It’s been fascinating to watch around the world as cities and communities respond to China’s waste import restrictions. For some, their legacy model of collection and processing recycling materials became unsustainable. One response has been to suspend recycling collection by some cities.
Solid waste management is an essential, but often not well-understood public service. It doesn’t typically gain the attention that transport or water infrastructure services get – it is generally out of sight out of mind. But now and then, solid waste can get our attention. Due to heavy rain in April, the old Fox River landfill was exposed, and rubbish spread about 300km along the West Coast. More recently, Buller Mayor Garry Howard expressed grave concerns as coastal erosion near Westport exposed an old industrial landfill. The West Coast isn’t alone here; there are potentially dozens of other landfills around Aotearoa which could be impacted in similar ways by climate change.
Across the Pacific, public works professionals in California are gearing up to implement new recycling programmes to combat climate change. A 2016 bill has set targets to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the level of organics disposal by 2020 and a 75 percent reduction by 2025. The law also establishes a new goal that at least 20 percent of currently disposed of edible food be recovered for human consumption by 2025.
Reducing the disposal of organics is essential. When we landfill recyclable material, it can negatively affect our environment by requiring that we acquire new raw materials. However, landfilling organic waste has an additional negative impact in that it produces the climate-altering greenhouse gas called methane. Landfilling food and green waste directly contribute to climate change, which among other things, leads to rising sea levels and increases flooding and coastline erosion.
California has long been at the forefront of environmental leadership. In 1989 it adopted regulations requiring increases in recycling and measurable decreases in landfilling of 25% and 50%. In 2006, the California Warming Solutions Act required the establishment of rules that, among other objectives, would reduce methane emissions by 40% below 2013 levels by 2030. Also, many cities are using renewable natural gas to power their public buses and city vehicle fleets.
As public works professionals, we have an opportunity to lead the way on solid waste management. As we did with the Zero Harm Workplaces programme, let us focus our 2021 Long Term Plans on a Zero Harm Planet programme. Let’s give California a run for its money.
Noho ora mai, nga mihi
Myles Lind, President – IPWEA NZ, 3 September 2019