Time to burn plastic?

The debate over whether to burn plastic in New Zealand has come to the surface again. The debate, whilst not new, comes back to light as the country tries to grapple with a plastic overload.

There are several potential reasons for doing so. It is a very cost effective way to dispose of waste and there are numerous instances of overseas countries, particularly in Scandinavia doing so. Another reason is that waste can be burnt to create energy, thereby potentially supplying heat to heat water as is done in Denmark or generate electricity.

In the first instance, no, I do not believe we should be burning plastic. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Plastics may release dioxins, which are potentially cancer causing into the atmosphere
  2. Plastics have recyclable uses such as being used as bitumen on roads, according to trials carried out in India
  3. Reducing the plastic in our lives should come down to the question of what purposes we really need it for and making all that we deem necessary to have recyclable

But just for a couple of minutes, let us suppose we did decide burning plastics was necessary. New Zealand has strong rules under the Resource Management Act 1991 around the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere.

A couple of potential issues exist around what kind of incinerator could be used. The first one concerns the use of incinerators. There are only three high powered incinerators (those that can burn material at temperatures above 800°C in New Zealand and the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (2004) forbids the construction of any more. Lower powered incinerators are known to exist, but would they be powerful enough to do the job?

The same N.E.S.A.Q. set limits on Ozone, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide as these are significant contributors to air pollution. They have a range of potential health effects in large quantities.

The second concerns our international obligations including, but not limited to climate change. Would we be in breach of those obligations by having incinerators simply burning up plastic waste?

Various attempts to get such plans underway have been canned in the past. In one such case Olivine, , was attempting to recommission the mothballed Meremere coal fired power station as a waste to energy plant that among other waste, would have used plastics. That was in 2000.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is a combination of government policy, but also the fact that in the last few years the range of plastics that can be recycled in New Zealand has been significantly increased. When the recycling triangle scheme where a triangle with a number between 1-6 signifying its suitability for recycling first appeared on plastics, the range was quite poor with only Classes 1-2 being eligible – 3,4,5,6 had to wait. It has improved now – only to be replaced by a laissez faire attitude to recycling .

New Zealand needs to address these issues before it can make a decision on whether or not to burn plastic.


The doubled sword of Crown Minerals Act change

It has been presented in the media as a double edged sword. On one hand we have the well publicized statement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with full support of the Green Party that by 2050 oil and gas will be banned in New Zealand. On the other the more pro-development New Zealand First Member of Parliament and Minister for Regional Development Shane Jones is touting a $1 billion hydrogen gas development in Taranaki.

Taranaki in the 1980’s had a very large energy projects underway. These were part of the Robert Muldoon Government’s “Think Big” scheme which called for large industrial projects that would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, boost the New Zealand economy and address significant energy shortages. They included a methanol plant at Waitara and a synthetic fuel plant at nearby Motunui.

Now in 2018, Mr Jones is talking about the possibility of an American consortium developing a multi-billion dollar emissions free plant based on existing technology. 8 Rivers have announced a project in which they build a plant using Allam Cycle technology that they developed in the United States and which is used at a plant in Texas.

Whilst I am interested to see how the technology will be used and what any Government feasibility study will show, I have some concerns on both sides of the fence. Notably:

  1. It might be emissions free technology, but how will the gas be extracted. If it is fracking one can expect significant resistance from the Greens/Greenpeace over potential damage to groundwater, and other parts of the environment – one can also expect resistance purely based on ideology as well
  2. Who would fund it? My parents generation will be wary of anything that looks like another “Think Big” project on the grounds of the parlous financial state that the original ones left New Zealand in
  3. How would the American consortium construct the project and would New Zealand communities nearby receive due benefits for hosting it

Not surprisingly, especially with the Government’s statement on ending oil and gas by 2050, there is excitement among local businesses and Mayors, keen on getting some confidence back into a region heavily reliant on energy projects.

Back in 1979 when the Muldoon Government was pushing for energy independence, New Zealand was probably not ready for such ambitious projects and their costs. Despite worsening Middle East tensions and the rises in the price of oil caused by the fall of the Shah in Iran and the Arab oil shock of 1973 following the Yom Kippur War, compared with the price of petroleum today, it was even then quite low. Our transport system, energy market and infrastructure was not ready for something that then was probably a couple decades ahead of its time.

But 40 years later with concerns about the impact of fossil fuels now widely advertized and concerns about energy dependence in the future justified, this debate rears its head once again. The sword being wield though, depending on which side of the blade strikes you, is another thing all together.

Building the case for a nation wide recycling programme

New Zealand has a significant waste problem. I have mentioned the e-waste component of the problem recently, but it is important to note the larger waste problem that e-waste is just a part of – albeit a substantial and toxic part. Nearly a year on from when China stopped taking New Zealand waste and caused alarm among the Green and environmental community, how are we getting on with building a case for a comprehensive waste recycling programme?

If we look at the statistics for recycling of various wastes we can see that there is significant completely avoidable wastage. For example an estimated 60,000 tons or about 27% of known glass bottles and jars ended up in landfills in 2015. If we add that to the percentages of plastic bottles and percentages of aluminium cans then it becomes obvious that New Zealand has a significantly problem with our disposal of recyclables and possibly an attitude problem as well.

New Zealand, according to the national Packaging Council uses about 735,000 tons of packaging each year, of which only about 58% is recycled. This means about 426,300 tons gets recycled per annum.

When I think about the types of plastics that get used, I can see immediately ways of reducing the waste without significant changes having to be made. For example rather than putting earphones in plastic packaging that rips and becomes useless immediately, why not put them in resealable bags? Why not use stronger paper bags for larger items such as speakers, remote controls and other accessories?

