Tackling New Zealand's waste mountains

by Teresa Cowie / 05 September, 2017

Photo: Samuel Mann / CC BY 2.0

In the past few decades New Zealanders have evolved from being 'Tidy Kiwis' to the most diligent of recyclers, but how much difference is it really making to our massive waste mountain?

Every year, New Zealanders produce about 15.5 million tonnes of waste, but only about 28 percent of that it recycled. The rest goes to landfill, farm dumps or is dumped illegally.

Only about a third of the country's rubbish comes from our household bins the rest comes from businesses, construction and demolition, and industry.

And despite our best efforts at rinsing and sorting the recycling, a recent review of a levy we pay on wasteshows the amount of rubbish we're chucking in the landfill just keeps growing.

In the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes, Candace Weir, husband Max Barwell and their three children Nena (10), Marcy (3), and Naomi (2) are on a mission to get to zero waste.

By mid-August, they had not had to wheel their council bin to the kerb for collection even once this year.

Even the recent renovation of their kitchen had not set them back.

The only thing still left behind was some polystyrene packaging the new cabinets came in. It has been waiting under the carport for the next time the family takes a trip to the recycling plant that handles it on the other side of town.

Candace Weir said the idea of going zero-waste had not come from a desire to be a virtuous green citizen but a more pragmatic one: to save money.

"When I was pregnant, I was looking at ways to save money and we came across cloth nappies as an option, so I just started to look at some other areas of waste reduction like composting, and around that time I joined a community garden and stumbled into a waste reduction group."

BarwellWeir family L-R - Candace Weir, Marcy Weir (3), Nena Weir (10) , Max Barwell, Naomi Weir (2) are on a mission to get to Zero waste Photo: ( RNZ / Clare Eastham Farrelly

They now produce about a handful of landfill waste a week, which they keep in an old ice-cream container in the cupboard under the sink.

Ms Weir said while it may seem daunting to many families, it was just about tackling one area at a time and then seeing how you go.

"Just take small steps, like taking your own bags to the supermarket or going to a composting workshop" she advised.

Her husband Max said they used to avoid recycling and aim for completely refusing or reducing, but with three children they had been forced to relax that a bit.

"We just do our best and try not to get too hung up on being 'perfect'."

Food scraps make up 60 percent of household waste, so the Barwell/Weirs have set a couple of systems to tackle it.

In the carport a couple of black buckets hold the Bokashi compost - where food waste of any kind including cooked food - ferments in Bokashi bins.

The Barwell/Weir family have yet to completely fill a rubbish bin so far this year Photo: ( RNZ / Clare Eastham Farrelly )

Like most busy families, they love a 'quick fix' so being able to chuck all the food scraps in one place without too much hassle was proving a winner.

"We just sprinkle some of the Bokashi mix on top and once it's full, we'll leave it to ferment for about 10 days and then it's ready to dig into the garden".

There are some parts to living a zero-waste lifestyle they would be glad to see the back of, however. With their third child Naomi having just turned two, the end of washing out all those cloth nappies was coming closer.

"We're used to cloth nappies, but even so, I feel like the day that I wash and scrape 'stuff' off our last nappy, yeah ... we're gonna have a party".

Across town in Avondale, Kevin Graham has had a waste-cutting epiphany too.

He's the managing director and founder of Friendlypak, a company which imports and makes commercially and domestically compostable plastic and plant-based packaging.

Friendlypak founder, Kevin Graham says you could eat this plant-based packaging...if you're that way inclined Photo: RNZ/Teresa Cowie

In the 1980s the former plastics engineer was at the forefront of transforming New Zealand's packaging industry from reusable glass and metal to disposal plastics.

While that might ignite the rage of today's anti-plastic campaigners, he said at the time it was very exciting technology.

"Everybody saw it as new and convenient, and the packaging costs went down".

He said companies were extremely keen to take on the new technology.

"Plastic was lighter and cheaper to transport...if glass broke on a production line you'd have to stop the whole factory and clean the lines and it was a huge cost".

How he felt about his high-flying career in plastics took a major turn while he was away travelling for work, however.

"In my travels I saw the litter and the landfills filling up with the plastic packaging. I had a couple of epiphanies, with my mouth wide open, where I saw the horrific damage it was doing to the environment."

As someone who spends a lot of time cleaning and sorting recycling, I'm surprised to see in Kevin Graham's showroom, that there are so many compostable products that are already available, and wonder why - when the technology is already there - they are not more widely used.

Mr Graham said it simply came down to cost. 

"Most of our products are more expensive than traditional packaging, so that certainly slows it down".

Kevin Graham, founder of Friendlypak wants councils to start collecting compost from households Photo: RNZ/Teresa Cowie

The other problem was in making it easy for people to get them composted.

Running a decent compost is not possible or palatable to everyone, so he said he would like to see a bin that takes both food scraps and plant-based packaging together - collected from every home - to make waste reduction easy for everyone.

He has been doing his best to convince councils to collect organics bins from households and to build up their commercial composting facilities, but it costs money and councils are not quite there yet.

He was optimistic it would be possible in the near future though, and said he would like to see more regulation and economic disincentive for those who make plastic packaging and give products like his a fighting chance at making a difference to waste reduction.


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