Sage advice may be wasted

Reducing waste in New Zealand has become a major part of the Green Party's role in the coalition Government.

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage has also become the Greens' highest-profile MP, as far as her portfolio role is concerned. She is avoiding being labelled as swallowing dead rats and embracing the "c'' word, as have been her two co-leaders.

Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern fronted the announcement on phasing out single-use plastic bags, Ms Sage has been in the vanguard of action.

On Sunday, she updated her responsibilities taken on last October to continue the Green Party's work on waste.

She is doing all she can to achieve the goal in the 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. It is not a matter of recycling the law - it is just time to take the Act off the shelf and start using it properly, she says.

In 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.

But people come up against problems such as a lack of good alternatives, unaffordability of reusable items and limited information. Businesses are prepared to play their part, but it is an uneven situation.

As Ms Sage wisely points out, people trying to do the right thing pay more than freeloaders who do not contribute.

When the Waste Minimisation Act was introduced in 2008, it was always expected the levy would rise. Instead, it has remained at the initial price of $10 a tonne.

Local Government New Zealand is supporting the minister, not unexpectedly, as a higher levy will flow partly into council coffers. This time, councils can point to the Government putting up charges rather than the local bodies lifting rates.

What has gained the attention of many from Ms Sage's speech to the Green Party conference is her pledge to bring in some mandatory product stewardship schemes, starting with tyres.

New Zealand creates 4.6 million end-of-life tyres each year. An estimated 70% are either stockpiled, sent to landfill or illegally dumped. Sending tyres to a landfill is a terrible waste of the natural, technical and energy resources going into them.

Among the changes the minister proposes is an advance disposal fee on each tyre entering the country, which is then passed on to tyre collectors. The revenue will provide an incentive to recover the steel, rubber and other materials in tyres and find other uses for them.

For all of Ms Sage's good intentions, and she has plenty, the point elected politicians continue to miss is the final costs of any increased levies will flow down the chain to consumers who currently pay between $3 and $7 for disposal of their tyres, often never recycled. Mountains of tyres are dotted around the country, some holding up to a million used tyres.

The last government introduced a plan to recycle three million tyres a year by outlawing large tyre dumps.

An increased levy has possible disastrous side effects. Sending waste to sealed landfills is good for the environment, compared to illegal waste dumping. New Zealand roads and rest areas are already being used for dumping.

Drivers of cars less roadworthy than others will likely keep their threadbare tyres longer, rather than spending extra money they may not have.

More tax on landfill visits will only encourage more people to dump waste illegally. Keeping the levy low will help people who care enough about the environment to do the right thing. Lifting it will bring unintended consequences of councils having to spend more tidying up the countryside from illegal waste.



If people can avoid reflexive anti Greens ideology and accept that tyre mountains are not tourist attractions, we might have a programme.