Rubbish piles up and the plan stinks

It’s 2020, we’ve banned the plastic bag, half the city is marching around with keep cups, and we’re about to trial kerbside composting – so why exactly is Wellington looking to extend a tip that opened in the 1970s?

The facts:

  • 4 years before the remaining room runs out 
  • 25 million cubic metres – the amount of space needed which will last another 26 years 
  • 16 million dollars – cost to extend the dump

By Harriet Palmer

Featured in Capital #68
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What’s happening? 

In four years, our dump is going to run out of room. The Wellington City Council’s resource consent to use it will end in 2026. Meanwhile, the city is still tossing out 100,000 tonnes of rubbish a year. 

There are solutions to this problem of disposing of our mammoth amounts of trash, among them mass burning, better sorting, and converting it to energy. We could also close Wellington City’s dump and send everything to the Hutt Valley equivalents. 

But the option that Wellington City Councillors have approved is a 2.5-million cubic metre extension of Happy Valley’s Southern Landfill. If the volume of stuff we throw out remains the same, this will give us another 26 years of dumping. 

Is this the way to go or is our council taking the easy way out? Could we be using the rubbish we are throwing out to feed and fuel our city? 

Can’t we be like Sweden? 

This isn’t the first time the council has looked at an extension. In 2013 it applied for a resource consent, but reversed its course in the face of community opposition. Both the councillors and public hoped that changing technologies and consumption patterns meant a more effective option would arrive later on. But it’s been six years and time is running out.  

A few things have changed. The volume of rubbish has been reduced slightly, perhaps because of growing awareness of how much waste we’re producing. Legislation is catching up, with announcements almost weekly on Government plans to tackle plastic. Technology is improving too, at least overseas. In Sweden, 34 rubbish-fuelled power plants produce enough power to heat millions of homes in the country’s sub-zero winters. But for Wellington, after much deliberation, consultation, and an independent assessment by environmental engineers Tonkin and Taylor, Council has concluded that an extension is still the best option.

Wellington City Council Waste Operations Manager Emily Taylor-Hall says the extension may not be the most sophisticated technology but it is considered to be reliable, and it won’t lock the city into something very expensive and very large. “We would really like to think that within that 25-year period we will have clocked on to doing something smarter than just creating so much waste that we then have to put it in a hole in the ground.” Taylor-Hall says waste-to-energy was looked at among the technology options, but ultimately it was a massive investment that wouldn’t suit the city. The idea has been considered in other parts of the country, with Auckland City Council about to divert much of its food waste to a plant in Reporoa, which is being built with $7 million from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund. The plant will also produce enough fertiliser for 3,000 hectares of farmland annually.

A plant proposed for the Buller region attracted a $300-million pledge from Chinese investment and environmental engineer company China Tianying Inc, and was expected to provide a projected 350 jobs. It flopped earlier this year. 

“That kind of machine is mega-scale. The volume of waste required to make the Buller plant viable was 600,000 tonnes a year. At Southern we would get in a really high waste year 100,000 tonnes. So we are looking at six times more – we don’t have enough rubbish,” Taylor-Hall says. “If you build a mega-machine, you really eliminate any good opportunities to make inroads into reducing waste. With the landfill there isn’t a fixed amount of waste that you need to push through.” Any incineration option would also produce emissions that are harmful to the environment and human health, including carbon dioxide. The incineration of a tonne of waste can produce up to 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide, a leading cause of climate change. Taylor-Hall says that while burning produces smaller quantities of waste, the leftovers contain higher concentrations of pollutants, and still ultimately require landfilling. Landfills also produce emissions (roughly half carbon dioxide and half methane). The methane, which traps much more heat than carbon dioxide, is mainly produced by food scraps, which make up 30 percent of the Southern Landfill’s contents. To combat the greenhouse effect of the methane emissions, the Council has installed gas wells in the landfill, which suck out the gas and burn it in a generator to produce electricity. 

Why not just close the damn thing? 

“It’s called a landfill because that’s literally what it is. A place where we fill the land with rubbish,” says Iona Pannett, the only city councillor to vote against extending the dump. Pannett’s preferred option is to close the facility and force Wellington to send its waste, including an annual 15,000 tonnes of sewage sludge, to either the Silverstream Landfill in Lower Hutt or the Spicer Landfill in Porirua. “Once we have the space the thinking will become ‘let’s fill it up’. It’s too convenient, and it’s going to cost millions. If we had no landfill, we would be forced to change. Right now it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Pannett’s argument is that it is so cheap and easy to dump resources we no longer want that there is no incentive to change – or to support schemes that would make the way we deal with waste circular rather than linear.  The sewage sludge for example, is currently sent to the landfill from the wastewater plant – a move that diverted it from the sea. The Council used to turn it into a good compost but few people used it. Pannett says we need to stop being so squeamish about our rubbish and start considering it as something useful. 

The council did recommend closing the dump as its second and third choice options, but Tonkin and Taylor’s assessment said that transportation made it too expensive, particularly for the sewage, and it would mean a loss in revenue from fees paid to dump rubbish. 

So what are we putting in there and how do we stop it? 

Kate Walmsley of urban farm and community composting experiment Kaicycle says the idea that we will keep a landfill open so we can keep dumping food for the forseeable future is insanity. Walmsley would like to see the landfill closed and Wellington become a place of waste-innovation. “If we set limits and say we are not extending our landfill, we will have to find other ways to deal with our waste. We do have four years, I feel with the right incentives we would be able to do something useful. We’ve seen with other places around the world where the landfill isn’t as accessible. It’s further out of town and the levies are higher, there are more barriers, which means there is all this awesome innovation helping make the most of materials and helping give them a second, third, fourth, fifth life. We don’t have that here because it’s just so easy to go to Happy Valley.”

The council has a $100,000 Waste Minimisation Seed Fund, which has just provided Kaicycle with funding to start a community composting trial, to encourage households to drop their compostables close to home. Walmsley says this model recognises that people are time-poor and composting at home isn’t always easy. More importantly, it will use food waste that would otherwise be landfilled to grow food for low-income households in Wellington. The council is also looking for ways to help households reduce organic waste and is starting its own trial next year. Possibilities include introducing kerbside organic waste collection, and encouraging home composting. The council has warned Wellingtonians that kerbside collections could cost $5 million a year and “will be a big hit on rates”.

Auckland is just about to introduce organic waste collection, while Christchurch has had a successful scheme for more than 10 years. Taylor-Hall says we can’t just launch a similar scheme in Wellington, as its waste collection needs are unique because of the wind and the topography. A third of the city can’t have wheelie bins, and bags of scraps on the footpath could blow away or attract pests. 

It’s the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

The real answer, Taylor-Hall says, is for every individual and business to start thinking differently about what we throw out. “From a waste point of view we will need to change how we live, how we behave as consumers, and how we view and treat the waste we produce. We need to be more conscious about the choices we make about what we buy, or what we don’t buy – so that we create less waste to be managed in the first place. Reduce, reuse, and recycle, with an emphasis on reducing waste in the first place.”

If we want a future without a landfill, or a facility to burn rubbish, or hundreds of trucks rumbling up the motorway every day loaded with waste, we need to stop putting so much stuff in the bin.   


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