Zero Waste by 2040 – Is it Achievable?

Zero Waste by 2040 – Is it Achievable?

Back in 2010, it was reported that Auckland households discard 1.17 million tonnes of municipal waste to landfill each year.  More recent statistics are not available, but it’s safe to assume this figure has grown significantly.

Even on the 2010 numbers we’ll be contaminating our soil, groundwater and atmosphere for at least another century. This is because a landfill site, no matter how modern its operation, leaks leachate into the groundwater, emits greenhouse gas emissions and produces unpleasant odours.

Impact on water, land and air

Atmospheric emissions are captured in greenhouse gas reporting on climate change by the Ministry for the Environment. Currently around 5Mt CO2 equivalents are logged each year. Any waste we dispose of now into landfill sites will decompose and emit greenhouse gases (GHG) for another century. Methane, a GHG, will be generated and emitted to the atmosphere during the digestion process.

There are technologies available like flaring and electricity production to treat some of the methane emissions. However, even first class landfills cannot capture all landfill gas, rendering the landfill site into a net GHG emitter.

Impact on housing

If nothing is done, odour emissions from landfill sites will make housing and amenity development less attractive. With the Auckland housing market putting pressure on land values, future landfill sites will move further away from central Auckland, putting more pressure on waste traffic volumes, and increasing indirect emissions.

Impact on reputation

New Zealand’s contribution to future international climate change targets will put our clean and green reputation at stake. Our current waste disposal practises don’t do justice to our clean and green perception and reputation overseas. This could potentially damage our lucrative tourism industry. These practises will also negatively impact on Auckland’s ambition to become one of the world’s most liveable cities.

What's happening overseas?

Having recently returned from three years in Europe, it’s disturbing to see how much of Auckland’s waste continues to go to landfill. In most parts of Europe, landfill sites are being closed due to environmental concerns. Switzerland and Germany have no active landfill sites; only inert waste residues are being accepted. The United Kingdom is following suit.

Auckland Council has a stretch target of achieving Zero Waste by 2040. While this is a noble target, European experience shows it is far from achievable. Waste reduction targets and programmes have been in place there for decades, including European manufacturers being urged to produce recyclable goods. And consumers have been aware of separating municipal waste, also for decades.

Product recycling initiatives have been introduced and people have been encouraged to reuse products wherever possible. There certainly is success in reducing waste; however zero waste in western society will be unachievable. There will always exist a portion of municipal waste which cannot be recycled or reused. This portion will inevitably go to landfill and will contaminate our environment for decades to come.

What can we do?

If we continue operating landfill sites, future generations will have to deal with our current poor choices.  My children will have to manage the treatment of groundwater and atmospheric emissions, as well as discontinued contaminated landfill sites.

There are several ways to deal with municipal waste. Best practice today is the circular economy with priority on reduction, recycling and composting/anaerobic digestion of organics, with the remaining residual waste going to thermo-chemical recycling. Hence, no untreated waste will go to landfill. This proposed solution focuses on energy from waste to produce biogas from organics through anaerobic digestion and clean energy from residual waste by thermo-chemical processing.

With the clock ticking fast for Auckland, it’s high time to address our waste disposal practises and join the 21st Century by eliminating untreated waste to landfill.

This thought leadership article by Holger Zipfel, a mechanical team leader in our Water Resources team, is intended to provide you with insights and relevant information about achieving zero waste in Auckland. Our thought leadership articles on topical and specialist issues are designed to present the key points in an easy to digest and interesting manner.

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