Climate change will continue to reveal the disconcerting legacy of waste management in Aotearoa New Zealand. This was highlighted following the flooding of the Fox River township on the South Island’s West Coast in March 2019, where a legacy landfill eroded and distributed over 15 tonnes of municipal waste along 50km of pristine coast.
The cost of the clean-up was over $2.8m, which the Government paid for as it was unaffordable for the local authority. While there was significant media attention over this incident at the time, sadly, it is not unique.
Following the flood, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) produced a climate change inundation/flood risk assessment tool to quantify the landfill sites at risk. Current reports suggest there are somewhere between 300-400 across Aotearoa.
How did we get to this point?
A combination of informal dumping and poorly sited local landfills - typically in obscure, convenient, ‘low-value’ locations such as gullies, gravel pits, mangrove swamps and low-lying areas - has resulted in many of the problems we face today.
Up until the 1970s, there was a lack of awareness of the environmental impacts of waste disposal, or a true understanding of the future impacts of climate change on landfills. There were limited controls of municipal and industrial waste, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that more active landfill engineering through things like landfill lining and guidelines were introduced.
While waste content has changed over time, waste management has improved with knowledge and awareness. With these advances we must now solve the issues associated with legacy sites.