The environment spokespeople from five major political parties went head-to-head on our mounting waste crisis at the first ever online election debate hosted by WasteMINZ.
Waste to energy was hotly debated as was whether the waste disposal levy is the best mechanism to minimise waste. All parties seemed to be in agreement that whilst on-shore recycling would be ideal, for some waste streams it may not be achievable.
Here is a summary of this critical debate ahead of the October General Election.
The Labour Party – David Parker
David Parker, who is the current Minister for the Environment, noted his support of increasing the Waste Disposal Levy over time, as without this the levy is not enough of a disincentive to wasteful practices. He spoke about his personal dislike of plastic labels on fruit and vegetables and his support for banning them.
“We have fallen behind some of our peers in the rest of the world when it comes to waste minimisation and taking responsibility for our waste streams,” he said.
When asked about a bi-partisan approach to waste minimisation, he said that for central Government to implement real change there must be mix of education, regulation and pricing.
“We need to strive to agree as to what is the right mix between the three. And I think we are nearly there.
“We are at a time where there is a willingness on the part of the general population to embrace practical change.”
On product stewardship Parker defended the six items on the priority product list as a practical start.
“You can’t do everything at once.”
The National Party – Scott Simpson
The National spokesperson for the environment said waste is an urgent area of policy debate that doesn’t get as much airtime as it should.
“In my lifetime we have seen a rapid and continuous increase in the amount of stuff we send to landfill, largely because for New Zealanders it’s been cheap, easy and convenient for us to simply dig a hole in the ground, fill it up, then dig another hole.”
His party’s policy is for sustainability to be at the centre of all decision-making. He said his party takes a practical approach to the environment which puts results in front of ideology and is guided by good science and evidence. He supports better incentives in place for change rather than proclamations from the Beehive.
On the waste disposal levy, he called for certainty and warned that a proposed “500% increase” will result in more illegal fly tipping and burden small and large businesses with extra costs.
“Ultimately it is consumers who have to pay and in a COVID-recovery climate there needs to be some hard questions about cost increases for consumers and what could be perverse outcomes.”
He says he has no philosophical objection to waste-to-energy, and that the technology is developing quickly overseas. The waste levy should be used to fund new technologies which can deal with problematic waste streams, particularly given New Zealand’s unique geographical challenges, which makes it expensive to ship waste around the country.
Simpson is also strongly in favour of standardising kerbside recycling. With his home electorate in the Coromandel having different recycling rules to Auckland, the influx of holiday makers from Auckland causes an increase in contamination due to the different rules.
The Green Party of Aotearoa – Eugenie Sage
The current Associate Minister for the Environment spoke of her party’s long-standing commitment to improving the way we deal with waste in Aotearoa and how she has sought to use the tools available under the Waste Minimisation Act to achieve this.
“If the Greens are in Government post-election, our priorities will be progressing the container return scheme, that will ensure over a billion beverage containers are recovered and don’t end up in litter, ensuring we move to a more circular economy,” she said.
Other priorities would be reviewing the Waste Minimisation Act to ensure that some of the revenue from the waste disposal levy can go toward monitoring and enforcement and preventing fly tipping. Sage said there had been good public consultation on the levy to date, and that the expansion of the levy would ensure investment in good waste recycling and reprocessing facilities. She said it was an instrument to support innovation, for instance funding people and businesses who are using new technologies to process waste in environmentally-sound ways.
She said the current Government is also looking comprehensively at legacy landfills and their risks.
She said her party recognises the $2.1 billion deficit in waste infrastructure in New Zealand. Many of the other candidates were in agreement with Sage that China’s National Sword policy, while creating difficulties, has prompted New Zealand to refocus on its own recycling infrastructure.
Regarding on-shore recycling, Sage agrees we need more infrastructure that creates jobs, but there are some instances when items may need to be processed overseas, for example batteries, as the volume collected for recycling is so small.
She conceded there is space in New Zealand’s future for waste-to-energy facilities, but certainly not the large-scale plants seen overseas which effectively use the atmosphere like a landfill. Facilities such as the pyrolysis plant in Timaru that will turn timber into biochar or the new Biogas facility at Reporoa which can process meat waste are examples of the type of waste-to-energy innovation which should be considered.
Sage also agreed that mandatory product stewardship and the standardisation of kerbside recycling across the nation were the way forward.
ACT Party – Simon Court
Simon confirmed waste minimisation and product stewardship were absolutely vital and noted that many responsible and ethical businesses were already doing this. Overall, he called for cross-party consensus to repeal the ban on high temperature incineration for waste-to-energy purposes, to get product stewardship locked in, and to clean up legacy landfills.
“We are all about practical solutions to real environmental problems,” he said
He is strongly in favour of repealing the 2005 RMA amendment which banned incinerators, as at the time there were some terrible incinerators operating however the technology in this area has progressed.
He criticised the current Government for a lack of consultation with the construction industry about increases to the waste disposal levy.
“No one in the construction industry is aware of the levy,” he said, adding that it will push up construction costs significantly.
On landfill, Court rebutted a comment from Eugenie Sage about modern landfills being better than they used to be, and necessary given we still produce waste.
“You are kicking the can down the road for a generation that won’t remember us. I find that morally and ethically unacceptable. If we are going to solve really difficult environmental problems, then we must have other options on the table.”
Having worked at Auckland Council as an environmental engineer who oversaw the monitoring of closed landfills, Court is keen to see a stocktake of legacy landfills undertaken and budget set aside to remediate those sites.
The Opportunities Party – Adriana Christie
Adriana admitted that she “loves talking trash”. She held the other panelists accountable for walking the talk noting that she had made the effort to make sure her election hoardings were made from recyclable or compostable materials.
“People don’t even have time to think about their waste. My colleagues here didn’t even think about the corflute they used for their campaign billboards. At the end of the day it is about actually doing things,” she said.
Her view is that waste is an untapped industry, and the sector should be focused on investing on emerging technologies and business innovation.
She praised overseas initiatives such as a large repurposing facility in Maine in the United States, and a company which recycles all plastics 1 to 7, even if contaminated, into new products.
She said we need in to invest in home grown talent, such as her own initiative Pallet Kingdom – a social enterprise that produces sustainable, fashionable and functional pieces of art and furniture.
Drawing on her experience in Local Government, Adriana would like to see more support for localised composting solutions and incentives.