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A sea change year for waste minimisation?

A sea change year for waste minimisation? - Local Government Perspectives 2017

Three big-ticket items will dominate councils’ waste minimisation agendas this year.

Paul Evans, Chief Executive, Waste Management Institute New Zealand

With the confluence of a number of key pieces of independent work as well as legislative requirements, 2017 is set to be an eventful year for the local government sector when it comes to waste minimisation.

To my mind, there are three key items that will be front and centre on the agendas of councils. These are:

  1. Waste Management and Minimisation Plan (WMMP) reviews;
  2. The review of the effectiveness of the waste disposal levy; and
  3. Collaborative work to inform nationally-significant waste minimisation activities and advocacy.

Waste Management and Minimisation Plan reviews

As I write this, the vast majority of councils across the country are in the thick of waste assessments and other work to inform the next iteration of their WMMPs (a requirement of the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 [WMA]).

This is an incredibly important time for waste management and minimisation in New Zealand. Councils have a key leadership role to play as their plans set out key activities for the next six years.

Consequently, there’s a scurry of activity to inform what should and shouldn’t occur. There’s also a significant amount of interest from people in the broader sector, who don’t sit within the realms of a council.

As is often the case, there are those who feel that councils should take a more hands-on approach, while there are others who feel that councils should get out of the way of the private sector.

My summary of it is this. The private sector has been playing an ever-increasing role in the provision of waste and recycling services. This has resulted in significantly more competition for council services, which in turn creates funding challenges. Some councils are leaving collections to the private sector, whilst others are grappling to regain control. So, what’s the right approach?

Ultimately that’s a decision that is best made locally. However, under the WMA, councils are responsible for developing WMMPs for their entire jurisdiction, whether they control the waste stream or not. If councils are to truly address their obligations and in turn make a real difference to waste minimisation, they must look at the waste market in its entirety and how they can influence this.

There is naturally a fine balance between councils fulfilling their legislative role and ensuring locally-appropriate outcomes, whilst not impeding cost-effective and innovative commercial services. To enable this, councils must be having a robust and effective dialogue with waste producers, their communities and the private sector.

Waste disposal levy

The waste disposal levy introduced under the WMA is currently set as $10 per tonne on all waste sent to a disposal facility. The levy has two key purposes:

  • To encourage Kiwis to take responsibility for the waste they produce and to find more effective ways to reduce, reuse and recycle; and
  • To create funding opportunities for waste minimisation initiatives.

The funds generated (currently around $25 million per year) by the levy are used to develop and enhance waste minimisation activities, with half of the levy money going to territorial authorities, while the other half goes into the government’s Waste Minimisation Fund.

The Minister for the Environment is required by the WMA to review the effectiveness of the waste disposal levy at least every three years, with the next levy review to be completed by mid-2017. The last review (completed in 2014) raised a number of key issues, which are particularly pertinent to local government.

It found that the levy is currently only applied to an estimated 30 percent of waste disposed of to land meaning that the vast majority of waste incurs no levy at all. This will be of real interest to councils as we head into the next levy review because it means that there is essentially no price signal on most waste, and therefore no real impetus to find more effective ways of dealing with this waste.

This creates a real challenge when trying to give effect to their WMMPs. Furthermore, should the breadth of the levy be widened to encompass more facility and waste types, there would be significantly more funding available to councils to support their WMMP aspirations.

The review also said that the Ministry for the Environment should investigate options for setting rules on how territorial authorities spend levy funds to ensure appropriate accountability and spending.

I know that many councils had significant concerns around this particular recommendation, as councils feel they are best placed to make investment decisions for their communities. So it is likely to be a matter for debate throughout the review process.

Lastly, many councils are keen to explore the rate of the levy (currently $10 per tonne) and what costs and benefits an increase in the levy may have. There is a widespread belief that raising the levy would not only reduce waste disposal but would also support industry development and job creation.

However, given that we are in an election year I think it’s highly unlikely the government will entertain any increase, with many in the business sector seeing a levy increase as an economic handbrake.

For this reason, I believe it’s far more likely that councils in partnership with the broader waste sector will need to undertake their own research with a view to informing a longer-term case for change.

Collaborative work and advocacy

Over the past two years, councils have been working far more strategically on nationally significant waste minimisation research and work programmes. A key example of this is the nationwide Love Food Hate Waste campaign 
(www.lovefoodhatewaste.co.nz). Coordinated by WasteMINZ, the campaign involves a collective of community organisations and some 60 councils with funding support from the Waste Minimisation Fund. After just one year (of a three-year project) the campaign has already been a hugely successful initiative. Buoyed by this success many councils now see the value of a well-planned collective approach.

I expect to see the councils working together far more closely on an agreed programme of work, co-funding research and advocacy in key areas such as product stewardship. For this reason, I would expect to see ongoing debate around the concept of a nationwide beverage container deposit scheme. This will likely build upon the Local Government New Zealand remit that was passed with 90 percent support in July 2016.

With all this in mind, I think 2017 has the potential to be a sea change year when it comes to waste minimisation. However for this to occur local government must be a well-planned, well-researched and cohesive voice.

This article was first published in Local Government Perspectives 2017.

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