The Auckland Waste Management and Minimisation Plan – a step too near.

The new Auckland Draft Waste Management and Minimisation Plan (WMMP).  A thing we can all be proud of. Congratulations Len and the team.  There are provisions there to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill by 30% by 2018,  There will be a closer relationship between the amount of waste you produce and how much you have to pay; and an organic collection will take food and green waste out of the landfill for composting or digesting.

The council are asking us for our thoughts on this matter, they have even produced this sweet consultation document printed on nice wholemeal paper, that asks us some questions.  Its almost as if we have a choice, or a chance to influence the process.

You can read the documents and download submission forms here: and you can also pick up a summary at the Waiheke Resources Trust office in Oneroa.

The headlines are:

  • Disposer pays for household refuse, but not recyclables, or organic waste.
  • Everyone gets wheelie bins which count how often they are used (exceptions for Gulf Islands – Waiheke gets both bins and bags)
  • Recyclables are still co-mingled – broken glass and paper together.
  • A weekly organic collection (green and food waste)
  • and some changes to the inorganic collection.

The Zero Waste website
Will give you a good run down of the proposals and what is good and bad about each of them.

Please read that link as I am not going to use this blog to go over what is wrong with wheelie bins and co-mingling again. I want to look at just how non-aspirational this plan actually is.

Sadly although the plan is a step forward from the current state for most suburbs It is really flawed, its just not that obvious at first because they get to ask the questions of you – instead of the other way around. Its basically a big con – and to see that all you have to do is follow the money.

The headline aspiration is Zero Waste, That sounds brilliant, who could be against producing no waste?  But wait, what do they actually mean by zero waste – not much it seems, they mean that they want to reduce the proportion of household waste collected that goes to landfill by 30% by 2018.  So leaving aside for the moment the fact that household waste is only 17% of the total amount of stuff thrown away.  All we are talking about is burying a bit less and recycling a bit more.
As far as I can tell – if the council achieves all its aims it still won’t achieve the level of quality recycling found on Waiheke when we had CleanStream.

Still every bit counts doesn’t it? The less that goes to landfill the more that gets recycled – and recycling is good yes?

Well no.

Lets step back a moment and get the bigger picture.  What really matters is the total amount of energy used and the total amount of pollution produced in the whole process.  And perhaps the total amount of money spent in the process – who pays and who profits.

Lets take this plastic water bottle.
The plastic is made from polyethelene – a petrochemical – i.e Oil.  To make it required energy – i.e more oil, to ship it to the factory from china – oil, to truck it to the supermarket – oil and to get it home – more oil.  That’s a lot of oil to get something that falls on my roof and then comes straight out of my tap.  So when I buy it I pay, I pay an amount that represents the whole oil fuelled economy up to the supermarket – plus a few cents extra for the water inside.

So maybe I refill it a couple of times, before throwing it away, and lets say I put it in my recycle bin.  A truck comes and picks it up (oil), ships it to south Auckland (oil)  where it is sorted by machines (more oil) and then away to another plant (probably in China – a whole ton of oil) where it can be melted down and made into another plastic bottle (oil) or is perhaps just burnt to run the plant (Carbon emissions).   Then off it goes back around the loop.  That’s if the plastic gets made into another bottle,  More likely each trip around the loop the plastic is down-cycled, turned into something lower grade – like black bin bags, or fuel for incinerators.  Eventually after delivering just a few drinks of water that plastic bottle has to end up somewhere – floating in the ocean, buried in landfill – maybe in someone else’s country, or burnt up, releasing its carbon into the atmosphere along with all the carbon from all the processes and trips encountered during its lifetime.

Lets hammer that point home.  Everything that leaves your hand and hits that bin represents energy expended in its creation, and energy to expend in its disposal – one way or another that object is going to end up as some form of pollution.

Who gets to pay for all this – you and I do – after all we are the only ones in the loop shelling out any money.  And our children will too – because there will be a whole lot of hidden environmental costs that they will have to clean up too.

All recycling takes energy – its better than not recycling only because in theory it costs less energy to re-use hydrocarbons, steel, aluminium etc than to extract it out of the ground in the first place.  And because dumping stuff in holes in the ground pollutes water supplies and uses up valuable holes in the ground.

