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Have we become a more wasteful culture?

Earlier this year it was revealed that New Zealand has become one of the worst in the world for the generation of waste. This is according to World Bank data, which ranks NZ has tenth worst of all countries surveyed for the generation of urban waster per capita (see map above).

Each of us create about 734kg of waste each per year - that is 2 kilograms exactly every day. And mystifyingly, the amount of waste New Zealanders generate has increased by around 20 percent over the past three years. Until now, the panacea was seen as recycling. It was ok to consume lots of stuff and not really think deeply about our consumption because we can just ship it all to China to be turned into car seats and polypropylene thermal underwear (in fact, we were doing the world a favour!). But China has now told us they don't want all our plastic waste and many local recycling centres are now faced with ever-expanding stockpiles of plastic and other material that they can do nothing with (see below: crushed plastic bottles at the Timaru recycling centre).

Some commentators are pointing the finger at the Waste Minimisation Act, which I myself was involved in when I first started working as a naively optimistic official at the Ministry for the Environment. And I think undoubtedly there have been issues with the Act's implementation - primarily because the government was too reluctant to regulate - to force industry to reduce waste. Instead implementation relied heavily on voluntary, industry-led stewardship schemes - which still soaked up years of officials' time and government resources to cajole to fruition, but (as we now know) have proven ineffective in cutting waste - in fact the problem has got much worse, as the statistics show.

But it is too easy simply to blame industry and government for what has been labelled 'New Zealand's shame' (inaccurately, I feel, because if it was truly a source of shame, we would have done something about it). The responsibility also firmly rests with us - consumers. In recent years there has been a move to what can only be described as unthinking, gratuitous wastefulness by New Zealand consumers, and this worrying trend cannot be epitomised any better than by the kids' party bag. This is a bag (generally plastic) given to kids when they leave a birthday party, containing - in addition to the sweets and the mandatory balloon - a range of small plastic toys that have a tendency to get lost or broken within 24 hours of the bag's transfer into the sticky clutches of the expectant, sugar-filled child (in the case of really annoying toys, such as ones that make irritating noises, there can be a degree of human intervention in their being 'lost').

It seems this new 'custom' was introduced from overseas - the United Kingdom or United States. But what drives me to despair is how even the smartest of parents have felt railroaded into buying into this wasteful habit, which is not only the gratuitous and senseless consumerism that we are supposed to be moving away from, but also teaches kids a number of unhelpful lessons: that cheap plastic toys are a legitimate part of our lives, that having things is not about 'need' but about 'want' (the very basis of consumerism', of course), and, an innate sense of entitlement (just what every child needs more of!). Even if we are not turning our kids into rampant, unsatiable consumers, at the very least, we will be leaving them confused. On the one hand, their teachers at school and kindy are telling them that we should stop using plastic bags because they choke turtles and strangle dolphins, but on the other it is ok to buy - not just for yourself but for all your friends - disposable plastic junk.

In Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand, I trace the evolution of environmental governance in New Zealand since the Save Manapouri Campaign, identifying some fundamental issues that have led to a failure to address our biggest environmental issues. Many of these issues lie with government and the way legislation has been implemented. But as can be seen with the issue of waste, responsibility for environment also lies squarely with us as ordinary New Zealanders. Even if some of us are too old and set in our ways to change much beyond the token use of reusable supermarket bags, can we not at least let our kids lead the way to a more sustainable future without contaminating their minds with these senseless and wasteful behaviours?

Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics (Canterbury University Press) is available from all good bookstores now, or you can order here.

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