Reduce waste and emissions. But it is going in the wrong direction
New Zealand is developing plans for two crises – climate change and waste – and to embrace the circular economy. It has no idea how to achieve this. This muddle dilutes the power of a circular economic system to create lasting change.
A public consultation is currently underway to develop a emission reduction plan following the Climate Change Commission’s advice regarding carbon budgets in New Zealand’s 2050 net zero target.
A new consultation document suggests a complete overhaul of the country’s waste legislation and strategy.
Both documents aim to move Aotearoa to a circular economic system — one that reduces waste and pollution, keeps the products in use and regenerates natural ecosystems to protect natural resources, rather than pillage them.
The government’s circularity plans are fragmented and contradictory. They lack coordination. They do not challenge the current linear economy drivers or enhance collaboration.
New Zealand requires a Crown agency dedicated to promoting a circular economy with low emissions and low waste.
The need for circularity
New Zealand is among the wasteful countries of the OECD. The waste stream is not just a pollutant, but also the end point of a linear chain which emits greenhouse gasses at each step.
About half of all global emissions are due to producing stuff and consuming it. Each bit of waste represents emissions that are lost to the economy.
By reusing products and materials, circular practices conserve this embodied power. The global extraction of resources is slowed down, from mining and tree-felling. The more resources are extracted, the less waste and emissions there will be.
Around half of the global emissions are caused by things we consume. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images CC-BY-SA
Just 8.6% of global economic activity is circular. By 2032, this figure will have to double to maintain’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5degC.
Double the circularity in New Zealand would require a transformation of production and consumption. Much of what we produce and consume today is linear.
In a circular economic system, products are designed to be durable and repairable. Composting organics replenishes soils. Shared ownership and reuse are more important to business models than individual ownership.
Sharing is better than owning in a circular economic system. Shutterstock/Amelia Tomkins
This dramatic shift in the direction of economics requires strong leadership, coordination across sectors, and a common understanding of the circular economy model. The government should work with those who already practice circularity and re-configure the rules in order to reduce linear practices.
A lack of a systemic approach
The documents of consultation do not present a common story about the circular economy. The waste strategy is focused on processes at the end of product life, such as waste management and littering, while the proposed emission reduction plan discusses innovation and business models.
According to the waste proposal, the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), will eventually tie everything together into a “separate and wider circular economy strategy”. However, this could create a larger tangle.
It is not surprising that there is confusion. The Ministry for the Environment’s and MBIE’s efforts to promote circularity have been split. Organisational cultures and priorities of the agencies differ, and they haven’t connected their thinking to a whole-system approach.
The silos that surround the circular economy have a tendency to overlook important elements, namely the economic transformation part. No one wants to tackle the hot potato of increasing corporate responsibility for waste.
Read more: How businesses could cut plastic waste with a track and trace system
The consultation documents propose few upstream policy interventions to trigger product redesign or new business models that reduce waste and emissions. Instead, they focus on using or disposing of waste after it’s been produced, which presumes, rather than challenges, linear inefficiencies.
The wrong circles
The proposal for the management of waste is based on the idea that responsibility should be the main theme. However, the analysis of where the waste originates does not take place. It focuses on improved waste management and anti-littering legislation. It places the responsibility for waste management at the end of a pipe. Individuals and councils cannot have any influence on the waste that is baked into the system upstream.
The product stewardship program is also limited to the “end of life” activities, reducing its potential for redistribution further up in product supply chains.
This gap is not filled by the emissions reduction plan, except for some promising initiatives in the construction industry. It focuses on organic waste, rather than production and consumption in general. Product stewardship barely gets mentioned, despite the fact that new business models are being considered to combat climate change.
It views circular innovation instead through the lense of “bioeconomy”, in which waste-derived biomass is converted into new products and bioenergy. A bioeconomy relies on waste production, which may not be circular. This contradicts the suggestion in the waste proposal to discourage the “downcycling” of waste into energy through levies.
A circular economy with no driver
The government has no plan to collaborate with other agencies and cannot solve the problem of circularity on its own.
The government does not seem to prioritize in supporting community groups and local businesses. The two documents refer to circularity and innovation in the future, but many organisations have already adopted zero-waste and circular practices.
Te Tiriti is the basis for economic transformation. The Climate Change Commission characterized the circular economy as aligned to a Maori Worldview. Para Core is a Maori-led organisation that promotes zero waste and circularity.
The plan for emissions reduction promises a meaningful partnership with Maori. However, the proposal on waste does not. This is a missed chance. New waste legislation could protect Maori decision-making rights and rangatiratanga over natural resources.