Part 11: Hazardous waste management in New Zealand

Central government: Results of the 2005/06 audits.

Hazardous waste poses a risk to people and the environment if it is not stored, transported, treated, or disposed of properly. Hazardous waste includes waste materials (liquids, gases, or solids) that are explosive, flammable, corrosive, toxic, radioactive, or infectious, and it comes from many sources (for example, households, industry, small businesses, school laboratories, and hospitals).

Hazardous waste management was the subject of a number of reports during the 1990s that noted a range of concerns about the hazardous waste management framework in place at the time. We considered it timely to review the progress that had been made in managing hazardous waste since those earlier reports.

Our review looked at:

  • the current legislative and policy framework and central government activity; and
  • local government activity.

Overall conclusions

The New Zealand approach to the management of hazardous waste has three distinct elements:

  • A number of Acts, regulations, and bylaws potentially apply, but no overarching legislation governs hazardous waste.
  • Our hazardous waste management system relies heavily on policy (largely in the form of strategies and guidelines) to inform, educate, and persuade local government, hazardous waste generators, and operators of treatment facilities to better manage hazardous waste.
  • Numerous parties are responsible for the management of hazardous waste.

These characteristics mean there are certain risks associated with the current management framework. These include:

  • potential for overlapping roles;
  • potential for the management of hazardous waste to be fragmented and inconsistent throughout the country;
  • lack of co-ordination between the various policies and programmes developed for managing hazardous waste; and
  • lack of reliable information on which to make decisions and evaluate performance, especially at the national level.

The issues for managing hazardous waste are well known, and have been for the past 15 years. Some action plans and work programmes have been identified to address or scope the issues further. It is timely for both central government and local government to resolve these issues with some urgency.


What is hazardous waste?

A waste is considered hazardous if it presents some degree of physical, chemical, or biological hazard to people or the environment.

A wide range of industries, commercial activities, and households generate hazardous waste. The types of waste also vary. For example, they include:

  • hazardous residues of waste material that may contaminate and persist in water and soil (for example, sludge from re-refining used oil that contains a variety of contaminants); and
  • hazardous residues that are released into the atmosphere as products of combustion (for example, dioxins).

Environmental effects of inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste

Like other types of waste, hazardous waste can be managed in a number of ways. It can be stored, treated to reduce hazardous properties, or disposed of.

In some cases, hazardous waste can be processed and disposed of at the place where it is generated. However, it usually needs to be transported to other places for further treatment or disposal.

While some hazardous waste is disposed of to landfills, the majority is disposed of to water through the wastewater treatment system. Hazardous waste can also be disposed of to the air through controlled incineration or direct emission into the atmosphere.

The State of New Zealand’s Environment report1 prepared in 1997 noted:

The scale of hazardous waste generation in New Zealand is only beginning to be understood. Potentially hazardous wastes are released into streams and estuaries from sewers and stormwater drains, into the air from chimneys and car exhausts, and onto land from many sources. An estimated 8 percent of the waste entering our landfills is potentially hazardous.

Landfills are the final receptacle for some hazardous waste, both treated and untreated. Generally, the lower the design and operating standard of a landfill, the greater the risk that hazardous waste residues will contaminate the environment and endanger staff working there and the public.

Some of the potential adverse effects of inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste to landfills include:

  • emissions to the atmosphere of gases from waste deposited in the landfill (there may be fire and other associated risks);
  • contamination caused by hazardous waste products leaching into soil, groundwater, and surface water at the landfill and surrounding areas; and
  • dust emissions to the atmosphere through wind-blown particles.

Previous reviews of hazardous waste management

Hazardous waste management was the subject of various reports during the 1990s.2 These reports noted a number of concerns about the hazardous waste management framework in operation at the time. Most of these concerns related to the lack of basic building blocks for an effective hazardous waste management framework. The reports noted the lack of:

  • a clear and consistently used definition of hazardous waste;
  • incentives to reduce hazardous waste at its source; and
  • reliable information on quantities of hazardous waste disposed of (and to where).

These reports also highlighted capacity and capability issues within local government in terms of the ability of staff to manage hazardous waste. They also identified inconsistencies in how local authorities classified and managed hazardous waste.

The current legislative and policy framework – central government activity

New Zealand’s hazardous waste management framework is based on a mix of legislation and regulation, policy (largely in the form of strategies and guidelines), and non-regulatory methods (such as best practice guidelines, public awareness activities, and voluntary programmes and partnerships). While legislation and regulation are tools that are widely used to achieve improved environmental outcomes, non-regulatory methods also play an important role in changing behaviour.

Resource Management Act 1991

The Resource Management Act 1991 (the RMA) provides the legal structure for environmental management and policy. Its purpose is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.

