Thursday, April 16, 2009

Back to Box

I'm most of the way wading through the Royal Commission Auckland Governance report, and must say I'm impressed with the scope and depth collated within it. I'm hoping to have that one in the bag in the next week or so, but in the meantime I've enough information at hand to talk on a matter that was of little consequence to many submitters before the AuckGov Commission. Let's talk rubbish.

As I see it, there are two main varieties of solid waste disposal in the main centres. Auckland and Christchurch have "swarm[s] of wheelie bins" or "legions of the daleks’ retarded kid brothers", as Bernard Darnton so colourfully describes it. Non-recyclables in one wheelie, mixed recycling in another. Then there's Wellington and many of the other smaller centres which use kerbside recycling and prepaid rubbish bags. Conscientious residents (such as yours truly) usually separate their recyclables by kind; paper, plastic, glass and tin.

Each method of recycling collection has its benefits and drawbacks. Intermingled recycling means less thinking and/or education of householders. No sorting required. At collection, the wheelie bins can be emptied with little grunt work. The whole street's load can be crushed up together, so there's less trips to the transfer station. In Auckland, recycler Visy has a big grunty machine that sorts the recycling into component commodities.

But wheelie bins are only useful in areas as flat as Auckland and Christchurch. In Wellington and Dunedin, wheelies are impractical. The distance between the average Wellington front door and kerbside is roughly 60 steps apart. Level access is limited to pockets of reclaimed land, such as Kilbirnie. Just like Daleks, wheelie bins are not made to climb up and down stairways. Then there's the intermingling factor. NZ generally has a high throwout rate for glass, 35 to 45 percent of recycled materials. The quantity of glass can wear out Visy's machine parts quicker, and cross-contamination of plastic and particularly paper means the commodity's purity is compromised.

In the case of kerbside collections, it can be back-breaking work for the grunts who have to haul them up to the truck. Some households separate their recyc, some don't, so it can be very labour-intensive to collect. In windy weather, recyc is blown all around the place. Non-compression of recyc means more frequent trips to empty the truck. It would be ironic if it wasn't so messy. It's for this reason that I haven't accepted invites to join the Save the Green Recycling Bin campaign on Facebook.

So, just how much rubbish are we talking about? From the AuckGov report:

So, when you hear about stockpiles of unsold recyc in Auckland, it gives a good idea of quantities involved. This report says there's a stockpile of 28,000 tonnes of glass in Onehunga, accumulated from the Auckland and Manukau recyc schemes. That's roughly a year's worth of glass.

In this Nine to Noon interview featuring Warren Snow, sustainability and waste consultant with company Envision; Mike Mendonca, manager of City Operations at Wellington City Council; and Bruce Gledhill, chair of Recyclers of New Zealand, Mr Gledhill dismisses this glass mountain as "not huge" as a percentage of annual turnover. Which begs the question, how much IS huge? It's spilling onto public land on the Manukau Harbour, for Daggs' sake!

In fairness to Gledhill, he makes a very good point regarding bread bags and plastic film, which isn't collected as recyc. Gledhill reckons this stuff is "like diesel", yet here we are chucking it into landfills. Warren Snow summed up the debate when he said it all comes down to Who Pays? Gledhill started the interview saying User Pays, a scheme that went down like a cup of cold sick when Wellington City Council suggested it earlier this year.

Warren Snow presented an alternative; producer pays. This is my favoured method, internalising the cost of container disposal. Snow gave the examples of Germany, where used plastic bottles can be reused up to 18 times before their structural integrity fails. New York City is extending its bottle deposit schemes to water bottles in an effort to slow down landfill waste, sez Snow.

I'm a bit more ambitious in how to structure recycling. I'll give you a few hints. Where does most of the packaging come from? Which entity has the existing machinery and scales of economy to process large quantities of recyclable waste? Where do most households visit on a regular basis?

My first job after high school was at department store LD Nathans (It became Deka for a while afterwards, before it went bankrupt). Even in this sepia-tinged epoch before barcodes had usurped price tag guns, there was a cardboard crusher out back in the stores area. Bales of heavily compressed cardboard and paper were baled up for collection. Every decent box shop and supermarket has one of these at hand.

We have the New Zealand Packaging Accord. According to the AuckGov report:
30.5 The New Zealand Packaging Accord (2004) is a voluntary agreement by industry with the Government to take responsibility for the complete life cycle of packaging. Producers and brand owners agreed that when they developed new packaging they would give higher regard to factors such as using fewer materials and using recycled materials. They also agreed to look at production efficiency, and the potential for recycling into other products after the packaging was no longer needed. The packaging accord has been given credit for significant reductions in packaging waste.
So, what's my plan? Recyc centres at every decent-sized supermarket and box shop car park. Everything that can be recycled is collected there, compressed separately or sent back to the bottler. Green, clear and brown glass is kept separated from each other as well as plastic and paper. No co-mingling, no sore backs, no mess. You want to collect bread bags? Sure! Why not? Between the Packaging Accord, Nandor Tanczos' Waste Minimisation Act and the goodwill that comes for being environmentally responsible, there should be more than enough incentive to make it work.

That should take care of most of the recycling. There will still be a need to retain some local area recyc collection for those who cannot transport their junk to the car parks. Smaller recyc centres based on meshblock requirements should provide back up. Meshblocks? Ah, I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that when I survey the AuckGov report.