The Climate Change Commission’s final report to the Government calls for far greater reductions in waste and landfill emissions than the earlier draft

Major changes to New Zealand’s waste infrastructure will be needed to meet the Climate Change Commission’s report, released on Wednesday.

The report recommends decreasing methane emissions from waste by at least 40 percent by 2035. That’s more than double the modest 15 percent reduction proposed by the January draft.

The Commission says the change is due to new data from New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory and public feedback in which waste emissions were a major concern.

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New Zealand’s per capita methane emissions are significantly higher than the OECD average, with emissions from decaying waste in our landfills the second biggest contributor.

Reducing methane emissions is key to meeting the country’s climate targets, with methane emissions responsible for almost 40 percent of the total warming effect generated by human activity.

While emissions from livestock often make headlines, emissions from waste are an important part of New Zealand’s contribution to climate change.

Most modern landfills are required to capture the methane they produce, either through pipes and wells for electricity generation or through burn-offs known as flares.

However, some smaller and older dumps don’t have the resources to do so, releasing methane into the atmosphere where it traps heat at about 30 times the rate of carbon dioxide.

Among those calling on the commission for stronger targets is waste industry body WasteMINZ, which says the new targets are in line with their recommendations.

WasteMINZ spokesperson Tess Brothersen says the 40 percent reduction target is achievable if the Government commits to stronger regulation of landfills along with ongoing efforts to reduce waste going to landfill in the first place.

The commission’s final report recommends the Government require all landfills that accept organic waste to include some kind of gas capture.

That can involve gas wells and pipes that capture the methane, allowing it to be used to generate power.

The Redvale landfill in Auckland, for instance, manages to capture more than 90 percent of its methane emissions through hybrid gas wells. The gas is then used to generate electricity for more than 14,000 homes.

However, older landfills are often beyond the scope of current regulation and lack the technology and resources to capture the methane needed to meet the targets.

Wellington’s Southern Landfill, for instance, emits more than half its methane output into the atmosphere.

Auckland University of Technology waste expert Dr Jeffrey Seadon says bringing older facilities up to the new standards will be costly given the new target timeframe of 2035.

While it’s not clear exactly how much will be needed for landfill gas capture, the Infrastructure Commission recently reported that upgrading the waste network will require between $2.1-$2.6 billion of capital expenditure over the next 10 years.

Along with upgrading older municipal landfills, the commission’s recommendations would also affect demolition and construction landfills while specifically excluding farm dumps.

Often without regulation or monitoring, these private facilities are a major contributor to New Zealand’s waste methane emissions.

Brothersen says any new requirements should be coupled with extra support and guidance for businesses operating smaller landfills.

Along with utilising gas capture technology at the dump, the commission’s report recommends the Government work on policies to reduce waste at the production phase and divert what’s left away from landfill.

This includes incentives for removing unnecessary packaging and more efficient building processes, which use fewer landfill-bound materials.

Construction and demolition materials are a particular concern, with decaying timber being a major source of methane emissions from landfill.

The commission’s report also recommends an increase in funding and support for resource recovery infrastructure.

Seadon says the Government should take note of the good work being done at the local level by community recycling groups, often with the support of local councils.

“We have to continue the work that’s going on in local councils to move toward diverting as much waste from landfill as possible.”

Earlier this year, Auckland Council approved a plan to more than double the number of recycling facilities across the region by 2031.

The plan calls for a dramatic expansion of the region’s network of Community Recycling Centres and Resource Recovery Parks to the tune of $29.8 million in over the next 10 years.

This includes providing support to community groups already running composting and waste education programmes such as Waiuku Zero Waste in the south of the Supercity.

With minimal financial support, these community groups have been able to divert up to 70 percent of incoming waste away from the tip.

The commission also recommends expanding the product stewardship scheme announced last year, which requires companies to take responsibility for six priority products: tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases, farm plastics, and plastic packaging.

Along with reductions in waste emissions, the commission recommends the Government begin publishing annual waste statistics across all landfill types by the end of 2023.

The Government now has until the end of the year to respond to the commission’s recommendations.

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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