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Speech to Green Party 2018 AGM - Eugenie Sage, Associate Environment Minister

Te whare e tū nei - tena koe

Te papa i waho nei- tēnā koe

E mihi ana ki nga manawhenua o Rangitane

Ki te whānau e huihui nei

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

The Green Party has always been ahead of the times especially on issues such as climate change and the environment.

Yesterday you heard from James and Marama about how as part of the Labour, New Zealand First and Green government we are achieving wins in important areas like this.

This party is the beating green heart of this Government.

We’re acting on climate change, in Budget 2018 we achieved the biggest increase in operational funding for DoC since 2002 to better protect our native birds and wildlife and public conservation lands and waters. 

And Green MP Jan Logie has achieved a world first with her successful member’s bill to provide workplace leave for the victims of domestic violence.

The Friday before last I was with the Prime Minister when she announced Government’s proposal for a mandatory phase out of single use plastic bags, within the next 12 months, not just the supermarket bags but also boutique ones.  

We can only do this because of another Green member’s bill which resulted in our current Waste Minimisation Act.

The Waste Minimisation Act was, in true Green Party style, a collective effort.  Former Green MP Mike Ward drafted it in 2005; Nandor Tanzcos picked it up and introduced it as a member’s bill in 2006; and then Russel Norman got it over the line when the Clark Labour Government adopted it as a Government bill in 2008.

Let me quote what Russel Norman had to say in the third and final reading debate on that bill in 2008.

“Waste is not an inevitable part of production and consumption. Materials must be part of cycles, rather than linear processes in which they are used once then discarded. Full social and environmental costs should be taken into account when making decisions about the creation, management, and disposal of wastes. We think this bill is a step along the path towards a waste-free Aotearoa New Zealand, and we commend it to the House.”

Around 20 years ago I can remember Rod Donald persuading his and my local supermarket to offer reusable jute bags instead of plastic ones. Former Green MP and “plastic bag lady” Denise Roche also did a huge amount of work alongside community groups, and councils helping build public support for a plastic bag free Aotearoa. That public support, grown over years, helped deliver last week’s announcement. 

So a big thank you to Green MPs Rod Donald, Mike Ward, Nandor Tanczos, Russel Norman, and Denise Roche; and Green members and supporters for giving the Green Party a solid track record on reducing waste.

Last October I specifically asked to have the waste portfolio as Associate Environment Minister, in order to continue the Green Party’s “work on waste”.

So I’m doing all I can to achieve the goal in our confidence and supply agreement with Labour, to reduce waste to landfill. A big part of getting there is using the tools in the Waste Minimisation Act that were gathering dust under the former National Government.

It’s not a matter of recycling the law – it’s just time to take it off the shelf and start using it properly.

Inaction over the past decade has seen volumes going to landfill increase and New Zealand has been left woefully unprepared for the impact of China’s decision to close its borders to the world’s waste.

We’re at a tipping point – the point where we need to stop so much going to the tip.

It’s not just that we don’t want to fill our land with rubbish. When it decomposes in a landfill, waste releases greenhouse gases like methane which contribute to climate change. When plastics and other litter escape into nature, they create havoc for our marine wildlife with turtles, whales, and seabirds mistaking plastic waste for food and nesting material.

New Zealanders send an average of 734 kilograms of waste each to landfill each year. That figure has been increasing. It’s partly due to economic growth and our increasing population, but also to our consumption based, throwaway culture.

Kiwis care deeply about the environment, and know we need to do more to live up to our country’s international reputation for being clean and green.

In the Ministry for the Environment surveys, half of respondents are highly worried about the impacts of waste on the environment, rating it as one of the top three most important issues facing this country over the next 20 years, behind fixing hospitals and having affordable housing. In the minds of many Kiwis, waste is our number one environmental challenge.

But people come up against problems – a lack of good alternatives, unaffordability of reusable items, and limited information. Businesses are also stepping up, but again it’s not easy and it’s uneven. People trying to do the right thing pay more than the freeloaders who don’t.

Nature doesn’t create waste, and we don’t need to either. We need to adopt a radically different approach. We must use circular economy principles to design waste out of the system. This will ensure that we can ‘unmake’ everything, to reuse the materials or return them to nature.

Nandor’s bill which became the Waste Minimisation Act gives me the teeth to start taking a serious bite out of this problem.

