Wasting our time talking rubbish:
Frameworks for addressing the waste explosion

Dec 7, 2020 · 11 min read

Senior Consultant Andrew Horwood looks at two influential frameworks for tackling the problem of waste — the circular economy and the waste hierarchy — and at how they are both reflected in government thinking and planning around waste in Aotearoa.

In 2005, among other pet welfare measures, Rome’s city council banned round goldfish bowls. The argument against round bowls is, apparently, that they’re disorienting for the fish (and also usually too small).

In tackling the planet’s exploding waste problem though (described in the first article in this series), experts agree that circles are better than straight lines. The “circular economy” is an influential model, and one that has informed government thinking in Aotearoa, including a suite of planned measures announced in July this year.

In this article I’ll look at the circular economy and another key framework for minimising waste — the waste hierarchy. Both frameworks have informed the recent landmark report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientific Advisor Rethinking Plastics and also the Government’s statements and plans for reducing waste.


I’ll start by looking at what the circular economy obviously isn’t — a linear economy. A linear economy involves taking resources, making something, using the product, and then discarding it as waste.

Many of our products are made, used, and discarded in a way that reflects this model. In New Zealand this includes an estimated 200 million single-use plastic straws, 295 million disposable cups, and enough wet wipes for almost one per second to flow through a Watercare treatment plant in Auckland. Add to that hundreds of millions of fruit stickers, coffee stirrers, plastic cutlery and countless other items designed to be used and thrown away.

In a circular economy, once goods are used they are returned to the system through reuse, repair, remaking or recycling, rather than sent to waste.

The Ministry for the Environment describes a circular economy as one where “we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.”

By reducing waste, pollution, and demand for new natural resources, the circular economy should also contribute to regenerating earth’s natural systems.


The “waste hierarchy” provides an order of preference for different waste management options. It complements the circular economy model by guiding people on the best ways to keep materials circulating within the economy.

There are different variations of the waste hierarchy, but here we include the “improved” version presented in the Rethinking Plastics report.

Each level of the waste hierarchy above “disposal” at the very bottom is preferable to those below it when it comes to waste management. Here’s a run through the levels, from the bottom to the top:

· Disposal means the landfilling of waste. It’s the least desirable outcome as it takes materials out of circulation, and so requires sourcing new materials from natural resources.

· Recycling means salvaging and separating used materials and processing them into new products — this removes or reduces the need for consuming virgin material.

· Reuse means preserving the value, usefulness and function of a product so it can be used again. Unlike recycling the form of the product stays the same — for example, reusing a glass bottle as opposed to crushing it and melting it into a new glass bottle (think Swappa Crates).

· Reduce means using less resources and consuming products only if you need them. It also includes considering the environmental footprint of the products we consume — that is, if we need to consume a product, we should use the option with the smallest footprint.

· Replace means substituting products and materials that can work at higher levels of the waste hierarchy for those that can only work at lower levels — for example, using products that can be recycled, composted or reused rather than disposable single-use items.

· Refuse is simply about declining to use products altogether — when a shop offers you a bag for instance.

· Rethink refers to redesigning systems so that less material goes to waste. A “rethink” may involve other layers of the waste hierarchy, like enabling more products to be reused, or replacing single-use with reusable products.

So, by moving up the layers in the waste hierarchy, we keep material in circulation for longer — this reduces the amount we dispose of and therefore the amount of raw materials we need to keep drawing from the environment.


The waste hierarchy model shows that most of the levels each have a better and a worse alternative. Recycling is vastly preferable to landfilling, and so it’s ranked above it in the waste hierarchy. But recycling is also vastly inferior to refusing to use new material in the first place.

Let’s look at some examples.

Recycling vs landfilling

Recycling is clearly preferable to landfilling. Landfilling removes potentially useful material from the supply chain, creating a need for virgin material to make new products and further embedding the linear economy. Recycling means less need to fell trees for new paper and cardboard, less need to find and extract petroleum to make new plastic, and less need to find and extract bauxite to produce aluminium.

