Our growing waste problem — is product stewardship the answer?

Bottle on beach. Bob Zuur/Moments of Light Photography

The Government’s recent announcement declaring six “priority products” (plastic packaging, tyres, electronic waste, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants, and farm plastics) will kick-start a long awaited move towards regulated product stewardship in New Zealand. The policy has the potential to reduce waste and increase job opportunities.

According to Green MP, Eugenie Sage, “Regulated product stewardship helps put the responsibility for waste and what happens to products at the end of their useful life on manufacturers, importers, retailers and users, rather than on communities, councils, neighbourhoods and nature.”

The New Zealand Product Stewardship Council (NZPSC) has been advocating for mandatory product stewardship for a number of years and calls for well-designed schemes that leapfrog recycling (where possible) to reduce and design-out waste. We speak to Hannah Blumhardt, Coordinator of the NZPSC and Co-Founder of The Rubbish Trip, to get her thoughts on the new policy, zero waste and the circular economy in New Zealand.

The NZPSC is a non-governmental organisation that acts as an independent voice for effective product stewardship on behalf of the community. Our members are all product stewardship experts, holding roles in the community zero waste sector, local government and academia.

Hannah and Liam. Solene/News Land

Hannah, what is the NZ Product Stewardship Council and how are you involved?

The NZPSC is a non-governmental organisation that acts as an independent voice for effective product stewardship on behalf of the community. Our members are all product stewardship experts, holding roles in the community zero waste sector, local government and academia.

We established NZPSC for two main reasons. First, we saw a need for an independent, expert voice in conversations about regulating products and the waste they cause (in part to counterbalance the voice of vested interests that have been influential in shaping New Zealand waste policy for some decades). Second, we wanted to raise awareness about the key principles underlying successful product stewardship programs, including the need for them to be mandatory.

What is NZPSC’s main role in tackling New Zealand’s waste?

As well as offering an independent, evidence-based voice for regulated product stewardship in New Zealand, we also provide on-going research and commentary on government or industry proposals via various media outlets and official policy-making channels.

We also participate in zero waste-related working groups, including a group designing a beverage Container Return Scheme, and WasteMINZ product stewardship research groups, such as Right to Repair policy for electronics. 

We produce publications, for example the Happy Returns report (which set out a model container return scheme for beverages) and organise events to share information on key topics, such as an international panel discussion about New Zealand’s plastic waste exports, featuring panellists from receiving countries.

What are the benefits of the new product stewardship policy to New Zealand?

Tyres, as far as the eye can see …

The announcement represents a huge step forward in New Zealand waste policy. Relevant industries will be required to: take responsibility for their products at end of life; make it easier for products to be recycled; and even redesign their products to be less wasteful in the first place. How this will be achieved will be set out in the product stewardship schemes that must now be designed.

The biggest benefit is a shift away from the government’s previous fixation on voluntary industry solutions to waste, towards a regulated approach. The schemes will be co-designed between Government and stakeholders and will then become mandatory. Baseline and coordinated outcomes will be set, which must be achieved by the schemes and reported on. All industry players will have to comply with the resulting scheme, removing the problem of free riders that have caused a problem for some voluntary schemes, such as AgRecovery and tyre recycling initiatives.

Some likely key outcomes of the product stewardship schemes will be that waste going to landfill from the priority products are reduced, a nationwide collection system for these products will be developed, and onshore processing will be provided, where possible. The costs of recovering and recycling these products will be borne by producers and consumers rather than local government, ratepayers and the community. Furthermore, there will be opportunities for industry collaboration to rethink manufacturing, reduce the use of unsustainable materials, and improve product design for reuse and repair.

Can you explain to me how the new proposal will work?

The Minister has declared six products as “priority products”. What that means is that product stewardship schemes for these products must now be designed. The Environment Minister will accredit schemes as long as they meet guidelines that the Minister has also released alongside the priority product declarations. Once accredited, the schemes can then be made mandatory through regulations.

