Reader mailbag: Dunedin plastic mountains edition

By Eric Crampton 04/09/2013

In the inbox, from our Professor of Finance:

Oh the irony – the ‘sustainability’ of recycling

Ratepayers are going to be charged more to keep producing a ‘good’ that nobody apparently wants or needs! Now that’s certainly a ‘sustainable’ policy…

The ODT article forwarded me by the good Professor Glenn Boyle notes:

As a stockpile of the city’s plastic waste grows ever bigger, the Dunedin City Council is being warned it may have to increase rates if returns from recycling do not improve.

The amount Dunedin people recycle has increased by a third since a new service was introduced in 2011.

That increase, combined with the high New Zealand dollar and a four-month stay on sending some plastics to the main Chinese market following a crackdown on contaminants in recyclables that has put traders off selling to China, resulted in the council running the service at a loss last year.

…The situation has prompted council solid waste manager Ian Featherston to warn the council this week that although the exchange rate was falling and new markets for the materials were being sought, the reduced target of a $210,000 return this financial year might also be difficult to achieve.

In that case, the kerbside recycling targeted rate would need to be increased next year from $64 to $69, he said.

Mr Featherston said Dunedin people recycle about 30 tonnes of material a month.

The stockpile of plastics being held had now reached about 150 tonnes.

Recycling programmes can still make sense even if they run at a loss, but only if the costs of disposing of this kind of plastic via the recycling system is lower than the costs of disposing of it via landfill. If it costs $30/tonne to get rid of waste at the landfill and the net costs of a recycling programme are $20/tonne, we’re still $10/tonne better off by having it.

When I’d run some ballpark numbers on Christchurch’s system in 2009, it looked like we were paying at least twice as much to get rid of waste via recycling, on average, as we were paying for disposal at Kate Valley. Some recyclables are of high value and are worth sending through a recycling system, but most of it is not worth the cost.

The numbers in Christchurch have likely changed with our newer bin system that separates out composting waste; the Otago numbers too could vary. I’d be surprised if it made sense to be stockpiling plastics in hopes of shipping them to China, but it’s not impossible.

0 Responses to “Reader mailbag: Dunedin plastic mountains edition”

  • “…but only if the costs of disposing of this kind of plastic via the recycling system is lower than the costs of disposing of it via landfill.”

    The problems with landfills is that no one wants them in their backyard. This makes them extreeeemely VALUABLE pieces of real estate. (But certainly not WORTH much at the end – especially for housing). The contradiction is that the less you put in them the longer they last. The less you put in them, the less household rubbish bags are bought. The company contracted to sell, collect and dispose the bags runs at a loss. The irony is these companies are now invariably overseas owned and profits generated are shipped out.

    eg. Silverstream landfill, Lower/Upper Hutt. Began 40+ years ago. Still being filled but the fill rate has dropped through the floor. It was supposed to only last 25 years. But better compacting – and recycling – has extended it’s life. But then they decided to compost the green stuff and sell it. Not much got sold. The councils and company wanted too much for it. Frankly, the stuff should have been given away to farmers and gardeners for free and the councils (and fertiliser importers) should have paid the composting company to do that. After all, it would have negated the need to find another hole quite so soon. But that’s another story.

    When the “tip-gas” power generating plant was put in there was enough gas being produced to run it quite happily. But then after the compost started… oh dear…..where was the future gas going to come from? We won’t be able to make money from the power generation. It was another nice excuse to stop the composting and a guaranteed way to shorten the tip life but it’s OK, someone (else) will make a nose length profit.

    It is getting full now. Lower/Upper Hutt will need to find another one. It won’t be as close. It will cost more. Another backyard will be wailed over and be lost.

    (Maybe some future Gerry will likely say: “Lets mine it!!!” Heh!)

    The cost of the packaging disposal should be on the packager, not the unpacker. Yes the customer pays in the end. But given how companies hate costs, it might make them think. But a sh*t load comes from overseas. Why should we have to pay to dispose of it? Recycled milk bottles and refundable drink and milk bottles should have their place. But obviously not here it seems.

    One thing I learnt about dust and rubbish. Contrary to popular belief, you never ever get “rid” of it. You merely shift it from one place to the next. So why create it in the first place.

    Reading your link:

    “I like the last bit. In my lecture on environmental economics, I note that if Christchurch went through a landfill the size of our current Kate Valley facility every year instead of every thirty years, and if we were building new landfills on prime irrigated dairy land instead of scrub wasteland, the cost of buying land for landfill would still be only about $2 per person per year. Absolutely trivial.”

    Hmm…the effect on the Canterbury aquifer is??? Would you buy a property on top of this idea and put YOUR house on it?? Would you expect others to? It will end up like the red zone. Swamp, sinkholes stink and mud.

    Go green Eric. It might suit you.

  • There are plenty of pieces of land where runoff risk is very low, leachate risk is very low, and things can be designed to avoid costs on neighbours. The land cost is trivial in the grand scheme of things. The costs of developing the site to avoid bad stuff happening is rather more, and tip prices should reflect the actual costs. My point there was that arguments around “Oh, we’re going to run out of land because of landfills” are rubbish.