During the month of May, something crazy happened: China announced it would no longer take 24 types of material into the country. Currently we sell our trash and recycling to China, and they make shitty plastic goods out of it that they then sell back to us. But China will no longer take any plastics labelled 6 and 7, among other materials. Cue madness and horrified newspaper articles featuring pictures and videos of piles and piles of plastic somewhere in Huntly. Now that our trash isn’t being promptly shipped off overseas, it’s become our problem to deal with. So, how did we get here? And what’s the situation at AUT like right now? These are the questions I had in mind when I set out to uncover what the haps is.
What happens to our rubbish at AUT?
Know the red bins around campus? That’s your landfill, and Lindsey du Preez, our sustainability advisor at AUT, knows all about it. Unsurprisingly, the waste that goes into the trash bin ends up in landfill. According to Lindsey, some of this heads either to Puwera, which is north of Auckland, or she thinks it heads south to Hampton Downs.
The yellow bins are for recycling and this gets taken to VISY recycling centre in Onehunga. It then gets sorted and markets are found for it, which might be in New Zealand or overseas. (As in, we sell our recycling to people.) Then, it’s the same dealio for paper and cardboard from the blue bins and cardboard stackers popped next to most printers. When asked how much rubbish disposal costs students, AUT didn’t know the answer. “Good question but unfortunately, I don’t have this information on hand,” Lindsey says.
The down-low on AUT’s waste policy
AUT seems to be pretty progressive with its policies. Among other things, the AUT Sustainability Roadmap policy outlines the university’s targets relating to waste disposal. The targets include zero waste by 2030; reduce waste per person by 2kg by 2020; and ban single-use plastics on campus by June 2019. So far, so good. But what do AUT and the experts reckon?
Meet emeritus professor and chair on the Vice Chancellor’s taskforce for sustainability, Thomas Neitzert. Thomas reckons the targets are reasonable and he’d like to achieve them ahead of time. However, it might prove to be tricky as sussing this kind of thing in such a big organisation can “sometimes feel like driving a big ocean liner”. On the other hand, Lindsey says we’ve got to think big to make any serious change. “I think ambitious targets are important to challenge the status quo and to inspire new and better ways of doing things,” she reckons.
Marty Hoffart from Zero Waste Network Aotearoa knows his stuff when it comes to waste disposal and kindly gave his two cents on AUT’s policy. Referring to AUT’s target of having zero waste by 2030, Marty says it’s essential to have a target date to work towards. “They’d be in the minority of organisations or businesses that actually have a zero waste target,” he says.
However, it’d be a good idea to move the target a little closer. “I’d like to see them shorter, so that they are done in someone’s life time,” Marty says. “A problem with zero waste targets is that if you put them too far out people don’t start working on them quickly enough.”
In regards to aiming to reduce waste by 2kg per person by 2020, Marty again says targets are good and that a lot of councils do a similar thing. And finally, when it comes to banning single-use plastics on campus by June 2019, Marty is 100 percent supportive. “Getting rid of single-use plastics by a certain date would be great,” Marty says. He also reckons that even if we don’t get all the way there, any progress is good progress. “Even if you phase out 90 percent of single-use plastics and don’t hit the target, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You just need to deal with that last 10 percent.”
China says no more!
To go back to China no longer taking all of our recycling, Marty says China was the recycler for the world and most of the world was sending recycling their way because China had such a demand for it. But now, things have changed and they’re in a different stage of development. “China has had a huge stage of development over the last 20 years and they don’t need those raw materials as much anymore,” says Marty. “If China wants to stop importing the whole world's plastic then they certainly have the right to do that, they probably have enough of their own to deal with from their own growing middle class.”
AUT is trying to manage the issue by having the cleaning contractors sort the recycling bins so that all bins are clean.
While it might have caused a bit of trouble for us in the short term, Professor Neitzert reckons we’ll be grateful in the long run. He calls it a welcomed wake-up call and believes shipping our rubbish across kilometres of ocean is wrong for many reasons. As aside from carting the stuff around the globe contributing to the CO₂ in our atmosphere, it burdens other people with our rubbish and undermines the formation of local recycling centres in our own country. This means we miss out on cashing in on possible gains and means we sure weren’t prepared for China to shut up shop. “Some of the plastics with symbols 3 to 7 are actually valuable commodities,” he says. “Since we were able to ship all this to China, local recycling plants or product developments from recycled materials have not been attempted. Existing start-up operations were even closed down, because it was easier to ship to China.”
