Wellingtonians pay the price for mountain of soft plastics sitting in landfill

More than 8800 tonnes of plastic is sent to Wellington's landfills every year.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

More than 8800 tonnes of plastic is sent to Wellington's landfills every year.

Wellingtonians dump nearly 9000 tonnes of plastic in landfill every year, and it's costing them thousands just to keep it there.

Last year alone, $20,000 was spent on fencing to capture bags blown out of landfills by Wellington winds, and hundreds of staff hours were spent retrieving flyaways.

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester said the council's ability to deal with the problem was limited, and it was time for Government to either impose a levy or step aside and allow councils to take up the reins.

"What we should be doing is stopping them at the source, which means fewer of them in the first place," he said.

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Without increased powers, Lester said solutions were limited to increased use of wheelie bins and switching to biodegradable bags for council kerb-side services.

Wellington city Mayor Justin Lester says it is time for central government to impose a levy on plastic bags - or step ...
ROBERT KITCHIN/ FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington city Mayor Justin Lester says it is time for central government to impose a levy on plastic bags - or step aside and allow council's to take up the reins.

Lester said many other countries had already introduced a levy, and New Zealand was "well behind the eight ball".

"New Zealanders want this, the operators want this – they want national consistency," he said.

Councils had previously lobbied government for a levy on single-use plastic bags, with 89 per cent in support.

ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax

Owhiro Bay resident Jane Poata says the Owhiro Stream's smell reminds me of the Mapua toxic site.

Recycling efforts, largely operating from supermarkets, have failed to stem the tide of plastics polluting New Zealand's land and waterways, and Lester said there was no local economic case for recycling soft plastic.

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Foodstuffs sustainability manager Mike Sammons​ said the soft plastic packaging recycling scheme, launched by Environment Minister Nick Smith in 2015, saw more than six tonnes of soft plastic collected each week from 100 different stores across the country.

Green Party waste spokeswoman Denise Roche said a levy was a win-win – creating a new tax base, reducing plastic bag use, and reducing the cost of disposal in landfills.

Green Party waste spokeswoman Denise Roche said local councils bore the brunt of soft plastic pollution, and should be ...
DAVID WHITE/STUFF

Green Party waste spokeswoman Denise Roche said local councils bore the brunt of soft plastic pollution, and should be given the power to introduce levies.

"I've got a bill in the ballot based on the UK bill that was only introduced about a year ago, and they had something like an 85 per cent reduction within the first six months, and that was just in the supermarkets," she said.

Having talked to the industry, Roche said the supermarkets would not introduce a charge voluntarily.

"They say it is anti-competitive, but the other things is you have every single dairy, garage, Mitre 10 and take-away that have the same kind of thing," Roche said.

Council waste manager Adrian Mitchell said a standard plastic bag could take up to 100 years to break down.

"The bags pollute waterways, clog up machinery and threaten natural wildlife," he said.

"Lift up clumps of grass in the areas around the landfill and you won't be surprised to find plastic bags that have been sitting there since the 70s."

Associate Environment Minister Scott Simpson said he was keen to discuss solutions for soft plastic pollution, but with only two weeks in the job, he was not in a position to comment on what that might look like.

Simpson would not support divesting power to councils to establish levies, because he believed the nation needed a consistent approach.

The brunt of plastic blown out of Wellington's Southern Landfill was borne by Owhiro Bay.

Friends of Owhiro Stream coordinator Martin Payne said heavy rainfalls left large amounts of soft plastic caught in the stream bed and surrounding bushes, but this was likely a fraction of the amount swept into the Taputeranga Marine Reserve.

A two hour clean up in May collected 60 kilograms of soft plastics from one 300 metre stretch of the Owhiro Stream. 

A report published in 2016 identified Wellington households as being among the worst recyclers in New Zealand, with Wellingtonians sending almost twice as much waste to landfills as homes in Christchurch.

BY THE NUMBERS

* Packing Forum figures estimate Kiwis use 1.6 billion single-use bags every year

* 8800T of soft plastics end up in Wellington landfills annually

* 89 per cent of councils support a compulsory levy on plastic shopping bags

 - Stuff

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