A variety of policy tools can be used in product stewardship schemes, including:

  • Advanced Recycling Fees – paid at the time of purchasing an item, such as a tyre or a television that covers the costs of recycling the item at the end of its life.
  • Deposit Return Systems – a compulsory deposit is placed on an item at the time of purchase that is refunded upon the item’s return. This increases recovery rates for recycling, but can also form the backbone of reuse and sharing economies.
  • Minimum recycled content – products must be manufactured with a certain percentage of recycled content, which decreases raw materials used in manufacturing and stimulates demand for recycled content, which is vital to maintain the recycling industry’s viability.
  • Phase-outs & Eco levies – problematic materials can be subjected to a ban or a levy to disincentive use. Levies can also be applied to particular systems rather than materials – for example, a levy on single-use packaging to stimulate reusable packaging systems.
  • Design specifications – regulations requiring particular design features that improve circular outcomes.

What do you see the key challenges to be on a local, regional and country level for waste management in New Zealand?

Often when we think about our waste problems, we have a tendency to think the challenges are technical and infrastructural. But I would argue that they’re also philosophical, cultural and political.

HaNNah Blumhardt

Like most high-income countries, the key issue NZ needs to crack is that we are over-consuming resources and exceeding planetary boundaries. Right now, waste policy at a local, regional and country level is not geared to looking this fundamental problem squarely in the eye, and then taking steps to overcome it.

We know that New Zealanders consume far more resources than we have the capacity to process ourselves. Our reliance on exporting our recyclate has made our recycling system very vulnerable to market changes overseas. For example, the impact of COVID19 and also earlier import restrictions China placed on plastic and cardboard recyclate. When overseas markets dry up, there’s a risk our waste exports go to poorly regulated markets in other countries (for example, in South East Asia) or we start landfilling otherwise recyclable products at home (as happened with Auckland’s cardboard and paper recycling during lockdown). When our back-up solution is landfilling, you really know we have a problem. Landfills are a symbol of the linear economy that we’re trying to move away from – they waste resources; they’re really expensive in energy consumption and costs to local councils (and thus ratepayers); they can release pollutants, such as methane and liquid leachate that harm our health, the wider environment and the climate; and they use up precious and finite land.

So, clearly, we need to work out how to align our consumption with what we can realistically process on-shore. However, the answer isn’t just about investing in more onshore recycling infrastructure (though that is important), it’s also about getting smarter about the way we manufacture and consume. The conversation about waste needs to move beyond “waste management” and towards “resource recovery”, “zero waste” and the “circular economy”. And our focus needs to shift to how we can avoid waste in the first place, not what to do with waste once it’s already produced. To me, getting this shift in understanding, focus and practice is where our biggest challenge lies.

So, how can regulated product stewardship help with that?

Much of our plastic waste ends up in the sea

Regulated product stewardship offers the opportunity to eliminate problematic materials from our economy entirely, to redesign products and services to prevent and reduce waste and maximise recyclability and recycled content, and to promote systems based on reuse and repair. This means we have to rely less and less on landfills and we also reduce the amount of recycling we need to do too.

Greater use of reusable products and highly recyclable materials will create economies of scale and certainty of supply to drive investment in the processing and collection infrastructure needed to circularise our economy. Product stewardship can also improve effective resource recovery so that used materials are returned at high rates in clean, single streams that keep those resources fit for reuse or high quality recycling. Beverage container return schemes are a good example of this. With these types of changes we are better able to keep cycling precious resources in New Zealand, we can grow a more carbon-friendly reuse economy, and we reduce our reliance on shipping waste offshore.