However, the RMA does not directly address waste management (including reducing the amount of waste produced). If there are no adverse effects, or the effects of waste production and disposal are mitigated, the RMA cannot require waste to be reduced through consents or rules within a regional or district plan. Rather, it controls the environmental effects of waste management facilities through local policy, plans, and consent procedures. In this role, the RMA exercises influence over waste disposal facilities, and has helped improve the standards of landfills and wastewater treatment plants. The RMA also provides for the development of national policy statements and for the setting of national environmental standards, which can be relevant to managing and minimising hazardous waste.

The RMA also provides for rules (which have the effect of a regulation) to be included by regional authorities in their regional plans and by territorial authorities in their district plans. In both instances, if the rule is inconsistent with a regulation, the regulation will prevail.

These rules may require a resource consent to be obtained for any activity that causes, or that is likely to cause, adverse effects not covered by the plan.

The RMA also provides for territorial authorities to control uses of land by district plan rules and conditions on land use consents. This enables territorial authorities to control activities that are likely to involve generating, storing, or disposing of hazardous waste on land (including on the surface of water in lakes and rivers).

Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996

The purpose of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (the HSNO Act) is to protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities, by preventing or managing the adverse effects of hazardous substances and new organisms. Broadly, the HSNO Act establishes nationwide performance-based requirements by regulating all hazardous substances (including their disposal), based on the degree of hazard of each substance. These controls apply to all users in all places.

The HSNO Act also provides for group standards that allow for obligations and restrictions to be imposed on an identified group of hazardous substances or products (including waste products or manufactured by-products that incorporate or include a hazardous substance). Compliance requirements will apply to a group by way of conditions, which may cover the storage, transport, and disposal of the hazardous waste.

Other legislation

There are numerous other pieces of legislation that deal with some aspects of hazardous waste management.

This legislation includes the:

  • Local Government Acts of 1974 and 2002;
  • Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act 1997, which prevents or manages risks (to trade in primary produce, animal welfare, and agricultural security) associated with the use of agricultural compounds (for example, herbicides, fungicides, and 1080 and cyanide poisons);
  • Building Act 2004, which states that building work is to be constructed to the standards of the Building Code (this includes minimising the risks of hazardous waste substances);
  • Civil Aviation Act 1990, which promotes safe air transport, including transporting hazardous or dangerous goods;
  • Customs and Excise Act 1996, which provides for New Zealand Customs Service controls at the border (this covers border movements of hazardous waste);
  • Environment Act 1986, which ensures that the management of natural and physical resources takes account of their sustainability and the values of ecosystems (this includes considering the adverse effects of hazardous waste);
  • Fire Service Act 1975, which protects life and property from fire and other emergencies, including those involving hazardous substances and waste;
  • Gas Act 1992, which provides for the regulation, supply, and use of gas – a hazardous substance;
  • Health Act 1956, which aims to improve, promote, and protect public health (this includes knowing about the adverse effects of hazardous waste); and
  • Land Transport Act 1998.

Policy framework and other guidance

The hazardous waste management framework in New Zealand incorporates a variety of policy mechanisms. For example:

  • national policy statements, which can guide subsequent decision-making under the RMA at the national, regional, and district levels;
  • regional policy statements and regional plans, prepared by regional authorities;
  • strategic policy directions – for example, the Hazardous Waste Management Programme (a three-year programme announced by the Minister for the Environment in 1997) and the New Zealand Waste Strategy (a national waste management strategy developed jointly by the Ministry for the Environment (the Ministry) and Local Government New Zealand, which was launched in March 2002);
  • a policy framework released by the Ministry in December 2005, guiding future policy development and identifying current policy gaps, which has recently been updated; and
  • Ministry guidance on aspects of hazardous waste management, including landfill waste acceptance criteria and record keeping.

Discussion and conclusions

Legislative and policy framework

While the legislative framework for hazardous waste is complex, we are not convinced that it is comprehensive. The RMA does not directly address hazardous waste management, but rather controls the environmental effects of waste management facilities through local policy, plans, and consent procedures.

In future, changes to the HSNO Act3 may address managing the storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous waste. The HSNO Act now provides for group standards that could be used as a means of attaching compliance requirements to hazardous waste (over storage, transportation, and disposal). The Ministry advised us that the Environmental Risk Management Authority intended to produce group standards covering hazardous waste by the end of 2006. It is therefore too early to comment on the effect that these standards will have. These standards will be in addition to existing RMA controls on appropriate disposal.

Other Acts, regulations, and bylaws also regulate some aspects of hazardous waste. The current legislation and regulatory arrangements for hazardous waste are therefore complicated, and do not provide a clear framework to manage hazardous waste.

One of the objectives of the New Zealand Waste Strategy was to review the institutional and legislative arrangements to ensure a sound base for implementation of the Strategy. The Ministry was to report on the progress of this review by January 2003. The hazardous waste stocktake that developed into the hazardous waste policy framework fulfilled the objective of a review for hazardous waste.

