In March 2019, a storm hit the West Coast and washed out the closed Fox River landfill near Fox Glacier. The result was that huge amounts of pollution leaked into the surrounding pristine natural environment. Volunteers and specialist teams began clean-up efforts immediately, led by the local council. After several weeks, the Department of Conservation took over the clean-up, working with members of the Defence Force and hundreds of volunteers. Recovery faced delays due to resourcing and funding issues. An estimated 135,000 kilograms of rubbish was retrieved over 21 kilometres of river and 64 kilometres of coastline. It filled over 11,000 rubbish bags.

An estimated 135,000 kilograms of rubbish was retrieved over 21 kilometres of river and 64 kilometres of coastline


Volunteers pick up rubbish where a disused Fox River landfill spilled litter on the West Coast. Credit: RNZ/Katie Todd

This landfill disaster demonstrated that Aotearoa New Zealand’s existing landfills are a potential source of plastic leakage into the environment. Those at most risk of this kind of event are the decommissioned landfills established with less stringent regulatory requirements, many of which were established near rivers and coastlines and are particularly vulnerable to storms or flooding. Approximately 100 landfills around the country are compromised or going to be in the near future and an audit of the risks associated with current and closed landfills is underway. This rate may go up with more severe weather patterns emerging.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s existing landfills are a potential source of plastic leakage into the environment

Taking a preventative approach to remediate at-risk landfills, rather than a reactive approach to a landfill disaster, is critical for reducing environmental leakage of plastic and other waste. This will include efforts to remediate problematic landfills or stabilise and prevent those at risk, funds ready to support local and central government to act, and established systems so that the burden of clean-up doesn’t rest on volunteers.

Just because waste is ‘out of sight’ in a landfill doesn’t mean it has necessarily reached its end-of-life. Waste in landfill, including plastic, still has the potential to enter environments when the landfill is mismanaged. In the long-term, the goal is to stop landfilling plastic waste. Until then, waste plastic should only be landfilled in modern landfill under strict regulatory conditions.

Read the case study ‘Moden landfill: A waste-to-energy innovation’

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