This vision does require really ambitious product stewardship schemes that are capable of transitioning us from the current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model to a circular economy. A key challenge in this transition is negotiating the politics of who pays for it. In the current linear model, costs for managing products are externalised to the community and the environment whereas, in a circular economy, costs are re-allocated to polluters, who will often attempt to oppose or obstruct that. The circular economy also involves changing entrenched business models, which can be an unappealing prospect for industry that have developed systems to suit a linear framework. For this reason, it is essential that a broad range of stakeholders are involved in designing product stewardship schemes to ensure social, environmental and commercial considerations are all taken into account. Only with wide participation in the design process can we be confident that we’ll achieve ambitious schemes focused on outcomes at the top of the waste hierarchy.

What you’re describing is very different to our current situation where NZ lags behind many other countries on waste. In fact, we’re one of the most wasteful countries in the world. How can the government get all key stakeholders (manufacturers, retailers, consumers) on board?

Mandatory policy and regulation, including economic instruments that create financial incentives, is key to getting all stakeholders on board. These are tools only available to government and they have to be used to get waste under control. Unlike many other countries, NZ is traditionally and culturally averse to regulatory approaches to all kinds of social and environmental problems. Waste has been under-regulated for decades in NZ and this approach simply does not work. So it’s no surprise that NZ is one of the world’s most wasteful countries. 

That’s why NZPSC has supported regulated/mandatory product stewardship for so long and we’re thankful the Government is now supporting this approach too. Without compulsory obligations, it’s easy to avoid responsibility for the environmental harm that a product causes. With mandatory product stewardship, key stakeholders have no choice but to be involved. Policy tools such as advanced recycling fees and deposit return systems also attribute a value to resources that until now we’ve only ever seen as “waste”. This value operates as an incentive for a wide range of stakeholders to get on board.

Both industry and government will be at the table designing the scheme. At this crucial juncture, the government must use its role as an overseer of the public good to ensure wider stakeholder representation at the design table, including tangata whenua, local government, NGOs, academics and community and zero waste representatives. The NZPSC believes it would be entirely inappropriate for these schemes to be designed between industry and government alone.

Can you give us a good example of regulated product stewardship here or abroad?

New Zealand has never had a regulated product stewardship scheme before, which is one of the reasons why this announcement is so exciting because we’re now one step closer. Overseas, beverage container return schemes are a quintessential example of product stewardship in action. That’s the old-school story of paying a small deposit when you buy a beverage that you get back when you return the empty bottle for refilling or recycling.

Beverage container return schemes operate in countries all around the world and achieve really impressive recovery rates for bottles and cans, some as high as 95%! The returned containers are kept in single-streams so they allow for quality recycling and also offer the opportunity to maintain a market share for refillables or permit a resurgence of refillables (see, for example, the refillables arm of the Oregon beverage container return system).

Listen to Hannah discussing product stewardship on RNZ here and here.

2 thoughts on “Our growing waste problem — is product stewardship the answer?

  1. We “civilised” are captive and enmeshed in an insane system. The industrial packaging and food corporations have decided to go down paths of mass consumption and packaging, and we’re the last to be consulted, just constantly hammered with marketing that “this is the best way to live!”. This is because within the present system, recycling is the only choice given to us. The “R”s were always supposed to be Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, BEFORE Recycling. The Government at local and central level, have abdicated to our corporate overlords, and thus we’re in the pickle of mountains of trash, sadly by design. The 2006 drama movie ‘Idiocracy’ was never meant to be a documentary, but that’s where we “civilised” are heading, fast! Until this dilemma is squarely faced, I don’t see much changing. Talk of product stewardship is a first step. Make it mandatory and lock the corporations down, and I’ll believe some real change is happening.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. this is GREAT! the one thing that is not ever addressed is WHY are we creating so much waste to begin with? i read once that the dalai lama and gandhi said that once our basic needs are met, happiness is an inside job….and yet in our ‘culture of distraction’ we continually look outside ourselves for happiness (confusing pleasure with happiness!). and as st augustine said “people travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the start, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
    let’s look at the real root cause of our waste!

    Liked by 2 people

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