Recycling: the last resort before landfill
Nelsonians recycle thousands of tonnes of waste every year but do we actually know what happens to it after it leaves our kerbside? Sara Meij investigates whether we should be doing more.
Behind her kitchen sink in her bright yellow house overlooking trees and the sea, Sarah Langi opens a kitchen cabinet.
She rolls a bin with four compartments; one for paper, one for food scraps, one for plastic and one for general waste that goes to landfill. Under another kitchen bench she has a box for glass.
Langi says she knows she doesn't have to separate the recycling, apart from glass, but the house on Nelson's Atawhai Dr came with the bin and it grew on her.
"I'm very passionate about valuing resources and not wasting anything," she says.
"I think there's too much choice these days and we're all guilty of over-consuming - the result on the landfill is pretty dire."
Langi works at the Nelson Environment Centre as an environmental educator and practices at home what she preaches at work.
"Recycling for me is the least we can do. It's the first step to treading lightly on the planet and just being a responsible citizen," she says.
Langi says society is set up to create waste with supermarket products being overpackaged, often using non-recyclable materials.
"And that's a problem. It's not improving. Yes, people are recycling more, which is good. But the actual waste that's being produced is constantly growing."
Most people don't know exactly what happens to their recycling once it leaves the kerbside, so Stuff went to find out.
Nelson City Council's recycling contractor, Nelmac, recently changed its recycling scheme by switching the blue recycling crate for 120 litre or 240 litre wheelie bins for everything but glass.
Langi says she's concerned the bigger sized bins will encourage people to buy more because they think they can simply fill the bin up and put it out every two weeks.
Plastic should be a rarity instead of a common commodity, she says.
She takes her bins out of the cabinet and walks them to the big recycling bin downstairs. From there, she rolls it down the steep hill to place it on the kerbside for collection.
Recycling is big business
On Tuesday morning, a Nelmac recycling truck picks up the bins in Langi's street and delivers the contents to the Smart Environmental materials recovery facility (MRF) on Fittal St in Richmond.
Recycling collection in Nelson is outsourced by Nelson City Council to Nelmac and Tasman District Council uses Smart Environmental.
Nelmac subcontracts Smart Environmental to process Nelson's recycling in its MRF plant. Buller District's recycling is also processed here.
A dozen trucks come in every day to unload their recycling at the MRF.
The sorting facility is a large green structure surrounded by smaller buildings and a large storage shed where high towering colourful bales of recycling are held until the next phase of their journey.
In the facility, a hopper and a trommel screen sort out most of the non-glass recycling. Part of it is sorted by hand to make sure it doesn't get mixed with non-recyclables or contaminated recycling.
Smart Environmental Upper South Island area manager Yuri Schokking says about six per cent of everything that comes in is waste; either contaminated or not something that the company recycles.
By weight, plastic accounts for nine per cent, paper and cardboard for 82 per cent. Aluminium cans make up one per cent and steel cans account for two per cent.
Paper and cardboard, plastic, steel cans and aluminium cans are all sorted and compressed into different bales.
Nelson and Tasman glass is sorted by colour when picked up and sold to O-I New Zealand in Auckland where it is made into glass bottles for New Zealand's wine, beer, juice and water brands.
Schokking says 98 per cent of recycled glass is reintroduced into New Zealand.
Recycling is a commercial commodity and what is being recycled depends on overseas demand.
"What people don't appreciate is that just about everything is recyclable but it becomes an economics and a scale point," Schokking says.
MRF handles steel, paper, card, aluminium, three grades of plastic - HDPE (like milk bottles), PET (like soft drink bottles) and mixed plastic, excluding soft plastics such as plastic bags.
Schokking says all paper and card is sold to offshore countries in Asia, such as China and Indonesia and gets consumed into large pulp mills.
All of the South Island's paper and card recycling is sold overseas because the North Island pulp mills only have enough capacity to process its own paper and card recycling.
"Plus the cost of freight across Cook Strait, you might as well put it on a ship and send it to Asia," Schokking says. He says all plastic is sold overseas as well, except for HDPE.
About 50 per cent of HDPE plastic the facility takes in is sold to Christchurch company Comspec, which makes it into other products such as plastic pipes for farmers.
Schokking says the other half is sold in container lots to several Asian countries where it is processed in large factories and made into non-food grade products such as pens, polar fleece, toys and consumer packaging.
"You'll find that most plastic products have a proportion of recycled content in it," he says.
Aluminium and steel is sold to Sims Recycling Solutions, another New Zealand company.
Schokking says providing the exact amount of recycling that is sold overseas isn't possible due to commercially sensitivity. But he says the facility sells close to 5000 tonnes of glass annually and about 4000 tonnes of paper and cardboard a year. Plastic is even less.
However, some say shipping recycling overseas is far from a perfect solution.
A 2011 report by the Institute of Developing Economies says that the increased trade in recyclables has caused environmental problems in Asian countries.
The report highlights two problems; pollution from processing recycling without appropriate facilities and the illegal trade of recyclables where hazardous recycling is being dumped in developing countries.
