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Climate change, carbon foot printing and the waste industry

Climate change, carbon foot printing and the waste industry

Undoubtedly, climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing New Zealand and the world. Waste Management has stepped up to take a leadership role, both within the waste sector and more widely, by seeking innovative ways to reduce our emissions and act sustainably.

Following on from the 2018 launch of our sustainability strategy For Future Generations, in 2019 we became the first waste company in New Zealand to measure our greenhouse gas emissions and create a carbon footprint reduction plan to reduce our impact on climate change through the ToitÅ« carbonreduce programme.

This year Waste Management released its first sustainability report.

What we’ve learnt

Most of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the waste collected from communities and disposed of at landfills. For example, in our latest 2019 carbon footprint, 72% of our emissions came from landfills. To counter this, we capture and convert 95% of landfill gas to electricity, powering the equivalent of 23,000 homes in 2019. Our Redvale Landfill & Energy Park, for example, is Auckland’s largest renewable energy generator.

For transparency, we report on our total carbon footprint publicly. This reporting includes our landfill emissions.

However, as we cannot directly control the amount of waste generated by New Zealanders, our company’s carbon footprint reduction plan focuses on reducing what we call our “operational” carbon footprint, which excludes landfill emissions and focuses on those activities we can control.

EV vehicles

Waste Management is growing its electric truck fleet to reduce carbon emissions.

For the most effective environmental gains quickly, we are focusing on reducing diesel emissions – which make up 72% of our operational carbon footprint. We were the first to introduce 100% plug-in electric trucks into a waste collection fleet in New Zealand and have opened a purpose-built facility to assemble more EV trucks in New Zealand.

We currently have 13 electric trucks in our fleet and we will keep increasing this number. With a total fleet of over 800, we expect to make a significant emissions reduction impact with this programme in the coming years. From the data we have collected, one electric truck on average saves about 125 litres of diesel per day. Across our fleet, it will be close to 100,000 litres of diesel saved every day.

We also have a light vehicle fleet of 87 cars – all are electric – a transition made in just under four years.


Last year we collected 121,068 tonnes of recycling, and of this we were able to have 70% processed within New Zealand. This is a significant shift, which has reduced the shipping component of our carbon footprint.

In addition, in 2018 we opened New Zealand’s largest tyre recycling plant in Wiri, Auckland, where we can shred around three million, or 30,000 tonnes of end-of-life tyres for converting into fuel each year. We supply this fuel to industry, enabling them to replace greenhouse gas emission-intensive fuels such as coal, thereby reducing their emissions.

Our team

The efficiencies we are creating through our carbon emissions reduction plan has become engrained in Waste Management’s culture. The entire team is invested in the targets we have set.

In October, we are encouraged our team of 1,700 across 70 locations to work out their own personal carbon footprint and assisted them to put in place reduction plans. We succeeded in having over 2% take part (the goal we set) and aim to improve this to 10% by 2025.

We calculate our business-wide carbon footprint every month, split by division, and compare this year on year. This allows us an excellent measure of how we are tracking against our carbon reduction goals.

This, alongside public accountability through quarterly reporting on For Future Generations progress and our annual sustainability report, ensures our focus on reducing our climate impact and, more broadly sustainability, will be central to Waste Management’s future.

Climate change - how bad is it?

In December, the New Zealand Government declared a climate emergency. It follows the findings from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that global warming targets need to limited to 1.5°C instead of current targets of 2°C, and that global emissions need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030.

If we limit global warming to a higher 2°C, the Paris Agreement’s target, the consequences for the world will be dire. There will be more extreme weather, reduced human health and well-being, rising sea levels, diminishing Arctic sea ice, and mass loss of ecosystems. For example, at 2°C of warming 99% of the coral on the planet is expected to die and 18% of all insects, 16% of all plants and 8% of all animals are at risk.

So, what was a multi-generational challenge is now actually only 10 years away to keep warming within only a 1.5°C rise. Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has now become critical for survival of life as we know it.

Landfill emissions

Two of the landfill gas to power generators at Redvale Landfill & Energy Park

The good news is landfill emissions in New Zealand are under control.

Unlike transport and agriculture emissions, which have grown considerably in recent years, landfill emissions have decreased by a significant 25% over the last 10 years.

And although the Ministry for the Environment reports solid waste at 5.1% of New Zealand’s carbon footprint, in its latest greenhouse gas inventory, when drilling into solid waste emissions landfill emissions are only 1.8% of the country’s carbon footprint. The managed landfills (which is where all residential and commercial waste goes) like those owned and operated by Waste Management, have been reducing in emissions every year.

This comes as old council run “dumps” like Fox Glacier are closed and replaced with state-of-the-art commercial landfill and energy parks which capture up to 95% of greenhouse gas emissions. A dedicated modern landfill and energy park is purpose built with pipes throughout the landfill, leading to high levels of methane capture.

The remaining lion share of solid waste emissions is unmanaged waste disposal, such as on farms, in clean-fills and at other sites of largely inert waste.

The need for us all to act now

Humanity can act swiftly.

We’ve done so in the past and can do it again. A good example is the world coming together in response to the ozone hole, which was within five to 10 years of being so large it would have been irreversible. The Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, banning chlorofluorocarbons, and now in 2020 there are clear signs that the ozone hole is closing.

Here in New Zealand business leaders are coming together under the Climate Leaders Coalition. The CLC’s members – who make up over 50% of NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions and 27% of NZ’s GDP – have all committed to reducing emissions.

But, for Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions to stabilise at 1.5°C of warming, everyone needs to act with urgency.

So, we exhort you to start your emissions reduction journey today. Take the first step. Calculate your carbon footprint. The rest will follow.

This article also appears in Revolve Magazine.