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Christchurch City Council Media Release 7 May 2001

Waste Targets - Honesty Is The Best Policy
by the chairman of the City Services Committee, Cr. Denis O'Rourke

Variations to the city's waste minimisation targets recently proposed by the City Council have aroused considerable comment.
This is very heartening, given that the city council has been trying to encourage discussion on waste minimisation issues over recent years. Unfortunately some of the comment is misplaced, reflecting misunderstanding of what the council is trying to achieve.

In 1998 Christchurch was one of the first council's to develop a formal waste plan. At that time I proposed and the council accepted, the goal of 'Zero waste to landfill', and a target - the year 2020. At that time virtually all of the waste under the control of the council was landfilled at Burwood, and we had little idea whether this rather idealistic target was feasible, or how it would be achieved in practice.

Since 1998, a plant currently composting 35,000 tonnes of green waste per year has been established at Bromley, and the Recovered Materials Foundation is recycling 14,000 tonnes per year of household waste collected at the kerbside. We have also learned a lot about the costs, and other constraints inherent in recycling or avoiding the 247,000 tonnes of waste per year still to be diverted from the landfill. The graph shows the 'desire line' (the zero waste goal) beginning with 274,000 tonnes of waste as at the year 1994 and ending with target zero at the year 2020. Above that the 'trend line' shows the same starting point, and also the point we have now reached (a reduction of about 17 percent) as a result of composting and recycling, and a projection as far as the year 2020.

This projection, based on current trends, taking into account current constraints, and in the light of the experience of the last five years, demonstrates that a further 50% reduction of waste to landfill (in addition to the 17per cent we have already achieved, i.e. a total of 67per cent) is the best we can realistically expect to achieve.

Demanding target

Not only does this extremely demanding target require the expenditure of millions more dollars by the city council (and there are limits to what we can afford) on expanded composting and recycling, but also a much greater commitment by the community as a whole. Recycling and composting could not achieve the 50% target without an additional commitment within both the domestic and business communities to embrace very stringent waste avoidance measures.

These would almost certainly have to involve economic incentives and disincentives and other tough measures, such as bans of some materials from the waste transfer stations, generating resistance from parts of the community. These social and economic constraints in achieving our zero waste goal must not be underestimated.

Similarly, there are legal constraints. Some of these are the lack of mandatory landfill standards in New Zealand, insufficient regulatory powers by local government, and the effect of the Commerce Act. The Commerce Act prevails over the Local Government Act and has the effect of preventing the implementation of some of the measures local government would like to take in pursuing the zero waste goal.

For example, a proposal for co-operation among councils to establish a transport equalisation scheme for both municipal waste and recovered materials may be threatened by Commerce Act rules aimed at preventing price fixing. Insufficient regulatory power may mean that the city council can only apply its waste minimisation levy to council waste facilities, restricting the council from applying the levy to private waste facilities too.

But the most serious legal constraint is the lack of government imposed minimum landfill standards. Canterbury's new landfill is to be sited and built to the highest technological standards. It costs millions of dollars to secure a site with the right geological, hydrogeological and other physical attributes, together with the installation of an impermeable liner and capping, and leachate and gas collection systems, as well as a transport system imposing the lowest possible environmental and social impacts on local communities. If a landfill in a neighbouring region is permitted to be developed (as is already happening) without these attributes, then because its cost structure would be much lower, its fees will also be much lower.

View Acrobat .pdf file for more details.

Lower costs

The result would be for our waste to transfer from Canterbury to the lower cost option in the neighbouring region. Our councils could not prevent this because they do not have 'flow control', i.e. we cannot tell commercial waste disposers (who control more than 50% of the waste stream) where to take the waste they collect. They will therefore take the cheapest option. The result for Canterbury could be not only the failure of the new regional landfill project, but also the collapse of our recycling system as well.

These constraints show that the 1998 target date of 2020 for zero waste to landfill was optimistic in the extreme. Idealism was fine in the context of our knowledge in 1998, but in the context of experience gained since then, persistence with a zero waste target by 2020 would now simply be dishonest.