Today I am announcing that Cabinet has approved my work programme to deal with some of the big problems in waste.

The first task is to expand the Waste Disposal Levy.  New Zealand has over 420 known landfills and the levy only applies to 11 % of them - largely the metropolitan landfills accepting household waste – and it only applies to an estimated 30 % of the waste stream.

According to surveys done in Auckland, construction and demolition waste accounts for an estimated 85% of the waste stream. Yet the levy applies to very few landfills where this material ends up. The levy needs to be applied to more landfills so that it provides an incentive to encourage materials recovery and divert waste from landfill.

The expanded levy is likely to come into force in early 2020. This timeframe is to allow for Ministry for the Environment to do the necessary policy work, for public consultation, to allow the supporting infrastructure to be set up, and to give the waste sector time to adapt.

As part of this work, we will look at increasing the pricing. When the Waste Minimisation Act was introduced in 2008, it was always intended that the levy would rise. However, nearly a decade later the levy remains set at the introductory price of $10 a tonne.

We will consult with the public about the levy expansion and any potential increases next year.  The levy currently generates around $30 million annually. Half of that goes to councils to help them fund their waste minimisation activities. The balance goes into the Waste Minimisation Fund and its grant scheme to help progressive businesses and community organisations reduce waste.

The second and long overdue task is to improve dramatically the data and information available on waste. We lack a full national picture of what is going to landfill, and what is being recovered or recycled. Knowing this is critical if we are to make informed decisions.

I’m proposing that we require landfill operators to report on the composition of waste they receive in addition to the quantity. Surprised that that is not already required? So was I.

The 2017 Review on the Effectiveness of the Waste Disposal Levy and evaluations of the Waste Minimisation Fund showed that we need a more strategic approach that takes account of the entire waste system.

In response to China’s decision not to accept mixed recyclables and other materials, I have asked technical experts in the Ministry for the Environment to draft a strategy that outlines where investment is best made to help businesses minimise waste, build our local processing capacity for recyclables and provide local jobs.  The MFE taskforce is working with an external reference group of experts from councils and recycling businesses, and looking at the Australian experience as well. It’s due to report back by in late September on medium and longer term options

The third task is around product stewardship. It is one of the tools in the toolbox that National didn’t use widely enough because it thinks the market and competition will fix everything. Well that is an obvious error.

Product stewardship is just what the term implies. It means that we factor in the issues around dealing with goods at the end of their life – like all those tablets, laptops, smartphones which eventually become e-waste; at the outset. Everyone in the supply chain from manufacturer to retailer to consumer takes some responsibility.

We only have 15 voluntary product stewardship schemes operating in New Zealand at present for products like glass and agrichemical containers. I want to include some mandatory product stewardship schemes in that mix, starting with tyres. New Zealand creates 4.6 million end of life tyres each year.  Right now, an estimated 70% of them are either stockpiled, sent to landfill, or illegally dumped. 

Stormwater runoff from outdoor tyre piles can leach heavy metals and other chemicals into soil and waterways.  If these tyre piles catch on fire they create major air pollution and health problems; and huge fire-fighting, clean up and enforcement costs for communities and local authorities.

Sending tyres to landfill is also a terrible waste of the natural, technical and energy resources that go into manufacturing them in the first place.

The situation with end of life tyres is symptomatic of the traditional linear economy that we have relied on for too long, where we take materials from nature – rubber and petrochemicals to make tyres - use them for a short time, then discard them.

Operating like this is wasteful, depletes nature, and harms the environment and human health.

I have asked Ministry for the Environment experts to look at the best way to develop and implement a mandatory product stewardship for end of life tyres in collaboration with industry.

It potentially involves an advance disposal fee on each tyre entering the country which is then passed onto tyre collectors and recyclers.  That revenue stream provides an incentive to recover the steel, rubber, and other materials in tyres and find other uses for them.

It is fundamental that we all play our part and understand that a waste-free future will not happen overnight. Each step we take helps create a more sustainable and productive economy and better care for nature. 

Plastic bags and tyres are the start. I look forward to working with all of you for a waste-free future.

We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us and carry on their mahi to protect our special country.

Thank you to them and to you all for ensuring the Greens are in this Government and able to deliver on what matters.

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa