Fox River RNZ Katie Todd

Figure 1 Volunteers pick up rubbish where a disused Fox River landfill spilled litter on the West Coast. Credit: RNZ/Katie Todd

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

 

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).

Explore more case studies from Rethinking Plastics

Sustainability through connection, learning and action

With a kaupapa of creating a healthy, peaceful, more sustainable world, Toimata Foundation supports inter-generational learning and action by running two main programmes in schools and communities:…

Reducing the carbon footprint of plastics by using recycled plastic

In a study of the carbon footprint of projected global plastic use between 2015 and 2050, Zheng and Suh modelled a theoretical situation of 100% recycling of plastic in 2050, and found it had a 25%…

A reusable system to replace single-use cups

Globelet offers a reusable cup system for festivals and other events. The cups are made from recycled polypropylene (#5) and manufactured onshore. Globelet provides the following statistics on their…

How big is the plastic clothing problem for Aotearoa New Zealand?

Some plastic articles of clothing are captured in the ‘Plastics and articles thereof’ harmonised trade codes in import data from Statistics NZ, but this does not account for all synthetic fibres im…

A business enabling people to rethink their use of plastic

Ecostore is an exemplar of how a business can take transformative action to rethink how we use plastics and inspire system-wide change. To enable people to reduce their use of non-renewable single-…

New Zealand Post’s quest for an alternative to plastic

The driver: New Zealand Post wants a more sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to their existing plastic mailers (e.g. courier bags, pre-paid postage bags). New Zealand Post has also…

Para Kore – helping people reduce their waste

Para Kore is a Māori organisation that provides mentoring and support for marae, kōhanga reo, kura, community organisations, iwi, tertiary, commercial sector, events and Māori communities to reduce…

Plastic Bag Free Raglan, Pēke Kirihou Kore Whāingaroa

In October 2018, Whāingaroa Raglan won the Keep New Zealand Beautiful ‘Community Environmental Initiative Award’. The kōrero behind the Award was a story of what happened when a whole community wor…

Controlled plastic decomposition

Plastics are made by joining monomers together to form long flexible chains in a process known as polymerisation. The strength of the bonds formed between monomers is what makes the plastics persis…

Recyclable shoes

As part of its recent pledge to use only recycled plastics by 2024, Adidas revealed a new sneaker made from 100% recyclable materials. Driven by a connection to environmental organisation Parley for…