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From Trash to Cash

Let's turn our waste into a resource!

· Wellington Climathon

Today's epic blog comes from the man who knows all the ins and outs of Wellington's wasted resources. Roderick Boys is the Wellington City Council's Waste Planner and he's going to fill you in on all things waste including our current waste state and  what we can do to help reduce our waste.

Get ready to soak up some invaluable information and don't forget to secure your free pass to Climathon 2018. We have less than one month until the big date with only 40 tickets remaining so secure your limited pass today before it's too late.

Waste issues are coming to the forefront

Recent research from the Ministry for the Environment has highlighted that New Zealanders view waste as being as the third most important issue facing NZ over the next decade, after access to housing and hospitals. The rise of waste issues in the public domain has partially been driven by the global concern about the level of plastic pollution in the environment. Google searches for “plastic pollution” have gone through the roof. The alarming images and articles, backed by scientific research that are dominating social/news media channels, are painting a fairly grim picture of what global single use consumption can look like. And the problem is only just beginning to be understood, the latest in the plastic pollution research field is that when plastics degrade into smaller pieces, they emit methane…

Now that more people are engaged with waste issues, the time is right for solutions. First cab off the rank is the NZ governments’ recently proposed single use plastic shopping bag ban. You’ll note, this is not a generic “plastic bag ban” – rather it’s a very specific “singlet style (with handles) plastic shopping bag ban, and up to (a yet to be determined) plastic thickness” – this is an important point to note for those with a solutions focus. One of the key reasons behind the specific scope of the ban is that there are “readily available and affordable reusable alternatives” to single use plastic shopping bags. 

With respect to carbon footprint, not all of these alternatives are created equal. Paper bags for example are the intuitive leap for many. However, paper bags have a relatively high carbon footprint. The best reusable bag according to the nearest Life Cycle Analysis (Australia) is actually a non-woven polypropylene bag, which is made from 100% recycled polypropylene. So not all plastics are bad, just those we use once and throw away as they are not recyclable. 

Almost every human creates waste, and this waste almost always represents carbon emitted to the atmosphere. This includes the methane emitted from landfills AND the carbon emitted when the resources were extracted, manufactured and transported around the world. So reducing waste is often a carbon win-win situation, as long as you think it through (such as the plastic/paper bag example above). 

Good solutions to waste issues are often about making “doing the right thing” easier, otherwise known as behavior change. In the context of business, the reality is, while we all might want the world to change, if it’s hard for consumers to do (or more expensive to do) and your business model is relying on people doing something differently, you’ll always be up against the status quo (which is easiest of all) unless you make it easier and/or socially desirable to do something differently. 

What's next? What else can we do? 

This brings us to the “what’s next?” and “what else can we do?” questions, this is where the past Climathon teams have really dug deep and come up with some amazing ideas. These solutions often involve a collaboration of ideas, and importantly they work because once they are in front of you, they’re actually quite intuitive. Below are some examples of teams that have come up with solutions that are also successful business ideas.

Let's talk possible solutions

Across the Wellington Region we have around 1 million tonnes of waste per annum and we recover about one fifth of this tonnage as some sort of reusable material. Household recycling is a relatively small fraction of what is recovered. The vast majority by weight is metal captured by the scrap industry (think car bodies, demolished steel buildings, old telephone cables, etc.) and green waste processed by commercial compost plants.

Over half of all waste is estimated to be disposed of at Class 2-4 landfills. This waste stream is enormous, and it’s driven by large scale economic activity (such as city/road building). The good news is that many of the materials entering Class 2-4 landfills are by definition, relatively inert, meaning they create negligible greenhouse gas emissions once disposed of and the leaching of toxic materials as they breakdown is significantly lower (ideally negligible). The bad news is that the embodied energy in some of these materials is enormous, so while putting waste concrete into a Class 2 landfill doesn’t create landfill methane, it does waste the energy and carbon already invested in the raw material resource extraction; and then again, as the opportunity to use that recycled material in a new construction project is substituted with newly extracted/processed/transported materials.

