine areas they (and in fact, all of us) are stewards of. And so far, it seems to have been successful – the Tōtaranui and Coromandel campsites have kept the pack in pack out policy for this summer. Long may it continue to encourage less wasteful camping!
On a similar note, some of NZ’s big summer music festivals face similar problems to campsites. Rhythm and Vines is notorious for the images of its wasteland aftermath, while in 2019 the Soundsplash in Raglan had a 2-tonne pile of tents, airbeds and more left behind. A number of possible solutions have been proposed – from an outright ban on cheap, ‘single-use’ tents, to non-plastic alternatives like cardboard tents being trialled by some. It’ll be interesting to see how these pan out in 2020.
Waste Policy, Advocacy and Government Action
The 2019 Prize for Most Improved goes to…
… the seismic shifts in New Zealand waste policy. After relatively little activity for much too long (despite consistent demands from zero waste NGOs, community groups and commentators), 2019 was the year of BIG policy developments from Central Government, spearheaded by Associate Minister for the Environment, Eugenie Sage…
1. Single-use plastic shopping bags gone-skies
On 1 July 2019, the ban on single-use plastic shopping bags (passed in 2018) finally came into effect. For the month of July, it became a leisure activity to stand outside supermarkets and watch people who would never have dreamed to bring their own bag just a few weeks ago, somehow managing to walk into the supermarket with their cloth bags, or enjoy a sweet reunion with the miracle of their arms (who knew they could carry single items without the aid of a bag or balance numerous items precariously in the crooks of their elbows?). Despite concern about how elderly women would cope without plastic bags, it seemed they were the demographic most psychologically equipped—simply reverting to what they’d always done 50 years ago…
2. Moves to make producers responsible for their products’ waste…
If we had a dollar for every time people said to us something like “the Government should be focusing on getting companies to do more about their waste and all their packaging” we’d be very rich. We agree with this sentiment, which is why we were REALLY excited when, in August, the Minister announced that the Government would begin consulting on a proposal to declare 6 problematic items “priority products”, including packaging, farm plastics, tyres, and electronics, among other things.
Once a product is declared a ‘priority product’, a product stewardship scheme for that product must be developed. Product stewardship schemes make those who design, produce, sell, use or dispose of a product responsible for ensuring the product is effectively reduced, reused, recycled or recovered, and for managing any environmental harm that product causes when it becomes waste. Usually the greatest responsibility falls to producers and manufacturers, though others like consumers and retailers may have roles too. For more info on this proposal and its significance, see our infosheets or have a listen to Hannah’s interview with Wallace Chapman on RNZ. The public consultation closed on 4 October, so now we sit and wait for the results…
3. Bottle deposits like the old days?
Hot on the heels of the product stewardship announcement, in September 2019 the Minister announced that the Government would be funding a working group to design a nationwide container return scheme (i.e. beverage bottle deposit/refund system) for New Zealand. Such a scheme would see all drinks bottles carrying a 10-20c deposit, redeemed upon the bottle’s return to a collection point. This simple mechanism could lift the recovery rates of bottles to around 85% (much higher than our current rates of roughly 40%). While it’s still a way to go from designing a scheme to the Government actually putting one in place, the fact design is now underway does bring us one step closer. Great news for those who have been campaigning for this for some time now, including Warren Snow, Marty Hoffart, The Kiwi Bottle Drive, Zero Waste Network Aotearoa, and many more.
4. Raising and expanding the landfill levy and improving waste data?
In November 2019, the Government announced a further consultation to raise and expand the waste disposal levy (commonly referred to as the ‘landfill levy’). Currently, the levy is $10 per tonne and applies only to municipal landfills that accept household waste (about 11% of landfills covering roughly 45% of NZ’s total waste stream). The proposal also suggests using the Minister’s mandatory data gathering power so that NZ can begin to turn around its shockingly bad data on waste. The public consultation is open until 3 February 2020. Keep your eyes peeled for some submission-writing resources that we’ll release soon!
5. More bans on certain plastic items
In December 2019, off the back of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s report Rethinking Plastics (see below), the Government made yet another announcement that in 2020 it will consult on proposals to phase-out single-use packaging and beverage containers made of PVC and polystyrene, as well as other single-use plastic items, including plastic cutlery, cotton buds, fruit stickers and plastic stirrers. Hopefully the final proposal will be as comprehensive as possible.
New Campaigns Fighting for a Waste-Free World
Advocacy on structural-level waste issues grew in 2019, with some notable campaigns launching.
Regeneration not Incineration: Everyone knows landfills are totally shit. So why don’t we do what Sweden does and just burn all our rubbish in non-polluting, zero emission incineration plants and get energy from it? Win-win, right? Well, not really – these Waste to Energy (WtE) technologies are not nearly as great as they claim. A new campaign led by the Zero Waste Network, called Regeneration not Incineration, launched in October 2019 with a petition asking the government to rule out any and all proposed WtE incinerators now or in future. If you’d like to learn more, check out the WtE page on the Zero Waste Network’s website, and for thorough reading, see the FAQs on WtE incineration.