This does not mean however, that the council or I are resiling in any way from the zero waste goal.
Indeed, we have determined to increase our efforts, as proposals published in the council's draft annual plan for increased expenditure on composting and recycling clearly show. But the zero waste goal must be pursued in the context of a waste plan which has credibility. This requires realistic targets rather than pie-in-the-sky idealism.

The proposed variation of the waste goal is as follows:

The zero waste goal therefore remains intact, while the constraints in achieving zero waste are openly and honestly acknowledged. Demanding yet realistic targets are retained. The 50% reduction target is stated as a minimum, thus requiring us to do better than this if possible. If the constraints can be somehow sufficiently overcome in the future, it would then be appropriate to further revise in the targets to reflect this.


The Council could have chosen not to bother to revise the waste targets, but not to do so compromises the credibility and utility of our waste minimisation plan. Most particularly, the council has to plan ahead for the necessary capacity to meet waste and recyclables collection requirements, capital and operational development of Recovered Materials Foundation facilities for recycling, and the size and nature of the new regional landfill. Long-range budgets and financial models, covering 20 years are required for these purposes. These must be based on realistic expectations (i.e. the 'trend line' shown in the graph, rather than the 'desire line').

To do otherwise would risk a disastrous mismatch between planning and budgeting on the one hand, and the actual requirements for capacity to deal with waste and recyclables on the other.

It has been suggested by some of the more cynical members of the community that these are not the reasons for the council's proposals to vary its waste targets, and that the real reason is some far-fetched conspiracy between the participating Canterbury Council's and their commercial joint venture partners in Transwaste Canterbury Ltd (the landfill company owned by the councils and two waste operators) to make as much money as possible out of the project by maximising the volume of waste going to the landfill.

The fallacy in this preposterous proposition is obvious: if the objective was to mislead the public, we would not have suggested any change to the waste minimisation targets at all, and would have instead quietly left them as they are, rather than to openly and honestly propose a 50% additional reduction in waste to landfill over the next 20 years.

The fact that the councils and their joint venture partners have openly committed themselves to such a demanding target (as a minimum) is actually a quantum leap forward for waste minimisation unparalleled anywhere else in New Zealand. But this is no magnanimous gesture on the part of our joint venture partners.

Binding obligation

It is a binding contractual obligation written into the memorandum of understanding (contract) between them and the councils that they will fully co-operate with the waste minimisation goals being pursued by the councils. They also recognise that as landfilling is managed towards zero, more of their business will have to be conducted in recycling activities. The "fair rate of return" for the joint venture is required to be independently assessed, based on audited information transparently presented to the assessor and the councils concerned.

I have also been accused of wearing too many hats at once, as chairman of the City Services Committee, the Canterbury Waste Joint Standing Committee, the Recovered Materials Foundation, and Transwaste. It is suggested that there must be conflicts of interest. The reverse is the case, because there is a chain of responsibility through which the community's waste objectives are achieved. The City Services Committee is responsible for the integration and achievement of our waste objectives, including both recycling and waste disposal.

The Canterbury Waste Joint Standing Committee is responsible for the same objectives throughout the Canterbury region. There is not only no conflict between my chairmanships of these two committees and my chairmanship of the RMF and of Transwaste, but rather the objectives of those committees are actually pursued through the RMF (regional recycling initiatives) and Transwaste (regional waste disposal). Operationally, waste is intercepted for recycling before anything leaves the transfer stations, through which all materials must pass; and the councils control them. Transwaste only landfills what is left. No conflicts can exist.

Appropriate targets

In the end, the current issue comes down not to whether there is still a zero waste goal (that has never been in question) but only what the appropriate targets are.

Allegations of profit gouging and of conflicts of interest are hogwash.

Controversial or not, openness and honesty in the simple matter of adopting realistic waste minimisation targets, is always the best policy.

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