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.


Some coastal suburbs in doubt

Concerns have been raised about the future of two coastal suburbs in Christchurch. Southshore and South New Brighton suffered heavily in the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. But their recovery is being hampered by the sunken land that both sit on and its increased vulnerability to storms.

Perhaps the primary source of concern is how these communities will cope with rising sea levels, and increasingly volatile weather systems. New Brighton and South Shore have never been very high above sea level and occupy a narrow spit less than a kilometre wide, which has sand dunes on the coastal side and an estuarine environment on the other. And in recent years their vulnerability to the effects of flooding from storm surge have been shown.

Earthquakes are a second cause of concern. As a result of ground motion particularly on 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011, land around the Avon-Heathcote estuary, the lower reaches of both rivers and the Brighton Spit slumped in some cases by up to 50 centimetres. Since then flooding can happen with brief rain or a large tide.

But there is a wider problem. Christchurch is not the only part of New Zealand with low lying housing. Coastal bays in Wellington, estuarine parts of Auckland and low lying land that might be protected by sea walls or sand dunes, but be at or close to sea level is also at risk. Good examples of the potential damage can be found in the winter storms of June 2013, and more recently Cyclones Fehi and Gita, which caused widespread storm damage along the West Coast and around Nelson

Whilst there are provisions in the Resource Management Act and statutory planning tools such as the Regional Coastal Policy Statements, councils have to trade off between environmental pressures and developmental pressures.

The last two years in New Zealand have been particularly stormy. During the summer of 2016-17, the Southern Oscillation Index was neutral, meaning weather came from all corners of the compass. For example a weather bomb – a rapidly deepening system of short duration, but quite intense in terms of rain and wind – passed over in January, dropping 300mm of rain in Arthurs Pass in a day in mid-January 2017. In June and July 2017 big southerly storms lashed Canterbury and large parts of the South Island’s east coast causing widespread flooding, and extensive coastal erosion. In February 2018, as mentioned earlier, two tropical cyclones passed over New Zealand just three weeks apart.

All of these storms caused millions of dollars in damage. In the case of Cyclones Fehi and Gita, they raised concerns about how coastal communities in less densely populated regions might fare in the long term. A low population region such as the West Coast does not have the financial resources to draw on from its ratepayer base that a region such as Canterbury or Auckland have. This makes coastal measures expensive, but have to be weighed up against moving and disrupting communities.

Even if the world went carbon neutral today, so much has been ejected that it would take several years or even decades for the effects of going carbon neutral to begin to be recognized. Even the 2ºC rise in temperature is limited to strictly that – some are saying even limiting global temperatures to a 1.5ºC rise might be too little too late – the subsequently increased volatility of our climate, going from intense droughts to severe rainstorm events; extreme cold to extreme heat would not be stoppable in our lifetime.

Another planning concern is the amount of sediment reaching the coast. Some parts of the world have a shortage of sand. This can at least in part be traced to rivers, which are the natural means of transport for sediment from the mountains to the sea, being dammed extensively. This thereby traps the sediment and little or no provision gets made for the need of long shore drift, which works the sediment along the coast enabling the replenishing of sand beaches after big storms. A failure to restore the balance somewhat would mean that coastal regions that are vulnerable would be more and more exposed to the sea, meaning properties would have to be abandoned.

Moving forward, one has to wonder what sort of future other coastal communities face. Maybe planners have a solution, but for the time being, councils and insurers alike are being faced with hard questions that no one really knows the answer to. And time might not be on their side.

Farmers burying toxic waste on their land?

It appears that large numbers of farmers may be inappropriately burying or otherwise disposing of toxic waste on their land.

According to a representative from Greater Wellington Regional Council, that the disposal of substances on farms is a permitted activity. The representative admitted that councils lack the resources to monitor permitted activities. That raises a question about the suitability of the “permitted” classification for such an activity. Six such classifications exist under the Resource Management Act:

  • Permitted. No resource consent or other permission required from a consenting authority
  • Controlled. An applicant must notify the council of a proposed activity, but the council must grant permission
  • Restricted discretionary. A consenting council shall restrict the exercising of its discretion to those aspects stated if it grants resource consent.
  • Discretionary. No restriction on the council’s ability to use its discretion.
  • Non-Complying. A council may only grant consent if it is satisfied that the effects of proposed activities will be minor or the activity is not contrary to the policies and objectives of any relevant plan.
  • Prohibited. A resource consent or other permission cannot sought, and nor can it be granted.

Due to the toxic nature of a lot of the items being dumped, I would have thought that it would have a discretionary or restricted discretionary classification as an activity.

I am surprised that after 25 years of the Resource Management Act that no specific requirements to minimise waste and purposefully encourage the management of waste to adhere to Section 5 of the Act. I am also surprised that despite growing public awareness of the problem, councils do not seem to be giving the dumping of waste and waste as a general issue the level of attention that one would expect in a country that prides itself on being clean and green.

It is media coverage like this that encourages me to not only push on with my petition to reduce waste in New Zealand but also to encourage a conversation to start about our overall sustainability. In a year where nations and their civil populations seem to be waking up to the damage that plastic causes it is high time we took our own waste management seriously.

A.C.T.’s grandiose housing policy

The other day A.C.T. released its housing policy.

I was initially quite dubious about what the policy would hold in terms of responsible housing for New Zealanders. However I decided to make a stern challenge of this – not to A.C.T., but to myself – to read through the policy and have an honest go at critiquing it.

