Recently, a headline in Stuff asked an excellent question: why has the government been so slow to clean up meth contamination standards? The article was prompted by the announcement that the government was consulting on a standard for meth contamination of rental homes, some four and a half years after my predecessor’s high profile ‘meth report,’ which challenged the need to test homes for methamphetamine contamination unless there was evidence that the home had been used for meth manufacture.
The meth report
When remediating homes where meth is detected at low levels, testing for meth is intended to serve as a surrogate marker for harmful contaminants that are associated with meth manufacture. Sir Peter Gluckman found no evidence that low levels of passive meth exposure alone leads to adverse health impacts. Despite this, the low level of meth contamination stipulated in the New Zealand Standard for remediating buildings after use as meth labs had been used to justify the eviction of hundreds of people from their homes, without any corroborating evidence of manufacture. This led to hundreds of vacant homes in the middle of a housing crisis and fuelled an industry that charged Housing New Zealand over $100 million in fees for their clean-up, which the agency then sought to recover from its recently evicted clients.
On the face of it, five years from the presentation of this evidence base to policy change seems like a long time, even allowing for a pandemic lag. But the report didn’t sit idle in this time. There was an immediate Ministerial request to Housing New Zealand to change its policy on evictions, adopting the higher level of meth from the report as the de facto standard. But to legitimise this decision and ensure consistency across government, officials from different parts of government (Health, Police, Housing and Urban Development) needed to be consulted and coordinated. ESR was commissioned to critique the report and add specific policy recommendations to the evidence synthesis that the PMCSA had provided. And lessons about how scientific evidence is incorporated into standards in Aotearoa needed to be learned.
So, as I wrote in 2019, the policy response to the meth report occurred on two fronts. Directly related to the meth standard, work was undertaken to establish a new threshold for acceptable meth levels in houses where there is no evidence of manufacture – producing a policy document that is currently out for consultation. One issue has been ensuring that that any proposed level of allowable meth contamination considers all the available science. Another has been developing a set of regulations that are proportionate to risk, which cover all eventualities and will be robust in the face of any legal process. The Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2019 set a framework for developing these regulations.
In addition, to lessen the chances of a similar situation happening again, we were asked by the Minister to discuss with Standards New Zealand the role of science advice in setting standards in general. We found that their processes for assembling panels and looking at the science were strong, but if the science was disputed or if there were unintended effects, there were places where it would be useful to check and seek external advice. For these cases we helped develop a new process for the Standards New Zealand board, which we were pleased to see in place by early 2019. In essence, early consultation of independent scientific input, overseen by the Chief Science Advisor to MBIE, can be requested if difficult or contentious science is encountered. We hope this will strengthen the link between science advice and the challenging work of setting and updating standards, reducing the time between science advice being available and the reflection of that evidence in our standards.
Lessons for our work programme: The Rethinking plastics report
It was useful to understand the barriers to direct implementation of the findings of the meth report when I entered the role of PMCSA in 2018. The meth experience helped inform our approach to the first major project commissioned by the PM, Rethinking plastics.
Much less contentious in context than was the case for methamphetamine, this work engaged a very large number of researchers and stakeholders from the outset, and it was clear that there was social license to act to address the harmful effects of plastic pollution and a willingness to do so from all the key players.
We were just ahead of the policy agenda, meaning that there was a thirst for evidence from officials, and while our work was independent of Ministry officials, it was not isolated from them – we kept in steady contact and relayed the evidence as it accumulated. Our expert panel was encouraged to make specific, evidence-informed recommendations. This communication and specificity made it easier for officials to advise on our report soon after we delivered it, with some immediate policy announcements at the report launch. The Ministry for the Environment issued a formal response to the report eight months later, which agreed with or agreed to investigate all 51 recommendations. The Governor-General then committed to implement the recommendations in the Speech from the Throne in 2020.
Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern at the launch of the Rethinking plastics report, with the Hon Eugenie Sage, Juliet, and other members of the team.
