Does New Zealand have a burning waste problem?

One recent new investment proposal caught my eye. A new waste-to-energy plant is being mooted in New Zealand, at Huntly, just south of Auckland, the country’s largest city. Details are scant, although the project’s proposer (Whakaaro-Kingsman) seems to be looking to the new Copenhagen WtE plant, opened in 2017, for inspiration.

New Zealand currently has no major WtE facilities, so the construction of such a plant would represent a significant change in waste policy. The country remains almost totally reliant on landfill, for which statistical collection is poor. The principal driver of change is environmental concerns over rising landfill levels. The recent Chinese ban on imports of waste also appears to be making New Zealanders take more notice of how their rubbish is dealt with.

The past few years have seen better management and control of landfill, and efforts to introduce ‘circular economy’ approaches to waste management.  In 2008, New Zealand passed the Waste Minimisation Act, which began to tax waste sent to landfill, as in Europe. Recent government policy has focussed on reducing landfill tonnage by recycling, and reduction of plastic waste in particular. Plastic shopping bags are due to be phased out in July 2019.

The role of WtE in New Zealand’s waste policy looks dubious, to say the least. The latest government waste strategy, dating to 2010, makes no mention of it as even a possible option. Aside from the environmental position, many of the drivers which would promote WtE do not really exist in New Zealand. The country has plenty of space, with only a small overall population and no major cities, by international standards, aside from Auckland. It’s not clear that other major towns, such as Christchurch or even the capital, Wellington, have the level of waste generation needed to sustain a commercial WtE enterprise.

The Huntly proposal would, on the face of it, need to be fed with waste from across much of New Zealand or even further afield in order to be viable. It is not the only WtE plant mooted in New Zealand, however. The town of Westport on the South Island has been looking using a disused cement works site for a WtE plant (possibly involving pyrolysis) since at least 2016. In May 2018, the developer (Renew Energy Ltd) announced a NZ$300 million deal with China Tianying to build the plant. Also on the South Island, there are tentative plans to build a specialised pyrolysis plant at Blenheim, to deal with waste from the region’s many vineyards.

Proposed WtE plants in New Zealand:


At present, none of these plans look like coming to fruition. There’s no obvious public sector enthusiasm, and environmental concerns – justified or not – make them politically difficult. Finally, it’s simply not clear that New Zealand generates the levels of waste to make such investments viable.

There is pressure for change, however, even if it’s simply driven by residents looking at waste that used to be shipped to China and wondering what to do with it. That’s not to say there’s no activity, but successful projects are more likely to be small-scale and focussed in approach. For example, in August 2017, a new PET plastic recycling plant was opened in Lower Hutt, near Wellington. This has attracted public funding from the government’s Waste Minimisation Fund. The plant was upgraded in 2019 and can now handle 6,000 tonnes of PET bottles per year.

Written by Andy Crofts, Chief Data Analyst.

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