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A huge waste management overhaul is here: How can local councils make the most of it?

Michael Worth Michael Worth

A small piece of legislation passed into law this year without much fanfare: the Waste Minimisation (Information Requirement) Regulations 2021. As you might have guessed, it’s not exactly a holiday page turner to take to the beach this summer. But it is important, because it’s a signpost of the direction the Government is taking with waste management – something that will have an impact on not only every local council, but every Kiwi household as well.

The new regulations make it mandatory for waste management facilities to keep records about the waste they’re receiving and where it’s going. This is the first step in overhauling New Zealand’s waste management systems – it tells stakeholders what’s currently happening to the country’s waste, and sets a baseline so decisions can be made about how to improve our waste management.

A compliance challenge for councils

This new legislation aims to measure waste received and recycled (diverted from landfill), and once it’s been in place for long enough, the Government might use the data to rank councils’ performance - effectively name and shame the worst-performing regions. For some waste collection facilities, compliance with these regulations will be relatively straightforward because they already have the equipment and systems in place to measure movements in waste. For other waste collection facilities, this is going to be a huge challenge.

Given how little attention the new regulations have received, complying with these rules isn’t likely to be high on anyone’s priority list. Some councils might be tempted to charge people with the task of producing some numbers in Excel rather than taking the opportunity to fundamentally change the way waste movement data is collected and utilised.

If, instead, councils invest in the right advice and pursue fit for purpose infrastructure, processes, and platforms, they’ll have sustainable systems that will save money in the long run - while also producing high quality data. To achieve this will require support from senior leadership, time, and money invested in selecting and setting up new infrastructure. Done right, this should create genuine insights into local waste management, identify problems and spark solutions. In addition, these regulations are likely to be the first step toward mandated recycling or waste reduction targets, so by getting the right systems in place now, councils will be better prepared for expanded legislation in the future.

Once councils have this information, even if it paints a sobering picture of current waste management practices, at least it provides a starting point from which to improve performance in the form of waste diversion. As inconsequential as these new regulations might seem, it should be the start of overhauling our waste management systems. If we can do a better job of reducing our waste, we will reduce New Zealand’s carbon footprint and get closer to achieving our climate change goals.

Our rubbish performance

Unfortunately, New Zealand’s performance on waste management is pretty abysmal. We have one of the highest per-person waste generation rates in the world and waste contributes around 4% of Aotearoa’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Our record on recycling is also disappointing, with different councils each taking a variety of approaches to sorting and collecting household recyclables – what Recycle NZ describes as “a vague and scattered approach”.

The best way to maximise household recycling is to separate at source before it is picked up, either at kerbside, businesses, or drop offs at collection points. Separation at source results in the cleanest sources of material that can be recycled for the highest uses. Instead, many councils have gone for a lower-cost commingled option with a single recycling bin for every type of recyclable material. This results in mixing and contamination which leads to far lower levels of recyclability, which is why Auckland’s only pulp recycling centre refuses to accept paper and cardboard from Auckland households and why 50% of comingled recycling collection often goes to landfill.

Whangarei’s council has one of the best systems in the country: a kerbside collection service with staff who will check your crates, leave behind anything that will contaminate the whole truck, and provide written guidance to help you understand what you can and can’t recycle. Residents learn really fast. Whangarei is on the right track: Sweden has seven different recycling bins for each household, less than 1% of its rubbish goes into landfill and 46% of its household waste is turned into energy.

For New Zealand to reduce its carbon emissions and move toward zero waste, in the near future we could see waste linked to individual households. Hawkes Bay District Council already has tagged bins that are recorded by its trucks, so it knows exactly how often it has collected waste from each address. It then provides rebates to low waste residents. It’s quite possible that we could move to a user pays system, where you get a statement each month from your council with a fee for waste by weight, similar to the way some homeowners get a monthly water statement.

Transfer stations need up their game

It’s not only households that need to step up – they’re only one link in the chain. The easiest improvements will be from waste management facilities. There’s only a limited number of transfer and refuse stations around New Zealand so it’s very achievable to raise the standard at all of them. Top performing transfer stations can divert 60%+ of waste from landfill – an amazing result!

Currently, New Zealand’s waste management facilities are a mixture of privately owned and council owned, which means that conflicts of interest can arise. There are some excellent operators out there who do far more than is required to minimise our waste. But worryingly, contractors can be incentivised to dump more if councils are paying for waste delivered to landfill.

Hopefully that will change now every facility, privately or publicly owned, must keep and report these records quarterly.

It starts with hardware: each transfer station should have weighbridge(s) to record waste and recycling movements in and out of the facility, this is the preferred method in the Act for measuring waste movements. And honestly, that’s the easy part. More complex are the processes, and a system to store that data, as well as the ability for councils to report back to their teams, Government and even individual households about their contribution to a cleaner, greener Aotearoa.


For further information, contact:

Michael Worth

Partner, Consulting
M: +64 21 583 303

Elisha Nuttall

Senior Manager, Consulting
M: +64 27 201 7398