How did hundreds of used plastic deck chairs and used mattresses from an overseas cruise ship become New Zealand’s problem? It could be because landfill levies are cheap, or non-existent. 

Four hundred used plastic deck chairs and 150 used mattresses from an international cruise ship paint a picture of how New Zealand is a cheap date on the worldwide waste stage.

The scrapped items found their way from a cruise ship to an Auckland waste collection company and then to a local charity. 

Without the charity’s determination to find homes for the chairs they would have ended up contributing to New Zealand’s growing landfill problem.

Habitat for Humanity Auckland general manager Conrad LaPointe said he probably shouldn’t have agreed to take them on. Some of the mattresses weren’t in good condition and finding takers for hundreds of plastic deck chairs was always going to be a hard ask.

“Our site looked like the bloody Titanic for a while with these deck chairs strewn everywhere.”

LaPointe’s at the end of the line when it comes to keeping things from ending up in landfills. The ReStore shops the organisation runs take discards from construction and demolition sites and sells them on. They stock everything from used plastic deck chairs to aluminium windows and kitchen sinks, aiming for reuse rather than disposal. They’re after anything from lengths of corrugated iron, to carpet tiles which he said are like “gold” as while they’re particularly tricky to recycle, they’re also hard-wearing and can be reused.

“It’s amazing what gets dumped, because it’s easy.”

Unlike other countries New Zealand’s had little in the way of government levies to disincentivise waste going to landfill.

Brand new items are also being dumped. LaPointe said the organisation manages to rescue some of these. 

“These might be end of line vanity units, things like that which otherwise would have just gone into landfill and would still do,” he said.

His charity does make money from items it takes on and sells, but often it’s not much, once the costs involved in picking up and holding the goods until they’re sold is taken into account. A lot of the drive to find homes for items comes down to a passion for reducing waste. Some of the plastic deck chairs were given away. 

LaPointe said convincing companies to factor in costs for anything other than the cheapest option of dumping was an uphill battle.

“There’s everything that you could imagine going to landfill that shouldn’t be going to landfill.”

New Zealand: Land of the long leaching landfill 

New Zealand has a waste problem we’ve been busy burying. Per capita we have one of the highest rates of waste production in the developed world.

In some cases old dumps are coming back to haunt us. In 2019, flooding tore open an old landfill on the Fox River, scattering debris 300 km along formerly pristine beaches. The clean-up took months and cost close to $1 million. It’s estimated up to another 163 dumps are at risk of being exposed due to sea level rise.

In Wellington, a landfill that closed in 1971 still spews out rust-coloured leachate onto a beach which locals say smells like petrol. The council cleans the area when leaks happen but there’s little that can be done to stop it recurring.

Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage points out in a consultation document seeking submissions on proposed landfill levies that being a country with excessive waste is not how we want to lead the world.

“The relatively low cost of disposal to landfill and the higher cost of recovering and recycling materials leads to products that could be recycled being taken to landfill.”

If New Zealand is to avoid becoming the land of the long leaching landfill a reduction in how much we bury needs to happen. 

Image: MfE – Reducing waste: a more effective landfill levy consultation document

While other countries have levies in place to discourage waste going to landfill, New Zealand has been slow off the mark, introducing a levy in 2008 and only for rubbish going into municipal landfills, which deal in household waste. 

Set at a level which is low by international standards, partly due to a fear of fly-tipping, the $10 a tonne levy has done nothing to change behaviour. 

In fact, the opposite has happened. We’re dumping 48 percent more per capita now than we were when it was first introduced. 

The municipal landfills the levy applies to only take about 45 percent – 3.68 million tonnes –  of New Zealand’s waste. The roughly $36 million raised by the levy per year is split between local authorities and the Waste Minimisation fund. 

The proposal is to raise the $10 per tonne levy on the landfills which take household waste, such as municipal landfills, to $50 to $60 and introduce a low levy to other types of landfill. This is expected to raise the levy income from waste to $220m to $247m a year.

To date, ‘class 2’ landfills, the type which take construction and demolition waste have not been subject to athe  levy. Construction landfill generally consists of a mix of wood, particle board, plaster board, concrete, bricks, metal and packaging, as well as the usual sweepings from building sites.

Nobody counts how much waste goes into these landfills but it’s estimated to be 2.9 million tonnes per year. It’s thought around 50 percent of construction site waste could be diverted from landfill. 

This levy-free ride for construction appears to be ending. 

The Ministry for the Environment consultation document suggests construction and demolition dumping should be pulled into the levy scheme. The rate suggested – $10 to $20 per tonne – is substantially cheaper than the proposed $50 to $60 per tonne levy for household rubbish.

