With China shutting its doors to New Zealand’s waste, Auckland Council is pinning its hopes on community-run recycling centres.

Auckland Council has approved a plan to more than double the number of recycling facilities across the region by 2031.

The updated Resource Recovery Network Strategy calls for a dramatic expansion of the region’s network of Community Recycling Centres and Resource Recovery Parks.

Councillor Richard Hills, chair of the environment and climate change committee, says the expansion is needed to meet the Super City’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2040.

“The issue now is that it’s cheaper to get something new than to repair it in most cases,” he says.

“These centres can help facilitate the wide-scale culture change that we need. We don’t need more landfills.”

The expansion plan is an ambitious one, with suitable land in short supply and council budgets already stretched thin by the Covid-19 pandemic.

To make matters worse, China’s 2018 ‘National Sword’ policy led to a collapse in international markets for New Zealand’s recycling.

Now more than ever, the future of recycling needs to be local.

The planned expansion takes a two-pronged approach, proposing 12 new Community Recycling Centres in places like Onehunga and Western Springs, with two larger Resource Recovery Parks planned in the west and south.

The recycling centres are run by community groups and divert waste from landfill by separating out recycling, composting organic waste, and rescuing household items for sale at recovery shops.

Customers are then able to purchase recycled goods like homewares, sporting goods and construction materials at prices equivalent to a local charity shop.

The Waiuku Recycling Centre, the first to open its doors in 2014, is now able to divert about 70 percent of its incoming waste away from the tip.

Sue Wallis, general manager of Waiuku Zero Waste, says the centre has become much more than just a place to drop off scrap metal.

“We’re all about reducing waste as much as possible, but were also about keeping it local. Local economic development and employment.”

While the previous Waiuku waste transfer station employed just one person on a part time basis, Wallis now has 15 staff.

“I think there should be one of us in every suburb”, she says.

At the other end of the Auckland region, Mahurangi Wastebusters operate recycling centres near Wellsford and Snells Beach.

Despite only taking over the sites in 2019, the group now employs 14 staff and diverts about 50 percent of waste from landfill.

Just like in Waiuku, the northern recycling centres do much more than just sorting paper from plastic.

As well as operating the ‘Mahu Mall’ recovery store, the Snells Beach facility composts organic waste from the Matakana markets and provides tours for local school groups.

School group tour at Waiuku Community Recycling Centre. Photo: Waiuku Zero Waste.

Recycling and recovery stores are an important piece of the waste-minimisation puzzle, providing another means of diverting waste from landfill and generating an income to keep the centres in business.

The ‘Waiuku Junktion’ recycling store averages around 110 customers a day, with tools, timber and other DIY goods being the customer favourites.

While Community Recycling Centres are the local champions of Auckland’s waste network, the much larger Resource Recovery Parks are designed to take everything from timber to e-waste.

The first of these facilities, Waiheke Island Resource Recovery Park, opened its gate in July 2020.

Michael Tavares, part of the Island Waste Collective that runs the park, says recovery parks are particularly important in dealing with the construction waste that now accounts for about 40 percent of Auckland’s total refuse.

“It seems people on Waiheke are constantly renovating their bathrooms and kitchens, so there’s a lot of building material coming through. At times it can be more than half of the waste in the pile.”

At the Waiheke recovery store, Tavares says the small polystyrene beans for filling household bean bags are an unexpectedly popular item.

Tavares says he’s thrilled to be able to repurpose the environmentally toxic beans that can often spill out across the facility in what he calls a ‘code white’.

Two new recovery parks are planned under the expansion, one at the Waitākere transfer station in Henderson, and another in a yet-to-be-determined location in the south.

Outside at the  Tipping Point refuse shop, Waitākere Refuse and Recycling Centre. Photo: Auckland Council.

South Auckland is particularly under-served for recycling facilities, with the council unable to find land suitable for a long-planned recovery park.

Parul Sood, head of waste management at Auckland Council, says finding land is one of the biggest barriers to getting more sites.

Sood says the council is looking at partnerships with local businesses as one option for finding suitable land.

The expansion of the resource recovery network will cost about $29.8 million in capital expenditure over the next 10 years, while the recycling centres will cost about $10.2 million on top of the existing $2.3 million in yearly operating costs.

It’s a lot of money to find in a Covid-19 economy, but the project has already received funding from central government’s ‘shovel-ready’ scheme with most of the rest to be paid for by a planned increase in the national waste levy, from $10 to $60 per tonne.

Beyond the money, on-the-ground workers like Michael Tavares say the biggest challenge is changing how people think about waste.

“When people’s interaction with waste is simply putting their bins out by the side of the street, they might not think about it too much,” he says.

“But if they have a community recovery park that they think of as a place to come for useful things, then we can get into their brains about all kinds of waste issues.”

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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