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Speech

International Solid Waste Association World Conference for 1997

Issue date: 
Monday, 29 September 1997
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

E nga mana tangata whenua, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma, tena koutou. E nga manuhiri kia Whanganui a Tara, nga hau e wha, nga iwi e tau nei, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

To the people of this land, to those who are to speak here, to the distinguished guests, welcome. To you, the visitors to Wellington, people from the four winds, to everyone gathered here, welcome, welcome, thrice welcome.

Mayor Blumsky, Mrs and Mr Auty, Mr and Mrs Rylander, Mr Goddard, Mr Webber, delegates to this International Solid Waste Association 1997 Conference, ladies and gentlemen:

My wife and I have just returned from a trip to Tokelau, a small emerging nation consisting of just three coral atolls in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. None is more than 200 metres wide and 5 metres above the sea. Each supports a population of about 500. The land and the sea provide an adequate, but a subsistence, diet. But naturally enough, the people wish to enjoy the so-called benefits of Western Civilisation. And so they import large quantities of canned and packaged and bottled foods and beverages. But then, there is a problem. What to do with the waste? Fortunately, it no longer goes into the lagoon. It is collected and buried: hard work, in the coral. The bottles - they are mostly beer bottles - are shipped to Samoa for recycling: an expensive business, and because the recycler will only take 750 ml bottles, they are contemplating banning small ones, while at the same time trying to persuade people to drink less, because that too is a problem. Their traditional latrines are shanties built out over the lagoon, but they are replacing those with toilets with septic tanks; but as someone has pointed out very forcibly, what happens when the tanks need cleaning out? There is no one to do it.

On our way home, we spend a couple of hours at a beach resort on the south coast of Samoa, and there, along the beautiful sandy foreshore were the familiar products of 20th century progress, plastics and polystyrene.

Walk anywhere along the coast of this land of ours and you will find huge quantities of those same products. When schoolchildren undertake a clean-up of their local area, they are likely to gather truckload upon truckload.

These experiences, tip of a vast iceberg though they be, emphasise the importance of this conference. You, of all people, know of the extraordinarily rapid increase in amounts of solid waste humankind has been producing, and endeavouring to dispose of. Quantities have been rising for many decades, since industry took agriculture's place as the way most of us made a living - quantities that have far, far exceeded our capacity to control them, or to deal with them in anything like an appropriate manner - quantities that pose some of the world's most serious long term environmental and human problems.

Cities around the world generate vast quantities of un-recycled rubbish. The United States, in 1990, is recorded to have produced over a 177 million metric tons of municipal waste, 19% more than in 1985, only five years previously. That's over 700 kilograms per person. Here in New Zealand, in spite of our being a comparatively minor blot on the planetary landscape in terms of the gross tonnage that we produce, we are leading generators of solid waste on a per capita basis. Our 2.1 million tons of 1990 municipal waste, works out to be more than 660 kilograms per head - 10% more than the 'average' Canadian, around 30% more than we would create if we were Swiss, 40% more than someone in Japan. And New Zealand's rate of increase in municipal waste output? Since 1975, in just 20 years, our rate is up more than 80%. This is not the sort of national over-achievement that is at all worth celebrating.

These statistics, and all the other figures with which I'm sure you're familiar, are why the services of solid waste managers, solid waste minimisers and solid waste disposal experts, are of the greatest importance. And it is most reassuring that the world is ever more ready to see and understand this importance, so that the demand for the services of the experts is an ever-increasing one. Because until very recently, all countries have used their natural resources and their environments carelessly at best; destructively at worst, certainly ignorantly for much of the time. As the saying goes, there has to be a better way. And all of you are in the business of finding it and then persuading manufacturers, consumers and controlling authorities to act.

Only recently, in historical terms, have we - humanity as a whole - begun to recognise our earlier and near-universal lack of environmental wisdom, if not sheer recklessness. But our industrial behaviour has begun to change: often very slowly, as recent and current environmental disasters show; but sometimes quite rapidly when a particular problem is highly visible. To take just one simple instance, Christchurch very quickly developed a system of refuse transfer stations when the vast flocks of seagulls wheeling above its open refuse tip began to pose a threat to aircraft using the airport only a few hundred metres away. Of course, it was far from an ideal long term waste solution, but it showed that, given the prod, there can be action.