In avoiding the need for virgin resources, recycling saves energy:

“Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new cans from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent; recycling paper saves about 60 percent; and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared to making those products from virgin materials. In fact, the energy saved by recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.” (National Geographic, 31 October 2018)

Saving energy almost certainly means reducing emissions, even with New Zealand’s national grid being dominated by electricity generation from renewable sources.

Recycling also reduces the pressure on landfills and the natural environment (both from litter and from avoiding the need to extract new resources).

Recycling vs reusing

It’s better than landfilling, but recycling is still ranked relatively low in the waste hierarchy. Here’s why….

Some recyclable materials can be recycled only a limited number of times before the fibres become too worn. While glass, steel and aluminium can be recycled indefinitely, plastic can be recycled only seven to nine times, and paper only four to six times, according to Auckland Council. So some recycling is really “downcycling” — also called “cascading” — where the recycled material is inferior to and less functional than the original material.

Paper can be recycled into lower quality paper or cardboard, but this doesn’t work in reverse. If we turned all the trees in the world into paper, we could recycle that paper into cardboard, but eventually we’d be living in a world without paper. So while good recycling processes can greatly reduce the need for landfill space and for virgin materials, recycling can’t eliminate those needs altogether.

However, for plastic and paper, operating at the higher, greener levels of the waste hierarchy can eliminate those needs. For example, refilling and reusing a drink bottle can eliminate the need for buying water in a single-use plastic bottle. Similarly, if you use your laptop or mobile to take notes, you can refuse notepaper.

Eliminating the need for reprocessing recyclable material also reduces the need for energy, resources (like water), and associated costs and emissions. To recycle a plastic bottle in New Zealand it needs to be collected, driven to a material recovery facility, sorted, bundled with other plastics of the same kind, taken to a reprocessing facility (perhaps overseas), reprocessed into a product, and transported back to market.

All of this requires quite a lot of energy, and almost certainly entails carbon emissions. So, if there is a way to just reuse a product in its current form and avoid the need for recycling, that is certainly preferable as a waste management measure. For example, the Swappa Crate system is preferable to recycling glass bottles, according to the waste hierarchy. Why crush a bottle and turn it into a new one when you can simply reuse the bottle you started with?

And again, while many Wellington sushi sellers have shifted to recyclable packaging for takeaway sushi and to compostable chopsticks, the waste hierarchy shows it’s better to use your own reusable container and reusable chopsticks. Kudos to retailers that offer a discount for bringing your own container.


The Government has been invoking the circular economy and the thinking behind it for some time. In 2018, then-Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage noted:

“New Zealand needs to transition towards a sustainable economy taking a circular economy approach. We need products which are designed to be reused indefinitely, made into something new or returned to nature, where valuable resources are kept cycling in the economy rather than sent to landfill.”

The Government has had a number of workstreams underway to reduce waste and push New Zealand towards a more circular economy. Much of the focus is, understandably, on doing better at recycling and so getting off the bottom rung of the waste hierarchy. For example, the Government is taking action to achieve more consistent kerbside collection of recyclables, to make the recycling system work better and allow more material to be recycled (we’ll look at the recycling system in a future article in this series.)

But government statements also indicate it understands that a circular economy requires a more ambitious approach that gets New Zealand working higher up the waste hierarchy.

Bans on single-use and hard-to-recycle plastic items

On 1 July 2019 the Government banned single-use shopping bags (with handles) made from plastic up to 70 microns thick — a major step that combined several layers of the waste hierarchy at once. Since the ban, a quick look around your local supermarket shows that, in response, New Zealanders have been replacing, reusing, refusing and rethinking.

Most obviously, we’ve been replacing those planet-destroying single-use bags with reusable ones made of various materials. But I know my own adaptations have also included a bit of refusing — making do without a separate shopping bag and stuffing the shopping in my backpack when I’m buying four or five things on the way home from work.

