From the Exosphere
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From the Exosphere

Wasting our time talking rubbish: Why write about waste?

Introducing our new series on New Zealand’s ongoing waste explosion and how to address it, Senior Consultant Andrew Horwood explains why it’s a good time to be thinking and writing about waste.

If you are what you eat, the average central Wellington office worker is 80% coffee, and 15% sushi, topped off with a cheese scone. Although more cardboard and (semi‑)compostable materials are coming on the scene, the coffee probably still comes in a plastic-lined takeaway cup and the sushi in a plastic tray with little plastic containers for soy sauce. Coffee, sushi and scone were probably also all made from ingredients that arrived onsite in plastic.

Many Wellingtonians also bus to work with plastic Snapper cards, make their tea with tea bags sealed with plastic, remove make up with plastic wet wipes, and use countless other plastic products, including many you might not think of — from clothing, to cigarettes (the plastic is in the filters), to balloons and glitter.

The fact that plastic is everywhere shows of course that it’s really useful for many purposes. Plastic polymers can be manipulated and combined with additives to give plastics many different properties. But the durability of plastic creates massive problems: once most of these items are used, they’re effectively with us forever.

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor recently released Rethinking Plastics, a major report containing 51 recommendations, which the government has recently responded to. The ubiquity and durability of plastics — they’re everywhere, forever — presents some very specific waste challenges, but many of the lessons here will also be relevant for problems created by other materials. For this reason Rethinking Plastics is a landmark for New Zealand’s efforts to tackle the wider problem of waste, not just plastics.

Against that background of greater focus on exactly what and how much we’re throwing away here in Aotearoa, we are publishing our new insight series of articles on waste. In this first article in the series we start by framing and defining the problem.

Almost all of those plastic items I mentioned above will most likely be thrown away, either in landfill or, worse, in the natural environment. So if the current trend continues and we keep using and disposing of items at the same rate, what will that mean for New Zealand? And what can we do about it?

This first article breaks down the problem into these elements:

• The amount of waste produced is astronomical, and it’s growing at a rate that is clearly outstripping our capacity to deal with it

Landfill infrastructure is under pressure, and landfilling can damage the environment

Waste and litter is polluting the environment.

It’s been estimated that humans produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic globally between 1950 and 2015, and that three-quarters of that (76%) has been discarded as waste. Of that plastic waste, 9% was recycled, 12% was burned, and the remaining 79% has accumulated in landfills and the environment (see this Royal Society report for more details).

To give you a reference point or two for the 6-plus billion tonnes of plastic that’s gone to landfill or into the environment, the Rethinking Plastics report says it’s about the same weight as 800,000 Eiffel Towers or over 1 billion elephants.

Global plastic production is projected to grow exponentially in the coming decades, which will compound plastic pollution and our use of non‐renewable resources. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation projects that from 2014 to 2050:

• Annual plastic production will triple

The ratio of plastics to fish in the ocean (by weight) will change from 1:5 to 1:1

Plastics’ share of global oil consumption will increase from 6% to 20%

Plastics’ share of the world’s carbon budget will increase from 1% to 15% (see page 20 of Rethinking Plastics).

Per person, New Zealand is one of the most wasteful countries in the OECD, the World Bank has found. We throw away an estimated 159 grams of plastic waste per person each day, compared with 26 g for Norway, 58 g for Canada, and 117 g for Australia. (The United States averages 286 g.)

With roughly 5 million people, we collectively dispose of around 795 tonnes per day and over 290,000 tonnes per year — and that’s just plastic. Looking at all materials, not just plastic, we’re ranked 10th globally for municipal waste generation per person — well above the OECD average. Our waste per person is expected to remain high unless we make significant changes.

Clearly the volume of plastic in circulation globally is large and growing. And it all needs to go somewhere….

There are signs the current landfilling system isn’t sustainable. New Zealand’s landfills are filling up, expanding, and/or prone to leakage from extreme weather events. Waste accumulates in landfills much faster than it can break down, and when it breaks down, it can also leach dangerous chemicals.

Wellington City Council is aiming to expand the city’s Southern Landfill. The landfill is key infrastructure for the city, each year taking in around 60,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste (that is, everyday rubbish mainly from households but also non-hazardous commercial, institutional and industrial waste), plus 15,000 tonnes of sewage sludge. The existing landfill is expected to reach capacity as early as 2023.

WCC is going ahead with the expansion with some reluctance, after investigating and rejecting other options. Ultimately, the solution will need to be well upstream of the landfill: Wellington needs to send less waste there. For completeness we note that the operating surplus from the landfill funds kerbside recycling and other initiatives to minimise waste.

Similar scenarios are likely to arise around the country if we don’t start producing less waste. But in recent years it has been increasing. An increase in the Waste Disposal Levy (‘the landfill levy’) should better reflect the environmental, social and economic costs of waste and help the government fund waste minimisation initiatives.

Landfilled waste is difficult to contain and maintain. In New Zealand in recent years:

• ‘Orange sludge’ has seeped on to Wellington beaches

Hydrogen sulfide and methane gas have leaked from the Spicer Landfill in Porirua

• Storm surges north of Gisborne swept landfilled rubbish into the Awatere River.