The major tenets of the policy appear to be:

  1. Removing what A.C.T. considers to be red tape around building houses – it interprets this to be building codes, land use planning and labour laws
  2. It would build 600,000 houses
  3. It would require compulsory insurance for new buildings

The A.C.T. Party has never been a fan of the Resource Management Act 1991, and has variously said it will either repeal or completely rewrite the Act. It blames the land use planning rules provided for in the Act as having a choking effect on housing. The actual purpose of land use planning is because not all land zones will be appropriate for housing, and the local council in identifying and providing these different uses needs to have tools that enable – e.g. an asbestos dump covered over is not appropriate to have housing built on top and the base of it would need to be secure to stop contaminants leaking into the ground water.

A.C.T. proposes a policy that I am not aware of other parties having come up with, and that is the use of G.S.T. as a means of funding infrastructure such as roading, sewerage and electricity connections. All of this is infrastructure that councils are obligated to build when they let new construction go ahead. Although I am not sure how well the G.S.T. will work in this regard, I acknowledge A.C.T. has at least thought about how it is going to fund this.

600,000 houses will be built. That is a huge number of new houses for such a small country – and would far exceed what is probably needed. Even 300,000 would solve housing issues, assuming they were affordably priced. Would there actually even be market demand for such a huge number – which I assume would largely consist of dwellings with 1-4 bedrooms, bathroom and toilet/s, kitchen, laundry and maybe a double garage. We know nothing about the land they would sit on

A.C.T. says it would require compulsory insurance for new buildings. Here is something I agree with, though I thought that this might have been better suited to a wider construction policy than just for houses.

I still have credible concerns about the policy though. I am not sure where they will find enough tradespeople to do the work. New Zealand simply does not have a big enough population to provide these workers. As we have seen with the current construction environment in N.Z. cities, there is a risk of exploitation by industry cowboys who just want a fast dollar.

To process the necessary legalese (what can I call the planning phase when A.C.T. is taking this away from councils?), a substantial – and I find this quite ironic – bureaucratic machine will still be needed. A.C.T. cannot just walk away from the City/District/Regional Plans set down under the Resource Management Act, or Long Term Plans which area Local Government Act 2002 requirement would either have to be allowed to run out or substantially modified.

So, lets see how all of this turns out, but I think A.C.T. will find New Zealanders consider this a rather grandiose policy.

The gross underestimation of conservation

To some people conservation and ensuring the sustainability of species is a way of life. It is a chance to understand how the ecosystem works, enhance their place in it all the while enhancing the place of flora and fauna in it. To others conservation is the domain of supposedly anti-business, anti-employment Green Party tree huggers.

Despite writing this piece as an ode to conservation, it might surprise people to know I am not a tree hugger – or a Green Party member/supporter. I recognize extractive industries such as forestry, mining and oil extraction as necessary evils. Unless there is a revolution both in transport and energy sources, fossil fuel to some extent is here to stay. Likewise timber will continue to be needed for construction, paper, and a multitude of other purposes. Whilst coal may be in decline, as long as there is a demand for electronics, rare earth materials will continue to be mined.

Mining, where done with minimal adverse impact on the environment with a comprehensive rehabilitation programme once mining is finished is okay with me. This assumes under New Zealand law that an application for resource consent to construct a mine was received and processed. It understands that the Assessment of Environmental Effects required was comprehensive and that endangered flora and fauna were accounted and provided for. It understands that the people, companies, organizations and communities affected were notified and given reasonable opportunity to make submissions, and if necessary, extra submissions. Finally it understands that if the consent were approved, that any conditions attached are being abided by the applicant and enforced by the consenting council/s.

Although I have declared I am not a tree hugger, I am not a proponent of reckless economic development where activities on private property are allowed to proceed without regard for the effects and those affected. The Resource Management Act and the Acts of Parliament that it is the umbrella legislation for, pay regard to conservation because the sustainability of the ecosystem is totally integral to the well being of the environment at large, both here and abroad.

New Zealand has a tourism industry worth billions of dollars per annum. And a very large chunk of that tourism is conservation driven. People come from all over the world to see Milford Sound on a clear peaceful day with its mirror image of Mitre Peak. They come to see our unique wildlife of Kea, Kakapo, Kiwi and Tuatara and learn about how Gondwanaland was formed. And when they are gone they go on and perhaps meet other travellers and compare notes about New Zealand as humans do – what did they enjoy; not enjoy and so on. They are critically important, because aside from ensuring the incomes of thousands of New Zealanders, if they do not like what they see, they will tell family and friends not to go to New Zealand – that negative feedback is damaging as it is now, but it will be a hundred times worse if we do not look after our conservation estate.

Our conservation estate is as magnificent as it is expansive. It has two world heritage areas in Fiordland National Park and Tongariro National Park, one encompassing a glaciated landscape of fiords, native forest clad mountains with superb walking tracks and unparalleled vistas; the other a volcanic landscape showing New Zealands oldest national park that has been used in award winning films. National Parks in Westland alone creates $250 million per annum in revenue. Entire West Coast communities owe their existence to Fox and Franz Josef  Glaciers, just as others such as Granity and Okarito had their hey day in the gold rush of the 1860’s.

Unless one wants to upend thousands of jobs, cost us potentially billions of dollars in lost revenue and cripple numerous communities all over New Zealand, then we need to look after our conservation estate. We need to invest more in pest control, and perhaps introduce a fee paid by tourists to fund the infrastructure necessary in our parks. We cannot afford to let water quality deteriorate any further in rivers where recreational fishing, and other such pursuits happen.

Because our conservation estate makes a contribution to the economy that justifies the expenditure.