Back to the future and beyond
A program to put a circular economy genie in every empty bottle could accelerate change in our communities.
In these difficult times, it is good to be the bearer of good news. The government has finally put its plan for a container return program on the table.
The government’s proposal, which is now available, is to encourage the recycling of beverage containers through a 20c refundable deposit. A CRS would increase our (embarrassing) beverage container recycling rates from 45% to 85%-90% almost immediately.
We desperately need to do a better job of recycling beverage containers because currently 1.7 billion (yes billion, that’s not a misprint!) every year slip through the recycling and end up in our environment as waste, waste in landfills or discarded material in stock. It’s such a waste of resources and money, not to mention it contributes to plastic pollution of the oceans – which is nothing short of a disaster.
CRS is a product stewardship tool that shifts the cost of beverage container recycling from municipalities to beverage producers, which almost everyone (with the exception of some beverage producers) agrees is is a better system. It’s fairer, plus it makes beverage producers responsible for the waste they create, which pushes them to choose easily recyclable packaging. This is why the CRS should be simple and cover all materials and beverages, including dairy milk (which the current proposal exempts).
CRS has proven to be very successful overseas, and it is also very popular. A cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the government calculated that the net benefit for Aotearoa is $1.4 billion (yes billion!). This will save us $69 million in reduced waste cleanup costs, $35 million in avoided landfill costs, and $27 million in reduced contamination from home recycling. It’s a double win, because we’re spending all that money on things we don’t even want in the first place.
Given these numbers, it’s very difficult to put together a cohesive argument against CRS, which kind of begs the question, why the hell 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 at fundraisers, and you could trade a few bottles for jets at the local dairy. We’ve been lost in a cul-de-sac for the past 20-30 years, which has resulted in a huge proliferation of landfill waste.
Plastic pollution and climate change tell us that we need to get out of this wasteful dead end and urgently figure out how to make the leap to the circular economy where we design waste and keep resources in circulation. But the government cannot make the leap on its own. The transition to a circular economy needs to happen at all levels – from policy and procurement by government and advice, to action, engagement and behavior change by businesses, organizations and individuals.
That’s where Wastebusters comes in. Back when we started our community-based waste business two decades ago, Wastebusters was like a pioneer species, surviving against the odds in arid land. As we have established ourselves and grown, Wastebusters has 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 organizations, all acting to reduce waste and be resourceful, who nurture the soil to allow new seeds to sprout and take root.
Every week at Wastebusters, I meet passionate people who have an idea for reducing waste, and who want Wastebusters’ help to make it happen. It could be Cardrona/Treble Cone, which last year removed all trash from its ski areas. It could be someone who wants to support zero waste events in our district, or the Wanaka Food Security Network, which has set up shared community pantries, or the Hospo-Goes-Eco group setting up is implementing systems to make its coffees without single-use cups.
Helping people with so much passion to bring their zero waste ideas to life is what Wastebusters stands for. And that means 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 about our Wastebusters staff.
To achieve a circular economy in Aotearoa, we need to develop a circular economy ecosystem in every city and city district. Establishing a Wastebusters, or an Xtreme Zero Waste like they did in Raglan, or a community recycling center like some neighborhoods in Auckland, is the basis of a circular economy ecosystem local. Zero waste hubs across the country are supported by the Zero Waste Network, and Para Kore works with marae, organizations and events to design waste. Over time, these local ecosystems will connect into a forest of diverse and robust circular economy solutions, all connected yet authentic to their own place and community.
As it stands, the proposed CRS will improve our recycling system. This will increase the circularity of beverage containers – one of the main policy goals. But to be transformational, we need to set bigger and bolder goals. Instead of just making beverage containers circular, the policy goal should be to support the transition to a circular economy. Then key decisions, like whether we get our 20-cent deposits back from a vending machine or from a deposit like Wastebusters, would be made in light of their potential positive impact on a circular economy.
The government has proposed that 20c refunds will be distributed via 50 depots and 645 supermarket reverse vending machines. Imagine if all 50 depots were integrated into zero waste centers like Wastebusters that helped 50 communities take action to reduce waste and make better use of resources. Imagine if there were 60, 70, 100, even 200 repositories measuring the impacts of their work and sharing best practices and successful projects through the Zero Waste Network. We could really take a leap forward towards a circular economy by harnessing the passion, skills and potential within our communities.
When I show visitors around Wastebusters, they always ask “how can I get a Wastebusters in my community?”. I never have an easy answer, because Wastebusters runs on community support, skilled staff who live and breathe mission, undying optimism, and financial surplus (at least in enough years to continue to pay the bills). If you drop one of these balls, you’re finished.
If you can keep all those balls in the air, you can create jobs in the circular economy from resources that would once have been wasted. At Wastebusters, we have over 60 employees working in our reduce, reuse and recycle teams. And every time our communities interact with Wastebusters, they’re helping to keep resources flowing: whether it’s dropping off their recycling, buying second-hand first, fixing a broken zipper, coming to a composting workshop or participate in slow fashion month.
It’s not that being a CRS depot would pay for all the community services that a zero waste hub such as Wastebusters provides. But it would provide a revenue stream for a practical circular economy solution (quality recycling) around which a community business can combine 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 a real transformation.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you support the return of a CRS to Aotearoa, you can do something important to achieve this. Add your name to a pre-prepared submission at
kiwibottledrive.nz/ or submit your own 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, be sure to mention that too.
Gina Dempster is Communications Manager at Wastebusters. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers tackles sustainability issues.