But also let us look at the dis/incentives that could be used such as a Pigouvian tax on demonstrably avoidable waste. Businesses do not like taxes and this would prove an effective incentive to look for ways to reduce unnecessary packaging. In contrast letting affected businesses keep any monetary or material gains made from being more effective, will provide a net positive boost.

Some of the types of waste build their own cases. Aluminium for example is very energy intensive to create. It uses about 5 tonnes of bauxite to get one 1 tonne of aluminium in return. Recycled aluminium on the other hand uses about 5% of that energy. It also has the advantage of being readily available in large quantities to recycle. One might recall the recycling programmes in the 1980’s where bins were set up in public places and in return for dropping kilogrammes of aluminium cans down to the drop off, one got dollars back in return.

The National Party preference that the market be left to decide whether this happens or not is in many ways a cop out. I believe it is basically an excuse not to create a comprehensive recycling framework that New Zealand communities are able to get behind and reduce the single biggest blight on our environmental reputation. That does not necessarily mean Labour are better, as Government of former Prime Minister Helen Clark had opportunities to create green jobs from this and failed to do so.

There are ways in which recycling could become a jobs creator in New Zealand. Reducing the aluminium that is wasted will significantly reduce the annual power bill in New Zealand by reducing the need for energy intensive production of new aluminium. Opportunities for sorting jobs, research into recycled products as well as marketing and so forth could all be created. We just need a somebody or an organization with the boldness to stand up and say so.



New Zealand’s 89,000 ton e-waste problem

In December 2017 the International Telecommunications Union released a report on electronic waste (e-waste). It lambasted New Zealand and Australia for their lack of effort acknowledging what is a major environmental problem in both countries. 89,000 tons per annum are thought to be generated in New Zealand, of which only about 900 tons actually gets properly processed. This is what prompted the harsh I.T.U. comments, and the blasting by New Zealand e-waste campaigner, Laurence Zwimpfer. That blasting of New Zealand inspired me to write a Diploma dissertation of about 8,000 words on the subject.

My key findings were:

  1. A basic lack of awareness around e-waste does exist in New Zealand at all levels
  2. Official agencies at all levels are not doing enough to address the issue
  3. Responses so far have been ad hoc in nature with no national oversight
  4. Business opportunities exist for those wishing to take advantage of the “Urban Mine”

I made inquiries with City, District, Regional councils as well as the Ministry for Environment and Ministry for Consumer Affairs on how they perceive e-waste as an issue and what they are doing to deal with it. I used a survey of about 40 people to find out what members of the public thought about e-waste as an issue and their perceptions of New Zealand’s response.

The results were loud and clear. New Zealanders have a basic awareness of it, but do not know what their local council is doing, how to safely dispose of devices that no longer work or what the risks are. There was also little understanding of what is happening in the private sector regarding electronic waste. A few issues had to be understood such as people’s attitudes to faulty devices fixed instead of replaced and how the depreciation of value over the years influenced them.

Significant business opportunities exist for people wanting to develop e-waste extraction businesses. New Zealand has very little – if any – in the way of this so far. No framework under which such enterprises could operate has been established, and regulatory guidelines for handling the more toxic elements such as Cadmium (Cd), which goes into cadmium-nickel batteries will need to be established as well. Significant quantities of gold (600kg/p.a.), copper (600t/p.a.) along with unknown quantities of silver, palladium and other elements are waiting to be recovered.

Whilst New Zealand is lagging behind, it is more consistent with the third world nations such as India and Iran; Ghana and Colombia. E.U nations, plus Japan were found to be investing significant money and resources into developing comprehensive e-waste management plans and research into how it can be recycled.

My conclusions were that:

  1. New Zealanders have a basic awareness of the term e-waste – most had heard of it
  2. Much potential for the concept of the “urban mine”, where recycling elements from e-waste could become quite profitable business with both environmental and economic benefits
  3. All sectors of New Zealand need to do more to know and understand e-waste as an issue

Government rushing oil legislation

The Crown Minerals (Petroleum)Amendment Bill is before Parliament at the moment. It has come back from the submissions phase, where 2312 submissions were collected from members of the public, N.G.O.’s and others. In the next few weeks it will go back to the House of Representatives for its third and final reading.

Despite its promises of transparency, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with those who oppose the legislation in claiming that it is being rushed. Yes we had a chance to make submissions (though mine was destroyed when my USB drive corrupted itself one day and never got to be submitted). Yes we were given a chance to speak to the submissions before the select committee.

But I nevertheless believe that too much haste is being made in progressing this legislation. This is especially since the announcement in April that oil and gas would be phased out did not involve any prior consultation with the oil and gas sector, or any apparent effort to figure out what alternative sources of fuel could be developed. The stance is capped off by the chair of the oil and gas industry body PEPANZ, Cameron Madgwick. Mr Madgwick has gone on the record as saying that the industry would rather have certainty about the process going forward in 2018 than being offered a new block for exploration.

As it is, I have always believed that totally ridding New Zealand of oil and gas is never going to happen and that the Government will find itself being forced to make concessions of some sort or another. It will also find that its failure to acknowledge the lack of a nation-wide blue print for meeting New Zealand’s energy needs in the forseeable future proves problematic with no clear priorities, objectives for meeting those priorities or policies to give effect to the objectives, in place.

Even if New Zealand does meet its objectives, will it make any difference? I think New Zealanders are more conservative than Labour and the Greens are willing to admit when it comes to energy. Certainly people realize that a few significant policy decisions in major countries like India, China or the United States could lead to changes that completely undermine any in roads New Zealand makes in carbon emissions.

So, Labour can rush this Bill of Parliament through as it looks like they will try, but it is not a well crafted law and will cause them and their Green allies some significant headaches in the months and years to come.