The proposed levy is estimated to increase the levy-related cost of a new house build from less than $10 at present to between $70 and $75. Levy-related demolition costs would increase the waste costs from the estimated 2000 to 8000 house demolitions per year from $25 a house to between $280 and $300.

For the industry, it’s expected to increase waste levy-related costs from $6.6 million a year to between $68 and $75 million.

Currently only municipal landfills incur a levy. The proposed options include raising this levy and introducing a levy to other types of landfill Image: MfE – Reducing waste: a more effective landfill levy consultation document

Is it enough to reduce the 2.9 million tonnes of construction landfill waste? 

Waste Management NZ, one of the largest waste companies in New Zealand which owns landfill, supports levies.

Waste Management managing director Tom Nickels said the company supported the move to expanding the levy to include more types of landfills. He would like to see private farm landfills, of which there are estimated to be over 46,000, included in the levy scheme.

“The status quo of the levy only applying to about 11% of landfills, covering approximately 30% of waste disposed to landfills, does not sufficiently encourage investment into waste minimisation infrastructure or activities.”

The other big landfill-owning player in New Zealand, EnviroNZ declined to comment on the proposed levy until it completes its submission to the consultation document.

Green Gorilla’s CEO Elaine Morgan thinks the figures suggested in the proposal are about right. 

Unlike the big two players, Auckland-based Green Gorilla doesn’t own landfills. It specialises in construction waste and has invested in recycling as a way to divert goods from landfill.

Treated wood, other than MDF, is chipped and sent as a furnace fuel to a cement company. Plasterboard is crushed, with the white powdery filling being used in fertilisers.

She thinks landfill levies should be set differently based on the type of material they accept. The municipal landfills, with organic household waste represent the biggest environmental risks of emitted methane and leachate. Landfills containing construction waste are considered less of a risk.

She thinks $10 to $20 per tonne for construction and demolition waste is sensible.

As part of the recycling process, creating what Morgan describes as “residual waste” – the bits which can’t be recycled – is inevitable. 

“If that then attracted a levy of say $50 or $60, on top of the rate to dispose of that, recyclers would go out of business.”

She thinks if the costs to dispose of residual waste were too high it would also discourage future operators from setting up recycling operations. 

The company claims to divert 75 to 80 percent of the waste it handles from landfill through its recycling and rehoming activities.

Morgan said Green Gorilla has the waste contract for most of the cruise ships which visit Auckland and was aware of the deck chairs and mattresses. She said in some cases used cruise ship mattresses have been given to organisations from Pacific Island nations.

Does she think it’s odd for New Zealand to be taking international waste and that it might be coming here because we’re cheap?

“I hear that a lot. I don’t think so. When you look at the amount of this construction, whether it’s throwing out their deck chairs, or throwing out their mattresses, it’s not of huge proportions I don’t believe – from what I see coming here.”

Reuse or recycle?

Other participants in the waste market are focused on reuse, first, rather than recycling. Habitat for Humanity’s LaPointe isn’t convinced relying on recycling is the best option.

“Do we just keep making stuff and then we burn it?”

He would prefer a product stewardship approach where planning for reuse is factored-in upfront.

He said there were companies he sees who take the stewardship of their materials seriously but anticipating a cost and path for end-of-life is a mindset change and comes at a cost. 

Even in demolition it would mean a change in habits. Removing an old kitchen carefully so it can be reused by someone else takes substantially longer than just demolishing it. 

Junk Run’s CEO Fionna Gotts also focuses on reusing and rehoming goods. Her company uses trucks instead of skips and staff load waste themselves so materials don’t get damaged. She charges companies to take their waste away and then passes on goods to a range of charities. She said she finds homes for 70 to 80 percent of what the company takes.

In her view recycling is the ambulance at the bottom of the hill, only one step away from landfill. 

“Recycling is just not the answer. It’s an answer, but it’s not the way forward.”

Her opinion on the impact of a construction waste landfill levy set at $10 to $20?

“Nobody will even notice it.”

She thinks the levy should be set at $100 to $200 per tonne.

“The best way to change behaviour is by hitting people in the pocket. That does incentivise positive change and it gets people to start thinking about what is actually happening with the end of life for the products they’re purchasing in the first place. At the moment it’s just all too simple.”

The funds raised by the levy could be used to come up with better recovery and reuse solutions and infrastructure. 

Both Gotts and LaPointe see a role for consumers in reducing waste by considering their purchases carefully and asking what will happen to the item when it’s no longer needed, or making choices based on a company’s product stewardship policy. 

She was also approached to take cruise ship deck chairs and soft furnishings but turned them down. She believes the ship was refurbished outside New Zealand.

“They keep all that waste on board and bring it here because we are the cheapest place to dump waste on their circuit. For a cruise ship to cart all of its waste here and then dispose of it is horrific.”

Submissions to the levy consultation document close February 3.

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