If climate change results in the expected sea level rise, our existing landfills are at risk. In Auckland for example, 86 landfills will be threatened if the sea level rises by 25 centimetres. For some of them, the only option could be to shift the waste elsewhere, an expensive undertaking.

We have already seen what extreme weather can do to an old landfill. In March 2019 a West Coast storm washed out the closed Fox River landfill near Fox Glacier. The result was huge amounts of pollution leaking into the surrounding pristine natural environment. An estimated 135 tonnes of rubbish was retrieved over 21 kms of river and 64 kms of coastline, filling more than 11,000 rubbish bags. Volunteers and specialist teams initially worked with the local council before the Department of Conservation and the Defence Force took over.

New Zealand land is valued for housing, natural beauty, suitability for farming and other characteristics, and in general, allocating more land to waste disposal seems unsatisfactory. Yet landfilling is far preferable to waste entering the environment …

When we throw plastic away, the best-case scenario is that it will be held in landfills. As we know, too often plastic escapes into the environment as pollution.

If plastic and other rubbish enters the environment, it will probably move to the ocean, where it could form part of a giant marine garbage patch. From there, it will begin to break down to form microplastics, which may then be eaten by wildlife — which may, in turn, be eaten by humans. Plastic that’s entered the environment can also leach chemicals that may harm wildlife, humans and ecosystems.

Single-use items like plastic shopping bags account for most of the problem, particularly those made from plastics that are difficult or impossible to recycle. But most types of plastics are finding their way into the environment to some extent, regardless of the form they take when humans use them.

Many disposable items are lightweight, so if not safely stored in landfill or recycled end up as marine litter. The Royal Society reports that four out of five pieces of plastic in the ocean originate from land. In 2010, their report says, ‘up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics leaked into the ocean — which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every 38 seconds.’

Sources of marine plastic are waste from industry and landfills and the waste we throw away. The most common plastic items found in international beach clean-ups are single-use items, including cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles, bottle caps and lids, shopping bags, straws and stirrers, take-away containers, and polystyrene foam containers. Many of these items are also commonly found on New Zealand beaches.

Within the marine environment, plastic items accumulate on beaches, the seabed, all levels of the water column, salt marshes, mangrove forests, the Mariana Trench, sea ice, and coral reefs. There are concentrations of plastic waste in all the world’s major oceans.

Wind, rivers, stormwater and wastewater pipes, and ocean currents transport plastics far from their source. When Palmy’s Plastic Pollution Challenge collected waste from streams around Palmerston North, it found that more than 80% of it was some form of plastic and that 93% of that plastic waste wasn’t recyclable. Extrapolating from the collection sites suggests there are over 360,000 items of mostly plastic litter that are currently moving from the urban streams into the Manawatū river, and from there on to the sea.

Plastics are the most common source of litter on our beaches, with plastic pellets having been found on our beaches since 1972. Over time, plastic debris in the marine environment breaks down into tiny pieces to become microplastics — pieces under 5 millimetres in length. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, plastics are found throughout the food web. In New Zealand, plastics have been reported in fish, shellfish, and seabirds. Plastic was found in the stomachs of New Zealand prions (small petrels) as early as 1960.

Sustainable Coastlines’ Filthy Five video states that each year plastic kills more than 100,000 marine mammals and more than a million seabirds. A global review of published diet data for 135 seabird species between 1962 and 2012 found that 59% of species had eaten plastic. The review also found that the proportion of individual seabirds that had eaten plastic increased over time.

The review found a strong relationship between exposure to plastic and eating it, indicating the potential for greater numbers of seabirds to eat plastic if its concentration in oceans continues to increase.

When birds eat plastic, it can reduce their intake of nutrients, decrease reproduction, cause poisoning and internal and external wounds, and block their digestive tracts.

Plastics have been found in many other species, including fish, which can accumulate plastic by eating smaller fish or plankton. It can cause a variety of effects — for example:

• International studies of zooplankton (animal plankton ranging from microorganisms to larger species like jellyfish) show decreases in nutritional intake and survival.

• Overseas studies of blue mussels have shown that their stress response and feeding behaviour can be affected. In New Zealand, mussels have been found to ingest microplastics but the effects of ingestion on the species are still unknown.

• Studies of oysters show that their feeding and reproductive behaviour can be affected.

All of that is undesirable, particularly in a country that values the natural environment as much as ours.

Research shows that New Zealanders care a great deal about the environment. According to research from 2018, roughly 90% of New Zealanders think it’s ‘extremely’ important for Aotearoa to maintain its clean green image (Keep New Zealand Beautiful’s Litter Behaviour Research, 2018). In February 2020 the Colmar Brunton Better Future Report noted 69% of respondents saying they were highly concerned about the build-up of plastic in the environment. Over 100,000 Kiwis also signed a petition calling for single-use plastic bags to be banned — a public movement that was ultimately successful.

The research indicates not only that New Zealanders are very concerned about the impact of waste on the environment but that they’re ready for structural change to reduce waste. Central government, local government, businesses, NGOs and individuals are now all making changes to do this.

Over the coming months, this series of articles will look at some of the frameworks for thinking about waste, some of the institutions involved in waste management, and some of the initiatives that are underway.

We think that by presenting some facts and frameworks we can help readers understand the waste system and recent government initiatives, and also shed some light on how individuals and organisations might be able to make a difference.

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