Lindsey sees the change as a chance for New Zealand to have a look at the way we handle and approach our waste. “It is an opportunity to re-examine our throwaway culture and find better ways of using our resources,” she says. From here, we can look to encourage the public to examine their use of single-use plastics and move to cut them out completely. It also means we can support government world initiatives that seek to increase the cost of sending waste to landfill, creating an economic incentive not to create waste. “Money from the landfill levy can then be invested in better ways of managing our waste,” Lindsey reckons.
Know it or not, it’s not enough to chuck your recycling in the right container and pat yourself on the back for being an environmental warrior. Putting bottles and other recycling stuff in the wrong bin is rife at AUT and a pretty serious issue, according to Lindsey. Basically, at AUT, plastics with the symbol 1 or 2 can be recycled, but any plastics with the symbol 3 to 7 are no good and need to be chucked in the red landfill bins. If plastics numbered 3 to 7 are put in the recycling, the whole bin is contaminated. According to Lindsey, when a wheelie bin is contaminated the recycling contractors employed by AUT fine the university $20 per contaminated bin. AUT is trying to manage the issue by having the cleaning contractors sort the recycling bins so that all bins are clean. They are also attempting to educate staff and students. “We are using this opportunity to identify problem areas and target our education accordingly,” she says. “We are in the process of relabelling every recycling bin across the three campuses with clear pictorial posters.”
Behold! The future of waste
Okay, so we’ve got a fair idea of what the problem is. But how can we fix this and head along the path to a cleaner and greener future? Marty from Zero Waste recommends having the government introduce deposit schemes on recyclable beverage containers, which means that you can get a small refund when you recycle a bottle. “Get the government to do what other governments around the world do,” Marty recommends, pointing to Canada, Japan, South Korea and Germany as examples. “They’ve all got regulations in place so that there are deposits on beverage containers.” This means that the public has an incentive to pick up containers. “The reason that there’s bottles and cans sitting around on the street, and plastic in the ocean is because we’ve made the containers worthless – it’s bad policy.”
Further to that, a study done by social purpose business Envision with the help of Auckland Council found that 83 percent of Kiwis support the establishment of a container deposit scheme, and the government could save up to $645 million dollars over a 10-year period.
Professor Neitzert believes that the backlog of materials that are currently stockpiled due to China’s ban will lead to new opportunities for recycling. “There will certainly be more product and process developments locally and AUT should work with these initiatives,” he predicts. “There will also be the opportunity for staff and student research projects to figure things out.”
Just because China is no longer accepting some types of recyclables, that doesn’t mean they are worthless, either. “It’s still cheaper to make plastic out of recycled plastic,” says Marty. “There are always clean markets for those materials because it’s cheaper to use recycled stock resin than virgin plastic to make products. The problem is right now, until those markets develop and grow, there’s a bit of a waiting game.”
But what can we do?
It’s pretty simple – avoid creating waste, sort the unavoidable waste properly, and spread awareness. “Now is the time to think about our processes and make changes about the packaging we buy involuntarily and the waste we produce,” says Professor Neitzert. “If we can’t avoid waste, we should sort it better. We have to rethink the collection systems on campus to create ‘cleaner’ rubbish, which is less contaminated and more suited for recycling.”
A bit of awareness could also go a long way and it’s key that all of us students get our head in the game when it comes to dunking our trash in the right bin. Lindsey reckons that greater awareness is going to be a critical part of managing the problem properly, and this will cover a wide range of areas. “In what they buy, in how they sort their waste, providing suggestions for improvements, getting involved in finding solutions,” says Lindsey.
If you’re after specific things you can do to help, Professor Neitzert takes it back a notch and goes to the basics that we all know: bring your own containers for food and drinks on campus and help avoid contamination by putting your rubbish in the right bin. He’s also a supporter of making AUT paperless – that means no hard copy hand-ins – can I get a hell yeah? “You are all quite internet savvy and you can push AUT to a paperless university,” he says.
So there’s the run down on AUT’s rubbish dilemma. Ultimately, despite all the chaos, it appears a little effort can collectively go a long way when it comes to protecting this paradise we live in.
If you have any questions, concerns, or want to tackle a sustainability project, the university would love to hear from you. Flick ‘em an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or, if you want to join a student club involved in AUT’s sustainability policies, email email@example.com.