The Government is now considering using the tools in the Waste Minimisation Act to make similar bans. It has consulted on mandatory phase-outs of some hard-to-recycle plastic packaging, namely plastic resin types 3 (PVC) and 6 (polystyrene), and also some common single-use plastic items for which greener alternatives are readily available, like straws, drink stirrers, and cotton buds.

“Stewardship” schemes for problem products

In July, the Government declared six problematic products to be “priority products” for regulated product stewardship schemes — namely, plastic packaging, tyres, electrical and electronic products (e-waste), agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants, and farm plastics.

Regulated product stewardship under the Waste Minimisation Act makes producers responsible for specific products at the end of the product’s life. It ensures the costs of proper waste management are paid by producers and consumers, not by communities and the environment.

The circular economy and the waste hierarchy are explicit parts of this regulatory system. The official Guidelines refer several times to “circular resource use”. The Guidelines also require applications for accreditation of a particular scheme to explain how it will help achieve, among other things, “increasing end-of-life management of the priority product higher up the waste hierarchy to support transition to a circular economy in New Zealand”.

The waste hierarchy in these Guidelines is similar but a bit different to the one I described above from the Rethinking Plastics report — it goes, with descending priority, “waste prevention, reuse, recycling, recover (materials and energy), treatment and disposal”. “Recovery” is important in this context for collecting and disposing safely of harmful substances such as refrigerants.

Waste disposal levy

The Government is also expanding and increasing the Waste Disposal Levy to divert material from landfill, and put the revenue into resource recovery and waste minimisation. The levy is currently charged to landfill operators at a rate of $10 per tonne of household waste. However, the landfill operator can pass this cost on to the households, businesses and other waste producers that use the landfill.

As well as applying the levy to all the country’s landfills, not just those taking household waste, the changes will see the amount of the levy increase six-fold over four years, with the first increase planned for July 2021.

Assuming landfill operators pass on the increases, New Zealand households and businesses will all have a much bigger incentive — up to $60 for a tonne of rubbish — to rethink exactly what and how much we’re throwing away.

A new container return scheme

Minister Sage announced in September that work had begun on developing a container return scheme:

“An estimated two billion glass, plastic, aluminium, paperboard and other single use drink containers are consumed each year in New Zealand. While many containers are recovered and recycled, too many others end up in landfills, or as litter on streets and in streams, the beach and other public spaces.”

The new scheme would, she said, “require beverage containers — such as plastic PET bottles — to carry a refundable deposit, for example 10 to 20 cents (or more). The deposit is redeemed when the container is returned to a collection depot or other drop-off point.”

Depending on how it’s designed, a return scheme can encourage recycling (over landfilling), or refilling and reuse (over recycling). It’s an important difference — Happy Returns, a report prepared for the independent NZ Product Stewardship Council, noted that “Refillable containers have a number of advantages over single-use bottles including lower energy use, fewer CO2 emissions, and reduced costs for industry when scaled.”

The energy savings with reusing rather than recycling bottles lie not just in the production processes but also in transportation — Happy Returns says that in Germany, refillable glass bottles:

“will be refilled 50 times or more and are only transported over short distances (50 km on average). In contrast, one-way packaging is transported over longer distances (250 km on average).”

The report also says that businesses using “one-way” bottles rather than refillable can spend 4 to 5 times as much on packaging.


We’ll have to wait until the draft container return scheme is released to see how far up the waste hierarchy the Government will aim to go with this. But at the very least, like all the other initiatives I’ve described here, the scheme will be a worthwhile step that will reduce the amount of material going to landfill and increase the amount circulating in the economy.

From the Exosphere

From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from…

From the Exosphere

From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from the team at MartinJenkins. The exosphere is the last layer of atmosphere before space, offering an unrivalled view of our blue planet and where we might go next.


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From the Exosphere

From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from the team at MartinJenkins. The exosphere is the last layer of atmosphere before space, offering an unrivalled view of our blue planet and where we might go next.