Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage has announced changes to the country’s rubbish strategy, including likely increases to the waste management levy and a plan to recycle more plastics.

The Greens fired a second shot in their war on waste at their party conference in Palmerston North over the weekend, announcing plans to increase the waste levy, improve plastic recycling capacity, and introduce mandatory product stewardship schemes.

Sage said it was time for “a radically different approach”.

“We must use circular economy principles to design waste out of the system,” she said. 

Currently the $10 per tonne Waste Disposal Levy only applies to 11 percent of New Zealand’s 420 landfills and just 30 percent of the waste stream going into those landfills.

The levy was introduced in 2009 as a result of a Green Party private member’s bill. Landfill operators pay $10 per tonne on rubbish disposed of at their facilities, but it only applies to consented class 1 facilities that receive household waste, so most landfills are exempt.

The current waste levy is extremely low by international standards. Australia’s levies are up to $133 per tonne, and European countries charge up to $300. Sage would not be drawn on what an appropriate levy would be.

Sage said she expects to expand the levy as well as the number of landfills on which it is levied. The changes will be in place by 2020 after a public consultation.

The levy generates around $30 million annually, split between councils to help them fund waste minimisation activities and the Waste Minimisation Fund and its grant scheme.

The grants can be used by businesses and organisations to reduce waste.

A boost to plastic recycling 

An increased levy could both reduce the amount of waste going to landfill and, in the short term, increase the size of the Waste Minimisation Fund for schemes to further reduce waste.

One area likely to benefit from waste minimisation grants is the recycling industry.

New Zealand currently has limited capacity to recycle most plastics. Of the seven types of plastic waste, types one and two can be processed on shore, whilst the remainder have to be exported.

Until the end of last year, New Zealand sent most ‘type three to seven’ plastics overseas to be recycled, mainly to China.

But China’s decision to ban the import of plastics for recycling has seen the value of these plastics plummet, causing some councils to stockpile plastic waste instead of sending it offshore. Some councils, like South Waikato, have even asked people to stop putting these plastics out for recycling.

The Environment Ministry will draft a strategy for increasing local capacity for recyclables. This could mean more plastics being recycled onshore.

Sage acknowledged the economics for exporting unrecyclable plastics are changing.

“Global commodity prices have held up for things like glass, steel, aluminium cans, the PET plastic – but for the ‘types three to seven’ plastics and mixed paper and card, that’s where the prices have declined,” she said.

One of the barriers to building a more integrated recycling strategy is detailed information on the composition of New Zealand’s waste. Sage said she was surprised this was so lacking.

The Government will now improve the amount of information available on what is being sent to landfill and what is being recycled. Asked about the proportion of plastics recycled onshore versus offshore, Sage responded: “That’s the problem, we just don’t know”.

“I’m proposing that we require landfill operators to report on the composition of waste they receive in addition to the quantity,” she said.

Product stewardship

Sage also announced plans for mandatory product stewardship. Product stewardship means everyone from manufacturer to retailer to consumer takes responsibility of the product throughout its life.

Currently there are 15 voluntary product stewardship schemes, Sage would add an unknown number of mandatory schemes, including one for tyres.

“New Zealand creates 4.6 million end of life tyres each year. Right now, an estimated 70 percent of them are either stockpiled, sent to landfill, or illegally dumped,” Sage said.

She said it might potentially involve an “advance disposal fee” on each tyre entering the country which would be passed onto tyre collectors and recyclers.

“That revenue stream provides an incentive to recover the steel, rubber, and other materials in tyres and find other uses for them,” Sage said.

National’s Environment Spokesperson Scott Simpson has already called the scheme a “tyre tax”.

He said the National Government had announced a scheme last year to dispose of old tyres, including funding options for collection and disposal.

However, National’s tyre disposal scheme was voluntary. Sage said businesses had been calling for a mandatory scheme with clear rules that applied universally, to prevent companies who chose not to comply from undercutting the prices of those that did.

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