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We may be perceived as clean and green by the rest of the world, but we have significant problems in New Zealand.

Every year we discard 17.5 million tonnes of waste. That is 3,500kgs for every kiwi! From that, 12.6 million tonnes are destined to landfill, meaning we only recycle 28% of total waste generated by our country. From the volume that is disposed in landfill, 30% (3.6 million tonnes) are made of readily recyclable materials that have high recycling value and can be easily diverted if we dispose of them correctly.

Waste starts with us and ends with us!

When we buy a product we also buy any waste associated with the product. We are all responsible for waste. It starts with us. It ends with us.

Product choice has increased in all aspects of our lives. Advertising tells us that buying things makes us happy. Our purchases have increased the flow of plastic and cardboard packaging. To pay for these products we now work more and have less time available. For convenience and to save time, more single-use, throw-away packaging is now in use.

Not all waste is recycled. A lot is still sent to landfills or is straying into our environment. Stray plastics are a huge problem, when thrown away they never go away. When you buy products, you also buy the packaging. You are responsible for the amount of packaging going into our waste streams.

Clean paper and cardboard waste is easy to recycle and it means fewer trees are felled. Glass, aluminium and steel containers are the easiest to recycle, they return as they started with no new minerals being mined.

Not all plastics are recycled. Some types (PET (1) and HDPE (2)), PP (5) are easier to recycle than others. Some get contaminated with food waste and cost more to be recycled (take-away food and drink containers). Some plastic types (3,6 and 7) are simply not worth recycling. There is low value in the recovered plastics because they are harder to recycle and/or manufacturers struggle to make any profit from them.

A cradle-to-grave approach to product and packaging design is not sustainable. In leading countries, a cradle-to-cradle design approach is used. This approach involves making products, selling products, using products and returning packaging and any redundant products back to the manufacturer.

New Zealand is way behind the rest of the western world in waste management. It costs 18 times more to send waste to landfills in the UK compared to New Zealand. Higher landfill levies in New Zealand would reduce waste going to landfills. It estimated that if we expand the waste levy, by 2025 we can divert 3 million tonnes of waste from landfill per annum and increase our recycling rate to 60%.

Take ownership of your waste footprint. Choose products without packaging or small amounts of recyclable packaging. Say no to plastic bags. If you cannot find a local recycling bin, do not place packaging in a rubbish bin. Take it home and use the systems set up by your local council.

The Waste Problem In New Zealand

Projections show that with current population trends and without increased intervention, the annual amount of waste disposed to landfills will almost double within 10 years in Auckland alone.

This is a staggering increase from 1.6 million tonnes of waste to 3.2 million tonnes of waste that Aucklanders currently throw away. As a result, Auckland Council have adopted a zero-waste policy: to progressively achieve zero-waste status by 2040. Many other councils are following suit. Zero-Waste is therefore a key goal for all New Zealanders.

A faster pace of living has led to us demanding convenience in all aspects of our lives. From the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the technology products we continually update, just about everything we consume comes to us unsustainably packaged in some way, shape, or form.

Plastic, glass, paper, and aluminium packaging has met our need for convenience, but has come at a great cost to the environment, and as a result, to future generations.

Waste management is indeed a global problem, but some countries are better than others at managing the consequences of waste production. Europe is leading the way in avoiding waste to landfills and we could learn a great deal from their initiatives here in New Zealand. We have significant problems in New Zealand where, according to the Ministry for the Environment, we send 12.6 million tonnes of waste to landfills each year. We can do a lot better when we compare ourselves to similar countries. Recycling effectively is a critical way we can reduce this amount of waste going to landfills.

We need to adopt a more serious approach to dealing with our waste. Economies of scale is as always a challenge for New Zealand as we have a very small population:land ratio and therefore must tailor our waste management solutions.


Packaging is a significant contributor to waste with around 352 thousand tonnes going to landfills each year. According to the Packaging Council of NZ, New Zealanders consume about 735 thousand tonnes of packaging every year and recycle only about 58% of it. With 97% of New Zealanders having access to facilities to recycle paper, glass, cans and plastics 1 and 2 (and in some places 1 - 7) we can, and must, do a lot better. Whilst the Packaging Council's members are working on ways to reduce and recycle packaging waste, we must all play our part to make a difference.


Plastic waste is a big problem as much of it does not breakdown. About 8% of New Zealand's waste stream by weight is attributable to plastic. Because plastics are lighter than many materials, by volume it is estimated they may use up to 20% of landfill space. Approximately 252,000 tonnes of plastic waste is disposed of to NZ landfills each year (based on 8% of 3.156 million tonnes of waste to landfill). Much of this is packaging from imported goods.

This kind of demand on the earth’s resources simply cannot continue if we want future generations to thrive. The reality is that we only have one planet and we have to operate within its means.

Global issues, local problems

It is well documented and widely accepted that people are causing (possibly irreversible) changes to the conditions of our planet and the natural environment. The increased use of non-renewable resources, including oil, gas and minerals, as well as the continually growing global population, rising levels of affluence and standards of living, are all adding to increased consumption patterns and the degrading of our environment.

“We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal”

The Global Footprint Network reports that globally, we are all significantly overshooting the planet’s resources by over half a planet. That is, at our present rates of production and consumption, we are using the equivalent of 1.7 earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. If business as usual continues, trends show that the equivalent of two planets will be needed by 2030. The problem is that we do not have more than one planet at our disposal. We absolutely have to begin living within our means.

To make matters worse, developed, or high-income, countries have an ecological footprint five times that of developing (low-income) countries. The earth can viably reproduce renewable resources (including cropland, grazing land, forests and fisheries) for the current population if humans keep their demands at 1.8 global hectares (gha) per person. New Zealand’s current footprint is equal to 4.31 gha per person (Europe’s is 4.72); Australia’s is a staggering 6.68; and North America’s (The US and Canada’s) footprint is 7.12. Compare that with the average footprint of African countries at 1.45 gha per person, and we see that the developed nations are in massive overshoot of what the planet can regenerate.

If everyone in the world lived like New Zealanders, we would require three planets to keep up with our demands!

We need to change our mindset!

One of the mantras that should be adopted today that would make a difference to the present state of affairs is to “consume less and recycle more”. At the end of the day, consuming less in the way of unnecessary products, would be kinder on the pocket, and would ultimately ensure more quality time to be spent with family, friends, and in the community.

We need to take responsibility for our consumption and help out where we can. Recycling is one of the actions that we can all take to reduce the impact that we have on our environment. As an example, recycling one aluminium can would save enough energy to power a television for three hours. Imagine how much energy the whole of New Zealand could save if we made sure that no aluminium makes its way to landfill!