Others worry recycling might simply be dumped in landfill after arriving in Asia.
Schokking says that he can't see any point in Asian countries buying recycling from other countries if they're chucking it into landfill.
"They're paying quite a price for it, up to $600 per tonne, more than that for some products."
Not everything that enters the recycling sorting facility is deemed recyclable.
Schokking says they've found very strange things while sorting through the region's recycling over the 18 months since the facility opened.
Prior to MRF's arrival on the scene, both Nelson and Tasman were manually handling and sorting their recycling.
"We've found samurai swords, dead dogs, engine parts, gas cylinders, nappies, hot ash, oil heaters, flares and needles."
Products that are in good condition can find a second (or third, or fourth) life through the Nelson Reuse and Recycle centre off Pascoe St in Nelson.
The Reuse and Recycle centre is run by the Nelson Environment Centre. Mike Gregory has been the centre's co-manager for the past 24 years.
He says the role of the centre was important as it diverted 300-400 tonnes of resources a year from landfill.
"There's a Robin Hood factor to it, the rich give to the poor."
Gregory says since he started the centre in 1992, people have been bringing in more unwanted things to be sold which in turn are being bought by others . The centre can now afford to pay full time employees.
"People are reusing more. It's remarkable the stuff that comes through - some excellent [quality]."
With us forever
A lone blue running shoe in good condition lays on the ground, as if the owner took it off and forgot it.
The shoe sits on several stories of rubbish on a landfill site. No one is coming back for it.
Anything that can't be recycled goes to York Valley landfill in Nelson. These are things that are contaminated, aren't on the list of recyclables or simply isn't worth recycling.
Here, tucked away in a valley between Bishopdale and the Brook, at the end of Market Rd, trucks come in with laden with recycling every day.
These loads currently include green waste, at least until a new green waste contractor can been found by Nelson City Council.
York Valley landfill isn't your run of the mill rubbish dump. It looks like bare terraced land, with not a seagull in sight and, as long as the wind doesn't blow your way, the trash can barely be smelled.
Trucks and vehicles are weighed at the bottom of the hill and then proceed up the hill. The load is dumped on the landfill, before a compactor truck runs over it to flatten the waste.
Then a temporary cover of sawdust is put over to prevent it flying away and to keep seagulls at bay. Before the shift ends it's covered with soil. The next day, the soil is removed and the process starts all over again.
When one section of the landfill is full, work starts on another.
Nelson City Council manager operations Peter Anderson says Nelson's landfill is one of the most tidy in the country.
Even the waste's waste is being recycled. Buried rubbish generates methane gas. At York Landfill it is pumped through pipes to Nelson Hospital where it is used to fuel the boiler for heating.
Works and Infrastructure Committee chair Paul Matheson said the use of the methane for this purpose is better for the environment in terms of global warming and "far superior" to burning off the methane.
From 1942 until 1987, Nelson's landfill used to be where Miyazu Gardens, Founders Heritage Park and Neal Park are now.
When space ran out, the landfill was moved to York Valley and the parks and green spaces were built on top of decades of rubbish.
Vents were put in place to let out the build up of methane, which continues to be produced by the layers of rubbish.
Anderson says York Valley has been Nelson's landfill since 1978 and should have another 14 to 16 years left before it's full.
Matheson says after that, the landfill will be covered with a layer more than 600mm thick of clay-like material plus a layer of topsoil and the area will be replanted with grass.
"It is expected that landfill gas will be harvested for up to 40 years beyond the closure of the landfill.
Matheson says once York Valley landfill runs out of space, the landfill will move to Eves Valley in Tasman.
"Any planning around a future landfill will need to take into consideration a variety of issues including that of capacity and life - considering residual waste projections for the region."
Council's solid waste asset management plan 2015-2025 states that 587kg of municipal, industrial and hazardous waste per person is disposed of at York Valley landfill each year.
It says all waste related operations, from collection to recycling and landfill, will cost Nelson almost $9 million for 2016/2017.
Nelson City Council contract supervisor Graham Poxon says the council does not profit from either the recycling or landfill schemes.
Landfill is paid for by the user, as they go. The more you put out, he says, the more you pay.
Buy less, waste less
Back on Atawhai Dr, Sarah Langi's five-year-old granddaughter Florence asks for a piece of fruit.
Langi hands her a mandarin and Florence carefully peels off the skin. She walks to the bin and throws the peel in the compost.
Florence goes to Victory Primary School and says she learns a lot about recycling there.
Langi says her generation was taught not to throw things away unnecessarily.
"We didn't have recycling when I was young because we didn't really need to. There were no plastic bags, milk bottles were glass and you put them back for the milkman and he filled them up. There was no concept of recycling."
Plastic bags, for instance, were only invented in the last 50 years.
Langi says recycling is the "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff".
"The real message is avoiding waste. We need to create a zero waste society. You have do the simple things," Langi says. "People aren't going to do anything that's too complex.
"But refusing plastic bags ... why do we still have plastic bags for God's sake?"