The sequence of implementation is driven by many factors, mostly beyond the science advice. In particular, suitable substitutes for plastic items that are to be phased out must be available to enable a smooth transition away from plastics. Some of the headline activities since the launch of our report are listed below.
- Aotearoa now has a National Plastics Action Plan, which maps our pathway towards “a New Zealand where plastic use is sustainable and innovative, and where plastics are used in a way that protects the environment and benefits society,” supporting a transition to a low-carbon circular economy.
- After a public consultation in 2020, the government is in the process of phasing out hard-to-recycle plastics and some single-use plastic items. The phase-out of problem plastics is occurring in three tranches, the first of which took effect in October this year.
- The government established the Plastics Innovation Fund to accelerate the development of solutions that minimise plastic waste and support circular solutions.
- The Ministry for the Environment has published a position statement on compostable products, which explores the opportunities and challenges associated with compostable packaging.
- The landfill levy is being progressively increased and expanded so that it costs more to dispose of waste. This should hopefully drive alternatives to waste disposal and raise more funds to dedicate to waste minimisation and management.
The work isn’t done – there are a number of ongoing government workstreams that relate to Rethinking plastics, which we continue to watch with interest. For example, Transforming recycling is a major piece of work that includes the development of a container return scheme and improving kerbside recycling. In addition, a bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament later this year, with the aim of offering a more comprehensive legislative framework for the regulation of products and materials. It has been hugely satisfying to have been able to provide the evidence base to support the painstaking policy work that officials have done to affect change.
The Ministry for the Environment’s plastics phase-out plan.
Context is key: Commercial fisheries
Not all projects have a clear social license. Our 2020/21 project on the future of commercial fishing was commissioned by the PM, who wanted to better understand how data and science could support improved fisheries management and interrogate the sustainability of our fisheries. Our report was a deep dive into a murky world of conflicting positions, varying stakeholder priorities, and patchy data, underpinned by competing demands to use and protect our marine environments. I made some reflections on this in the foreword to the report.
This project highlighted that science advice can’t occur in a vacuum. It was crucial for us to understand the social and cultural aspects of fisheries management and the complexities of the regulatory system to avoid making science-based recommendations that wouldn’t work in the real world. We saw that science could support change, but only if the settings were right, and there was trust amongst scientists and stakeholders – so a large part of our report focussed on the context of the commercial fishing world, uncovering the challenges and opportunities, ahead of putting forward some science-based solutions. A great deal of energy was expended on stakeholder engagement, to socialise the report before submission. We were relieved by the relatively warm reception of the final recommendations (e.g. see coverage Newsroom and Stuff).
As with plastics, we worked hard to socialise our recommendations with officials rather than surprise them. We were delighted when one of the expert panel recommendations, to create a Ministerial portfolio in Oceans and Fisheries, was actioned ahead of the report being released. The rest took some time, with an early series of cabinet papers ahead of the official response to the report in August this year. When the official response was released, the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries noted that “the report has already been influential in shaping this Government’s approach to oceans and fisheries management” and highlighted the government’s commitment to “ensuring the long-term health and resilience of ocean and coastal ecosystems.”
Things speed up in emergencies, but the principles remain
Of course, things are very different in emergencies, when the pathway from science advice to action is necessarily faster. We saw this in the response to the Whakaari eruption and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which you can learn about on our webpage. In particular, check out the short documentaries that Shirley Horrocks made on the role of science in emergencies, and contrast them to the ones she made on plastics and fishing.
The lessons learned in our major reports remain useful in emergency settings. In emergencies, it is even more critical to share information with all decision makers, not just the PM, to ensure that evidence is available to feed in at multiple stages in the response and across different parts of government. A collaborative approach which respects the integrity of independent advice but listens to other views is vital, and providing the information on the requested timeframe to influence policy is essential.
We also continue to reflect on what we have learned from each crisis response, drawing lessons about effective translation of evidence to policy that can be applied in ‘peacetime’ and in response to slow-burning crises like climate change, to try to speed up the implementation pathway and have impact with evidence.