New Zealand government plans to switch to a circular economy to reduce waste and emissions, but it goes wrong


The New Zealand government is currently developing plans to deal with two crises – climate change and waste – and to embrace a circular economy. But there is no clear way to know how to do this. The resulting confusion weakens the potential of a circular economy to bring about lasting change.

A public consultation is underway to develop an emissions reduction plan, following advice from the Climate Change Commission on carbon budgets towards New Zealand’s net zero target in 2050.

Another consultation document proposes an overhaul of the country’s waste strategy and legislation.

Both documents aim to move Aotearoa towards a circular economy – an economy that limits waste and pollution, keeps products in service, and regenerates natural systems to protect, not plunder, natural resources.

But the government’s plans for circularity are fragmented, contradictory and uncoordinated. They fail to tackle the status quo drivers of the linear economy or improve collaboration.

New Zealand needs a dedicated state agency to champion a low waste, low emissions circular economy.

The need for circularity

New Zealand is one of the most wasteful countries in the OECD. Waste is not just a pollutant, but the dead end of a linear supply chain that emits greenhouse gases every step of the way.

About half of global emissions come from production and consumption. Each waste represents intrinsic emissions lost to the economy.

Circular practices preserve this embodied energy by keeping the products and materials used. It slows down the global extraction of natural resources, from mining to tree felling. The less we extract, the more we reduce waste and emissions.

Currently, only 8.6% of the global economy is circular. This figure must double by 2032 to keep us on track to limit global warming to 1.5 ℃.

Doubling the circularity of the New Zealand economy would mean transforming the systems of production and consumption. Today, much of what we manufacture and buy is inherently linear.

In a circular economy, products are built to last and designed to be repaired. Organic matter is composted to replenish the soil. Business models favor sharing over individual ownership and reuse over single use.

This radical change in economic direction requires coordination between sectors, strong leadership and a shared understanding of the circular model. The government must work with those who already practice circularity and reconfigure the rules to end linear practices.

Lack of a comprehensive system approach

The consultation documents do not tell a shared circular economy story. The waste strategy focuses on product end-of-life processes such as waste management, waste and recycling; the proposed emission reduction plan deals with business models and innovation.

The waste proposal suggests that the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) will eventually tie everything together into a ‘separate and broader circular economy strategy’, but this risks creating a greater entanglement .

The confusion is not surprising. The government’s work on circularity has been divided between the Ministry of the Environment and the MBIE. Organizational cultures and agency priorities differ and they have not linked their reflections for a holistic system approach.

Essential elements of the circular economy fall through the cracks, in particular the part on economic transformation. Increasing corporate responsibility for waste is the hottest potato no one wants to touch.

The consultation documents offer little upstream policy intervention to trigger product redesign or new business models that reduce waste and emissions. Instead, they focus on using or disposing of the waste after it is produced, which implies, rather than challenges, linear inefficiencies.

All the bad circles

Although accountability is the central theme of the waste proposal, it does not make anyone responsible for the creation of waste because it never analyzes where the waste is coming from. Instead, it emphasizes better waste management and anti-waste laws. This shifts the responsibility down the pipe, to individuals and communities who cannot influence the waste cooked in the system further upstream.

In addition, responsible product management is confined to “end of life” activity, neutralizing its potential to redistribute responsibility upstream of product supply chains.

The emissions reduction plan does not fill this gap, apart from a few promising initiatives for the construction sector. The link he establishes between circularity and the fight against climate change mainly concerns organic waste rather than global production and consumption. Despite recognizing the potential of new business models to tackle climate change, product stewardship is barely mentioned.

Instead, it views circular innovation through the prism of the “bioeconomy,” where biomass derived from waste is converted into bioenergy and new products. But a bioeconomy depends on the continuous production of waste, which is arguably non-circular. It also contradicts the suggestion of the waste proposal to discourage the “recycling” of waste into energy through charges.

A circular economy without a motor

The government cannot achieve circularity on its own, but does not have a convincing plan for collaboration.

Supporting community groups and local businesses does not appear to be a priority for the government. Both documents describe circularity and innovation as future states, but many organizations are already implementing circular and zero waste practices and are potential partners.

A partnership based on Te Tiriti is fundamental for economic transformation. The Climate Change Commission described the circular economy as aligned with a Maori worldview. Organizations like Para Kore are showing Maori leadership in promoting zero waste and circularity.

While the emissions reduction plan promises a meaningful partnership with the Maori, the waste proposal does not. It is a missed opportunity. New waste legislation could protect Maori decision-making rights and rangatiratanga over natural resources.

Rather than chart a clear path to a circular economy, the government is proliferating documents that perpetuate a status quo approach where communities, councils and government spin in the wrong kind of circles, cleaning up after industry.

The problem is not the lack of good ideas. But these ideas are not properly filtered or organized, important elements and key partners are missing, and no one is in the driver’s seat.

Moving Aotearoa from silos towards a circular economy requires a dedicated state agency with a governance structure in line with Te Tiriti. This agency could advocate for circularity, efficiency and conservation of resources throughout the system, from resource extraction to product disposal.

Hannah Blumhardt is a researcher for Āmiomio Aotearoa – a transdisciplinary, multi-partner circular economy research project funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and hosted by the University of Waikato. She is also an entrepreneur for the Zero Waste Network. She founded and directs The Rubbish Trip and Takeaway Throwaways. It is affiliated with the New Zealand Product Stewardship Council, Aotearoa Plastic Pollution Alliance and WasteMINZ. She was a member of the Ministry of the Environment’s advisory group for the draft waste strategy.

/ Courtesy of Conversation. This material from the original organization / authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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