A scheme to put a circular economy genie in every empty bottle could supercharge change in our communities.
In these challenging times, it feels great to be the bearer of good news. The Government has finally put its plan on the table for a Container Return Scheme.
The Government proposal, which is out for submissions now, is to incentivise recycling of beverage containers through a 20c refundable deposit. A CRS would boost our (embarrassingly low) recycling rates of beverage containers from 45% to 85%-90% pretty much straight away.
We desperately need to do a better job of recycling beverage containers, because at the moment 1.7 billion (yes billion, that’s not a misprint!) each year are escaping the recycling system and ending up in our environment as litter, waste in landfills or discarded material in stockpiles. It’s such a waste of resources and money, not to mention that it’s contributing to the plastic pollution of the oceans — which is nothing less than a disaster.
CRS is a product stewardship tool that shifts the cost of beverage container recycling off councils and on to beverage producers, something that nearly everyone (other than some of the beverage producers) agrees is a better system. It’s fairer, plus it gets the beverage producers to take responsibility for the waste they create, which makes them choose packaging that can be easily recycled. That’s why CRS has to be simple and cover all materials and beverages, including dairy milk (which the current proposal exempts).
CRS has been proven to be very effective overseas, and it’s also very popular. A cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the Government calculated that the net benefit to Aotearoa is $1.4 billion (yes billion!). It will save us $69 million in reduced litter clean-up costs, $35 million in avoided landfill costs and $27 million in reduced contamination of kerbside recycling. That’s a double win, because we’re spending all that money on things we don’t even want in the first place.
Given those numbers, it’s very hard to put together a coherent argument against CRS, which kind of begs the question, why on Earth did we get rid of it in the first place? I’m old enough to remember the original deposit system for bottles, when community groups collected them in fundraising drives, and you could swap a few bottles for some jet planes down at the local dairy. We’ve been lost down a cul-de-sac for the last 20-30 years, which has ended in a huge proliferation of waste to landfill.
Plastic pollution and climate change tell us we have to find our way out of this wasteful dead-end, and urgently figure out how to make the leap to the circular economy where we design out waste and keep resources in circulation. But Government can’t make the leap on its own. The transition to a circular economy has to happen on all levels — from policy and procurement by Government and councils, through to action, engagement and behaviour change from businesses, organisations and individuals.
Which is where Wastebusters comes in. Back when we started our waste-busting community enterprise two decades ago, Wastebusters was like a pioneer species, surviving against the odds in barren soil. As we became established and grew, Wastebusters provided shade and nutrients for others in our community to join us in a circular economy ecosystem. Twenty-one years later, our district has a diverse community of individuals and organisations, all taking action to reduce waste and be resourceful, which feeds the soil to support new seeds to germinate and take root.
Every week at Wastebusters, I meet passionate people who have an idea to reduce the waste, and who want Wastebusters’ help to make it happen. It might be Cardrona/Treble Cone, which last year removed all rubbish bins from its ski fields. It might be someone who wants to support zero-waste events in our district, or Wanaka’s Food Security Network, which has set up shared community pantries or the Hospo-Goes-Eco group implementing systems to make its cafes single-use cup free.
To support people with so much passion to turn their zero waste ideas into reality is what Wastebusters is all about. And it means that the energy and skills of people from all walks of life can drive our community’s transition to a circular economy — it’s not just up to our Wastebusters staff.
To get to a circular economy in Aotearoa, we need to grow a circular economy ecosystem in every town and city neighbourhood. Establishing a Wastebusters, or an Xtreme Zero Waste as they have in Raglan, or a Community Recycling Centre like some Auckland neighbourhoods, is the foundation for a local circular economy ecosystem. Zero waste hubs across the country are supported by the Zero Waste Network, and Para Kore works with marae, organisations and events to design out waste. Over time, these local ecosystems will connect up into a forest of diverse and robust circular economy solutions, all connected but authentic to their own place and community.
As it stands, the proposed CRS will make our recycling system better. It will increase the circularity of beverage containers — one of the key policy objectives. But to be transformational, we need to set bigger and more audacious goals. Instead of just making beverage containers circular, the policy objective should be to drive the transition to a circular economy. Then key decisions, such as whether we get our 20c deposits back from an automatic vending machine or from a depot like Wastebusters, would be made in the light of their potential positive impact on a circular economy.
The Government has proposed that the 20c refunds will be distributed via 50 depots and 645 supermarket reverse vending machines. Imagine if all 50 depots were integrated into zero waste hubs like Wastebusters that were supporting 50 communities to take action to reduce waste and use resources better. Imagine if there were 60, 70, 100, even 200 depots that measured the impacts of their work and shared best practice and successful projects through the Zero Waste Network. We could truly leapfrog towards a circular economy by leveraging the passion, skills and potential within our communities.
When I show visitors around Wastebusters they always ask “how do I get a Wastebusters in my community?”. I never have an easy answer, because Wastebusters runs on a fuel of community support, skilled staff who live and breathe the mission, eternal optimism and a financial surplus (at least in enough years to keep paying the bills). If you drop any one of those balls, you’re a goner.
If you can keep all those balls in the air, you can conjure circular economy jobs out of resources that once would have gone to waste. At Wastebusters, we have more than 60 staff working in our reduce, reuse and recycling teams. And every time our communities interact with Wastebusters, they are part of keeping resources in circulation: whether it’s dropping off their recycling, buying second-hand first, repairing a broken zipper, coming to a compost workshop or participating in Slow Fashion Month.
It’s not that being a CRS depot would pay for all the services to the community that a zero waste hub such as Wastebusters delivers. But it would provide a revenue stream for a practical circular economy solution (quality recycling) around which a community enterprise can layer community support, skilled and passionate staff and optimism for the future. So if you’re wondering “how do I get a Wastebusters in my community?”, my answer will be “CRS depot”. Let’s make these recycling changes truly transformational.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you support bringing back a CRS to Aotearoa, there’s something important you can do to help make it happen. Add your name to a pre-prepared submission at
kiwibottledrive.nz/ or make your own submission at consult.environment.govt.nz/waste/transforming-recycling/.
And if you like the idea of a CRS depot being part of a zero waste hub in your community, don’t forget to talk about that too.
Gina Dempster is communications manager at Wastebusters. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.