Plastic2Parliament: Launched by Christchurch-based Wade Bishop, the Plastic2Parliament campaign concept is simple: every week, send a letter to a designated MP (all parties included) with a bunch of plastic rubbish inside, calling on the MP to support and advocate policies to regulate and reduce the production and use of all kinds of plastics. The campaign was created on the premise that the plastic crisis cannot be solved by consumer choice alone, but requires significant political action. So far, participants have sent over 1000 parcels to 6 different MPs over 10 weeks. Several media outlets picked up on the campaign, including RNZ and Newshub, and it even got a few mentions from Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage in speeches and social media! There’s a bunch of info about the campaign on the group’s Facebook page, and they plan to hit the ground running in 2020 with plenty more parcels of plastic to MPs. Check it out!
Thumbs Up New Zealand: a petition that attracted almost 50,000 signatures was delivered to Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage in November. Driven by filmmaker Niamh Peren, the petition calls on a compulsory labelling system on all food and drink packaging to indicate whether the packaging is made of recycled material and/or whether it is recyclable in NZ. The petition also calls for this labelling system to go hand-in-hand with a unified nationwide waste and recycling framework, so that labelling can be consistent and relevant across the country.
Local level wins and fails
In 2019, community group Mahurangi Wastebusters took over two transfer stations in North Auckland and have transformed them into community resource recovery centres that are already diverting impressive amounts of waste from landfill! Mahurangi Wastebusters is run by some notable people in the world of zero waste, including Matthew Luxon (one half of NZ’s original zero waste lifestyle couple) and Trish Allen (co-founder of the world-renowned permaculture property, Rainbow Valley Farm).
In less wonderful news, Auckland Council have signed a 20 year contract to collect and divert Auckland’s food scraps to anaerobic digestion. While this will mean less food waste going to landfill, in this article Nick Morrison from GoWell Consulting explains why anaerobic digestion is not the future for processing organic waste, and sounds a word of warning against the expansion of this technology around the country. Meanwhile, New Plymouth District Council also announced it had started putting hard-to-recycle plastics (resin types 3-7) into local roads this year. This is a terrible idea that we hope is not replicated anywhere else in the country, as noted by the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council.
Waste-related Reports, Resources and Events
In 2019 a flurry of reports, research and resources emerged on various waste-related topics. This research is slowly building up our knowledge base about waste, as well as highlighting pretty big gaps still in need of filling:
- Compostable packaging: WasteMINZ continued to release resources elucidating the pitfalls and confusion around compostable packaging, including Best Practice Guidelines for businesses about advertising of compostable products, and a wealth of information for consumers about how to validate claims made about a product’s compostability. WasteMINZ have indicated that if businesses do not start to comply with the guidelines, they risk falling foul of the Fair Trading Act.
- National Resource Recovery Taskforce Situational Analysis Report: In May, a situational analysis report by the National Resource Recovery Taskforce (set up to consider options for New Zealand’s resource recovery sector in light of China’s import restrictions on recycling) was released under the Official Information Act. The report analyses the resource recovery sector in NZ and the impact of China’s policy decision. Although large sections of the report are redacted, the report still makes for illuminating reading about what’s happening with recycling in NZ.
- Plastics in the Environment: In July, Royal Society Te Apārangi released Plastics in the Environment, a NZ-focused overview of the creation, use and disposal of plastics; plastic debris in the environment; plastic’s effects on human, animal and environmental health; and how we can reduce plastic pollution.
- Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand: In December, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor released the groundbreaking Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report – a monumental overview of what is currently known about how we use and dispose of plastics in NZ, the public and environmental health impacts of plastics, the infrastructure needed to achieve a systems-wide overhaul of how we approach plastic, as well as a wide array of recommendations to the Government for addressing our plastics crisis.
- Litter Intelligence website: Litter Intelligence is a Sustainable Coastlines project funded by the Waste Minimisation Fund that collects data, provides insights and inspires action for a litter-free Aotearoa. The data is derived from citizen scientists who attend training sessions and input data into the system. Analysis of the data is then produced for local and international reporting purposes, but also translated into concrete actions individuals can take to reduce their litter impact. While the Litter Intelligence project launched in 2018, the website launched this year and is a really valuable resource. We highly recommend checking it out!
Some interesting panel and speaker events also took place this year:
- In July, Kim Hill chaired a panel entitled The Packaging Dilemma analysing how to balance food safety and waste minimisation. The full audio is available on the RNZ website.
- In August the Sustainable Business Network held a full day conference The End of Plastic As We Know It, featuring a range of impressive speakers. You can read a summary of the key takeaways from the event on the SBN website, where you can also pay to watch videos of some or all of the conference.
- In December, the Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance held its inaugural AGM and included a public expert panel discussion at Te Papa on Navigating Plastic Pollution in Aotearoa. The audio for the event is available on the APPA website.
Wow, what a year! We have high hopes for 2020 after all the momentum built up over 2019. We also note that 2020 is an election year. One of our big goals for 2020 is to ensure that whoever the Minister will be post-September, that NZ continues to move forward on the gains made this year in waste policy, and certainly that we avoid any backwards slippage. We also look forward to seeing continued growth in the zero waste movement and continued normalisation of this way of living – in the media, in workplaces, households and community spaces. We’re keen to see more high-level research that helps us better understand the kind of policy and individual actions that can make the biggest difference. And we’re excited to see all the new businesses and innovations that 2020 will bring!
Bring on 2020!