NZ waste policies stuck in the past, says environmental law expert

Thursday, 27 June, 2013

An environmental law expert has presented a paper claiming New Zealand’s waste policies are stuck in the 19th century. He claims that ever-rising levels of rubbish are being dumped to landfill, while a system fit for the 21st century should include better recycling and possibly waste incineration.

Professor Al Gillespie, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research at the University of Waikato, presented the paper yesterday at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Academy of Environmental Law Colloquium - an annual event which brings together leading environmental law experts from around the world to address the most urgent issues related to environmental law, policy and governance.

Professor Gillespie argued that New Zealand is struggling to find sustainable, long-term waste solutions, only recycling “what is easy and [going] out of our way to avoid solutions which have proven successful in other countries, such as controlling waste streams such as plastic bags”.

He said New Zealanders show support towards things they like - for example, whales and dolphins - “but when it comes to personal choices, we don’t want to change our lifestyle”.

If anything, more waste is being generated than ever before, with Professor Gillespie claiming, “We all consume more than we did five to 10 years ago.” He revealed that the per-capita average in New Zealand is 800 kg of municipal waste per year - in the developing world it is about 200 kg and growing.

“Your mobile phone is likely to be less than two years old and we have second and third generations of these new technologies going to landfill or exported to developing countries to be scrapped in ways that cause environmental or social damage,” Professor Gillespie said.

Furthermore, he said, New Zealanders have only been able to dump the amount of landfill rubbish they do because the country has enough space.

“Not only is it inefficient, it’s ugly, expensive and we’re running out of time with that option, passing the problem to future generations,” said Professor Gillespie.

There has been little influence of international law in the area of landfill, so it has largely been left to national initiatives. Professor Gillespie noted that places like Japan and parts of Europe have methods “based on the highest technological and corporate standards”, but these methods are not being carried out in New Zealand.

Waste control has evolved, he says, and New Zealand’s policies need to evolve too.

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