Is it time to consider how we, the citizens of New Zealand have ended up with a 4000 tonne mountain of unwanted paper and plastic recycling near Thames highlighted on the News this week? As an increasing number of us realise, this build-up of recycling is just one visible tip of a much larger waste eruption that faces us, but where did it all go so wrong? *
The inevitability of waste is a myth! It’s very recent. Just a short time ago, we, the people of NZ, handed over our responsibility for deciding what to do with things we no longer needed. Are you aware for example that a number of Pacific languages such as I-Kiribati traditionally contained no word for ‘waste’? (Biodegradable plant material was simply placed on vacant land or recycled within taro pits for compost, while human and other waste was disposed of into the reef for final removal by the incoming tide). It was just part of daily life. Pacific middens containing long-extinct horned turtle bones in Efate, Vanuatu, date back 2900 years: as individuals and as local communities we took care of our own discards on our own land.
The same cultural practices that had worked for taking responsibility of our own discarded items accompanied the early migrations to Aotearoa NZ. As early as the 14th century at Wairau Bay, carbon dating of moa egg shell and bones shows how locals took responsibility for their discards within their own whenua. In pre-colonial times, Maori communities maintained their well-being through a complex system of sustainable processes with different products such as shellfish waste, human waste and shavings from wood carving each dealt with separately. At the industrial Pa sites of Heretaunga and Castle Point evidence of early separation of discarded products for ‘recycling’ has been found; stone, shell and bone flakes were set aside and stored for conservation and re-use. Captain James Cook praised the practices of communities in Poverty Bay, noting that “Every house, or every little cluster of three or four houses, was furnished with a privy, so that the ground was everywhere clean. The offals of their food, and other litter, were also piled up in regular dunghills, which probably they made use of at a proper time for manure”.
Even in early colonial NZ, while populations remained small, unwanted materials were disposed of on people’s own land or within the community. After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the excavation of Edward Hiorn’s property, an early settler who arrived in 1862, uncovered a number of rubbish pits. One pit contained tin and iron while 1037 artifacts including ceramics, glass bottles, clay pipes, shoes and clothing were found in a further large pit at the back of the property.
The pivotal moment came at the end of the 19th century when we started to congregate in towns and cities. Once the idea caught hold that ‘miasma’, a gas emanating from putrefying matter, was causing disease outbreaks, public health anxieties became so strong that the state took over the municipal collection and disposal of rubbish. What would have happened if in the 1880s in Wellington for example, we’d looked into how to avoid discarding items and materials rather than scavenger carts collecting household and business refuse and dumping it in piles to be burnt at the City Council Yards?
Once we as producers, individual citizens and local communities washed our hands of responsibility and put discarded material into the hands of municipal and government bodies, it was ‘out of sight and out of mind’. It has since been so very easy to view ‘waste’ as an unfortunate by-product of society for which we need take no personal responsibility.
The era of ‘waste management’ was born. Rather than reflecting on the relative benefit to our brothers and sisters of all living species of eradicating the concept of ‘waste’, we allowed the focus to shift to centralised policy and technological solutions.
For manufacturers too, this acceptance by citizens that the State should take full responsibility for discarded products and packaging removed any requirement for businesses to take the living world and its future wellbeing into account. With this problem streamlined, the call after World War II to rebuild national economies led to the creation of the ‘consumer society’ and the advent of the ‘chemical age’. The mountains of waste we left others to manage ramped up. The advertising industry used ever more creative product packaging to promote mass production and disposable products, while at the same time the composition of discarded products changed as wonderful new plastics emerged from the petro-chemical industry. Almost imperceptibly at first, a new level of complexity in managing materials discarded as end-of-life waste began. By celebrating the benefits of convenience over durability, we normalised disposable plastic products and single-use packaging.
Today the impact of this can be seen in the production of composite materials, of which Tetrapaks are a well-known example (see pic). We view these as highly efficient ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ products because we, along with fellow citizens and business directors, close our minds to block out uncomfortable environmental and social externalities. (In NZ those Tetrapak containers that are recycled are processed at the Materials Recovery Facility in Onehunga and shipped in bales to Korea, India and Australia. They are then soaked in water to separate the paper from the plastic and/or aluminium layers. Its a hugely complex and inefficient process, but we gain a feel-good factor: extracted wood fibre content can be turned into products like cardboard boxes and toilet paper. For Pacific island countries, the economics of such a process render it infeasible.) The number and complexity of such products is growing, creating complex waste streams which are too difficult or too costly to sort and process: often the entire waste stream gets sent to landfill.
Back in the 1980’s, the time my own adulthood began to bloom, it was already evident that problems arising from poor waste disposal were not just land-based dumpsite issues but affecting the marine environment across the Pacific. As far back as 1991 the NZ researcher Gregory emphasised the need to educate the public about the environmental problems in the oceans arising from the ‘indiscriminate disposal of plastics and other persistent synthetic compounds’. Even at that stage Gregory was predicting the seriousness of the marine plastics issue, ‘It is unlikely that these problems can ever be solved by regulation,’ he stated, and pinned his own hopes on ‘technological advances’. Along with the rest of us, embedded in ‘solid waste managment’ thinking, he too failed to question the responsibility of citizens and businesses for preventing materials that need to be discarded to arise in the first place. Twenty-five years on, it seems the narrative is unchanged. Yet does the answer really lie in technological solutions? And is waste really inevitable? What if we went back to having to discard items in our own backyards – would we still allow that packaging into our homes?
*This Zero Waste Granny is currently undertaking research within a Masters in International Development. My research topic – how the inspirational Maori Zero Waste organisation, Para Kore, may provide a different way of approaching our current waste crisis. Above is the first of six myths I am discovering about modern solid waste management approaches which prevent us finding deep solutions to living in harmony and restoring the natural world in NZ.