In the early days of farming and of New Zealand's other landbased industries , we saw nothing much wrong with practices that, in retrospect, were perfectly shameful. Those of you who are visiting Wellington for the first time will see, weather permitting, that the city's harbour is clean and sparkling, that it can even be fished. Yet just over 30 years ago, to drive all the way around this lovely body of water, you had to pass two different freezing works - freezing works being the local euphemism for a sheep or beef abattoir, coupled with chilling or freezing capacities - both of which dumped effluent straight into the water just a few metres out from shore. The Harbour's seagulls thought that this was marvellous. Most of the people, however, and I imagine almost all of the marine life, found the sight, and the smell, not nearly so attractive. And thankfully, all round New Zealand, industrial discharge standards have risen steadily since those odiferous days, and are certain to continue to rise. But we still have a long way to go in coming to terms with the problems that solid waste present us with. And in that, I am quite sure we in New Zealand are far from alone.

So recalling the way things used to be, and knowing something of the way they still are, it is indeed encouraging to see the topics that are to be covered during this conference - papers and seminars on topics such as cleaner production, waste minimisation, recycling, the rendering of hazardous waste less so, environmental remediation and reclamation.

Central to the whole issue of waste management must be the compelling need for waste minimisation; both in the production of what will become waste, and in achieving maximum utilisation of what has become waste. It is crucial for the health of the environment everywhere, indeed for the health of the world's people everywhere, that any lingering inclination to simply ignore the consequences of producing, and in effect stockpiling, solid waste in unlimited quantities is vigorously resisted. In the first place, it is surely far better to avoid producing waste any more than is absolutely necessary. I know that there are often competing interests here. Packaging, for instance, sustains a vast industry, but unless recycling is an option, much of it is waste, a problem simply transferred from one sector of the economy to another. One must hope that it will become increasingly recognised that the unnecessary production of waste is a sign that something is wrong; that there is an imbalance in the production and marketing process.

Stockpiling, by landfills, by dumping at sea, must certainly be seen as unsupportable options long term. Recycling is, to a significant extent, an obvious alternative. But here again there are competing interests. In New Zealand, our domestic milk supplies used to come in bottles, which could be reused hundreds of times. Nowadays, they come in cardboard or plastic, no doubt cheaper for the milk supplier, and profitable for the manufacturers of the containers, but at what cost in other respects? There is much thinking to be done if short term benefits are not to result in long term and even irretrievable loss. On the other hand, other forms of recycling may be more immediately beneficial, such as energy recovery, now being developed in many parts of the world. Cost may be a factor short term; but again it must be the long term benefit that should give the motivation.

The theme of this conference - Towards Sustainability - reminds us that we are still coming to terms with that objective, that ultimate goal, of finding a healthy balance between human wants and environmental needs. Some of our old ways of thinking, however, persist longer than others. So even though sustainability is increasingly accepted as the wise approach, its implications are still, on occasion, resisted. Sustainable development and sustainable management are still, after all, described as being 'ambiguous,' or 'paradoxical.'

Sustainability is a balancing act, an equilibrium. But such a poise is never to be found when people adopt positions that merely and utterly oppose someone else's; when people's extreme views just cancel someone else's out. While the concept of sustainability is simple in its essence, that both environmental and economic considerations are important, achieving their reconciliation can be a time-consuming and complex business. Reconciliation, co-operation to get to work on truly resolving an issue, can take place only when people listen and learn one from another, not while they try to speak across one another, not when one or other asserts claims of moral or intellectual superiority, particularly when they are based upon hard-line stands on such-and-such an environmental evil, or on such-and-such an economic good.

And of course, the basis of any resolution of difficult issues is knowledge; knowledge that is often gained through listening to the views of others, particularly the professionals in any field; those people who study complex issues in detail and over time. When it comes to a subject as important as what we must do to reduce problems associated with solid waste, you, obviously, are precisely the sort of people among whom this process can begin, and to whom the rest of us must listen with careful attention.

I am sure I speak on behalf of all New Zealanders in wishing you every success in this most important conference; as you seek to learn what your colleagues in solid waste management can teach you, and as you determine what you can teach us, the wider community. I wish you every success too, in getting your message across. We all have - or should have - a crucial interest in sustaining a healthy environment, both locally and globally. Though many may not realise it, the world's future is very much at stake in the kind of issues you will be dealing with. And may I express to the international delegates, the hope that as well as making new professional friends here at the conference itself, you will take this opportunity to tour the country and seem something of its natural wonders, and meet at least some of its people.

It is now my very great pleasure to declare the International Solid Waste Association World Conference for 1997, officially underway. Haere, haere, haere mai: welcome, welcome, you are three times welcome.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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