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More than 10 billion cigarette butts are polluting our ecosystem. Photo/KNZB National Litter Audit 2019 Report.

Litter bugs and butts: Kiwis not doing 'the right thing'

As New Zealand’s population and tourism has grown, so has the litter problem. 

More than 10 billion cigarette butts litter New Zealand – more than 2000 butts per person. And it doesn’t count the millions of fag-ends – laced with lead, arsenic and cadmium – that are washed into our waterways every year.

Cigarette butts account for almost 80 percent of all littered items across the country. They’re dropped on footpaths and public spaces, stubbed out in sand and tossed from car windows – often by people who wouldn’t consider jettisoning their drink cans or fast-food wrappers while driving.

Keep New Zealand Beautiful’s 2019 national litter audit, released today, suggests it’s no time to retire the “Be a Tidy Kiwi” campaign. Besides the cumulative scourge of cigarette butts, KNZB’s survey estimated there are 394,965,000 litres of littered disposable nappies scattered across New Zealand; 3,686,340,000 individual fragments of littered plastic; and 258,043,800 litres of takeaway containers.

The audit also calculated the amount of illegal dumping happening across the country’s highways and railways – a massive 265,324,848 litres. 

“For the first time, New Zealanders now know exactly how much rubbish we are accumulating and what that rubbish actually is,” says KNZB chief executive Heather Saunderson.

“As we looked at the count, weight and volume, some of the results are on par with international studies. However, there are some surprises as well, such as the volume of disposable nappies littered across New Zealand. Enough to fill 158 Olympic-size swimming pools. So there’s much work still to be done.”

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The audit also identified Speights, McDonald's and DB as the most common brands found on discarded items. Other alcohol brands also featured heavily.

Getting lazy Kiwis to walk a few metres would solve many of the most obvious problems of litter. A recent behavioural study by KNZB found the average distance between a litterer and a bin, when they litter, is only 8.4m.

The audit, developed in consultation with Statistics New Zealand, the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment, ran from February to July and compiled data through the physical inspection and visual counting of litter. A minimum of five areas per local authority were audited across a mix of site types and all results were quoted against a 1000m2 site area and extrapolated across the area of New Zealand.

Saunderson says the audit sites, which were counted then cleared of rubbish, will be revisited within three years to better understand “the litter flux”.

The “Tidy Kiwi” campaign of the 1970s and 80s made a comeback last year, targeting children through school programmes. But it’s a small part of the answer to New Zealand’s waste mountain. With a fast-growing population exacerbating the problem, Kiwis now generate some of the highest levels of waste in the developed world – around 735kg each per year. Even as curb-side recycling and composting steps up, waste going to landfills has increased by around 30% over the past seven years.

Smokers, meanwhile, could think before they toss. Those chemical-filled butts – sometimes mistaken for tasty morsels by fish and birds – can take from two months to three years to degrade, depending on where they end up.

Get involved and help keep NZ beautiful at KNZB’s G.J. Gardner Homes Clean Up Week, 9-15 September.