Really you need to think about not creating the waste in the first place.   Remember the mantra – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? – its that way around for a reason.
Clearly I can replace that plastic water bottle with an aluminium flask that I could probably use for the rest of my life. Or I could just drink my water in a ceramic cup out of the tap.

The WMMP is constructed to only let you think about waste minimisation at the disposal stage. Clearly a serious plan would think about waste minimisation at the creation stage.

Another example – organic waste.
Who hasn’t had a meal, stuffed the left overs in the fridge and forgotten about them until too late, Who hasn’t had yogurts go out of date, or bananas go rotten.  We all have occasions where food gets thrown away.  Even enviro greenies growing their own garden veges have clippings, leaves, cores, skins etc that can’t be eaten.
If this stuff ends up in your everyday refuse bag – and then goes to the landfill it will biodegrade wonderfully – producing in the process quite a lot of methane gas and associated yucky gloop.  Now while there are some landfills that catch that gas and use it for electricity – ( I helped build one once). For the most part it just seeps out – the gas into the atmosphere, the gloop into the water.   Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, so along with those cow farts your rotten banana skin is doing its little bit for climate change. (although most of that took place in getting it to you in the first place).

So it is great that in the plan the council will provide you with a small bin you can use for your food and green waste, and will collect it weekly so it doesn’t get too smelly.  After that they will drive it all somewhere (oil again) and, compost it, then drive it to a garden shop (oil)  where you can buy it back again.  They might not even compost it – instead using it as fuel for a small energy plant – great eh, slightly less oil gets used and the carbon ends up in the atmosphere anyway.

Or you could just put it in a compost bin in your garden – save all that oil and get your own compost.   Or if you don’t have space or quite enough waste to keep a compost heap going you could use Bokashi – basically a pickle barrel that does a similar job.

So again the solution offered is to collect, and dispose, out of site out of mind,  Instead of teaching people how to create less organic waste in the first place, and how to manage it themselves.

Researchers have found that if you can’t see how much waste you are producing then it is easier for you to produce more.  Or put the other way around – when people are asked to weigh the amount of food waste they produce they then start to produce less, sometimes a lot less.

You see – This is not really about waste minimisation at all – its about money,  who gets to make some money out of the whole system and how can they maximise their profit. That lovely consultancy document is actually someones business plan.

Making all the bins alike, using bins rather than bags, using complex RFID counters, co-mingling, routing all recycling through a central processing plant.  These are all steps that allow a company to start to build a monopoly business in waste management.   They all make it harder for competition to enter the market.

That monopoly gets paid for the amount of waste that it processes, It gets paid to collect stuff, paid to move stuff, paid to sort stuff and then gets to sell the stuff as well.  The only person who is paying in this loop is you the householder. either directly or through the amount the taxes and rates pays on your behalf.

Such a company’s fundamental incentive therefore is to have as much stuff going around that loop as possible.  That’s why the bins are so big – It hides just how much stuff you are throwing away.  It makes it possible for you to feel good about recycling while making them a fat profit, and increasing the GDP of the country.  Now really I’ve no problem with someone making a profit for performing a good service – My issue is when what makes good business sense to them – makes bad sense to the environment.

At the end of the day – everything that you throw away represents energy expended and at some point in the future – water pollution and greenhouse gases.  So unless the plan gives a strong incentive for EVERYONE involved to reduce the TOTAL amount of waste in circulation we are actually going to get the opposite effect.  Yes there might be a reduction in landfill – but there will be an increase in energy used and pollution generated.

Any guess what – when oil doubles or triples in price – this business model is going to go bust anyway. That whole lot of driving stuff around just won’t make sense.

A real plan would move from householder pays to producer pays  – where the companies that put all this stuff together in the first place – the excess packaging, the unnecessary bags, bottles, cans, uneaten, inedible food etc.

A real plan would reward me more – for using less stuff.  For buying a big bag of beans and learning to cook instead of canned baked beans.  For learning how to not have to throw food away.  For learning how to do my own compost and grow my own tomatoes.

A real plan would allow local communities to create local solutions, rewarded for overall gains in sustainability, energy and pollution reduction.  It would encourage local boards to establish by-laws restricting disposable bottles, or requiring deposit returnable bottles.

So Auckland Planners – I’m giving you a C+ for a first effort. Now go back and work out what it would take to get an A.