In the Wellington Region, one third or approximately 300,000T of waste per year enters Class 1 landfills. These “municipal landfills” are what the public generally think of as “the tip” or “rubbish dump”, these sites take the more harmful wastes and have stronger environmental controls surrounding their establishment, management and operations. This is why municipal Class 1 landfills cost a lot more per tonne to dispose of materials relative to the Class 2-4 landfills. The higher environmental standards mean that Class 1 landfill is where organic wastes are deposited. In NZ these fills are also subject to the Emission Trading Scheme which means they come with an annual carbon liability for their operators (e.g. Councils/ratepayers in the Wellington Region)

The Wellington Region’s Class 1 landfills have a wide variety of materials entering them that have “the potential” to be diverted. The figure below shows that organics is the largest waste type that gets disposed of at municipal landfill’s regionally. For more info on what goes into the region’s landfills and their potential to be recovered/recycled, please see Page 141 of the Wellington Region Waste Assessment (2016).

The Wellington Region has a target to reduce waste to class one landfill by one third by 2027 and we have a regional waste plan that identifies how we could get there. However, a lot of the solutions require significant infrastructure investment and/or policy change at central government level. This doesn’t mean to say things can’t change right now, and there’s a lot more to waste minimisation than what’s entering landfill that potentially shouldn’t be, and while initiatives that capture or recover materials are incredibly important, recycling and recovery is actually some way down the waste hierarchy.

Since the reframing of waste in the context of the circular economy, the most sustainable action of “REDUCTION” at the top the waste hierarchy has been expanded to include:

  1. REFUSE single use items
  2. REDUCE single use items
  3. REUSE/REFILL items/containers 
  4. REPURPOSE items for alternate use
  5. REPAIR to make items last longer

The idea is that if you can “reduce” consumption of material items (resources), then you save all the embodied energy and environmental impact stemming from the material’s extraction, manufacture and transport, prior to its first consumption/use. 

Thus we talk about “moving materials up the waste hierarchy”, and based on what we’ve seen in past Climathon successes, this is where you’re more likely to be able to develop a bespoke solution that works in the current economic context for waste i.e. where landfills (all types) are relatively cheap, and for now, that’s what you’re up against. 

Enter the circular economy

Harmful waste is the direct result of a linear economy that utilises valuable resources only once (most often) before being discarded. Having committed to the polluting and carbon impact of resource extraction, harvesting and manufacturing; to utilise an item only once is simply no longer good enough. Things have to change and the business community is already shifting, with many global brands pledging to reduce waste and move towards a more circular business model. So how do we do this in the context of Climathon?

There are many ways in which your ideas can achieve more circular outcomes for resources that reduces our carbon footprint. The below butterfly diagram from the Ellen McAurthur Foundation shows many possible pathways for “biological and technical” resources to be diverted back into different parts of the economy. 

Coming to and understanding how your idea works in this context is an important, collaborative and fun part of the Climathon journey.  From a Council standpoint, we love great ideas turned to reality that enables more people to:

  • Understand the issues and why they are important;
  • Be heard on waste issues they are passionate about (coffee cups, straws, polystyrene, cheap electronics, used tyres, single use plastic bags, etc.);
  • Take action at home, at work or in the community (it’s easy once you know how!);
  • Reduce our overall and individual consumption (this will save you money too!);
  • Increase recycling rates, and;
  • Reduce their waste.

Wellington City Council also has waste minimisation grants able to support organisations and initiatives that reduce waste. Some past grant recipients here.

Good luck and we look forward to seeing you there!

What are some possible solutions this blog has inspired in you? 

Climathon Wellington is a 24 hour challenge happening on the 26th and 27th of October. In it's 4th year it brings together people from different industries to create and test ideas to solve Wellingtons greatest challenges in a highly supportive environment.

If you are someone who enjoys complex challenges, has ideas or wants to contribute your skills, come to Climathon Wellington.

Co-hosted by Wellington City Council and Victoria University of Wellington, there is a limited number of free passes now available.

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