We are concerned that central government is not using the current legislative framework to the best advantage, in that it has not yet made full use of some provisions contained in existing legislation. For example, responsibility for environmental management and policy has been largely devolved to local authorities, which are responsible for achieving environmental standards that are suited to their communities and that address the specific needs of their communities. However, the lack of national policy statements and national environmental standards makes it difficult for local authorities to gauge how local environmental initiatives compare nationally and, from a national point of view, whether the local environment management initiatives are at least providing a minimum level of protection of public health and the environment.

In response to the target set in the New Zealand Waste Strategy of establishing an “integrated and comprehensive” national hazardous waste policy covering the reduction, transportation, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste by December 2005, the Ministry released its policy framework in December 2005. The framework provides a good benchmark in that it identifies the policy elements that have been completed and those that are still under development. To get maximum benefit from a policy framework of this sort, the Ministry will need to ensure that it:

  • completes the elements that are still under development;
  • monitors local government and industry compliance with the framework; and
  • assesses the effectiveness of the framework to guide future policy development.

Lack of information

A significant issue is the lack of information about the quantities and types of hazardous waste produced, and how this waste is being disposed of. This also means that there is not enough information to monitor the effectiveness of the hazardous waste management system at both the local level and national levels.

The effectiveness of the hazardous waste management system must be monitored to ensure that it is achieving the desired results.

In conjunction with other agencies, the Ministry has tried various initiatives during the past 10 years to monitor the state of the environment. However, none of these initiatives has been pursued on a permanent basis.

The Ministry has recently begun implementing environmental standards. We consider that it would be difficult to establish whether the standards are comprehensive and whether they have been set at the appropriate level without the state of the environment being monitored.

Development of the hazardous waste management framework (through standard-setting and other mechanisms provided by legislation) and monitoring the effectiveness of the framework need to occur together. For example, the New Zealand Waste Strategy contains targets for reducing the amount of hazardous waste, but the Ministry is not able to determine whether improvements are occurring because there is not enough baseline data.


Effective policy development and monitoring require reliable information on the types and quantities of hazardous waste generated and disposed of.

We are pleased to note that the Ministry is looking at introducing a system for tracking hazardous waste called WasteTRACK. This is a web-based system that tracks waste from generation to final disposal.

Local authorities have told us that, in their view, voluntary systems will not allow the collection of data that accurately represent the volumes and types of hazardous waste produced, treated, and disposed of within their region. Some local authorities consider that generators of waste who do not record the quantities and types of hazardous waste they produce are more likely to require compliance testing. However, the WasteTRACK system, because of its voluntary nature, is unlikely to identify such generators of waste.

Record-keeping and recording rates will not improve, nor become established practice, while they remain voluntary. The Ministry has advised us that trade waste bylaws and group standards are two mechanisms by which tracking of certain hazardous waste can be made compulsory.

We consider that, in addition to undertaking tracking, waste generators need to be better educated about hazardous waste, in that tracking will not necessarily fix the problem of waste generators being unaware that they are producing hazardous waste. Waste generators need to understand what hazardous waste is in order to track it.

The Ministry has advised us that it is still working with local authorities and industry on data collection (focused on solid waste disposal) through the Solid Waste Analysis Protocol4 and other audit tools. Although the Ministry is confident that this collaborative approach will provide data on general waste, it may not provide data on hazardous waste, given that hazardous waste is only a small percentage of the total waste and is predominantly disposed of as trade waste.

Local government activity

Local government, made up of regional and territorial authorities, has an important role in the hazardous waste management framework.

Broadly, the role of regional authorities is to:

  • prepare regional policy statements and regional plans that establish objectives, policies, and rules controlling the discharge of contaminants into the environment, and monitor and enforce those rules; and
  • grant resource consents for the discharge of contaminants, and monitor the conditions of those consents.

Broadly, the role of territorial authorities is to:

  • prepare district plans that establish objectives, policies, and rules controlling the effects of uses of land, and monitor and enforce those rules;
  • grant resource consents for uses of land, and monitor the conditions of those consents;
  • make bylaws regulating the deposit, collection, and transportation of waste, and also charge for the use of waste facilities provided, owned, or operated by them; and
  • prepare waste management plans.

Regional policy statements

The RMA provides for regional councils to produce regional policy statements, and sets out what the regional policy statements must include. The RMA requires regional policy statements to give effect to national policy statements. However, apart from the coastal policy statement, no national policy statements have been issued.

Joint regional initiatives

Some regional and territorial authorities are working, or have worked, on joint strategies to improve the management of hazardous waste in their regions and districts. Currently, the main initiatives are still focused on collecting and disposing of hazardous waste. Territorial authorities, either independently or as a joint initiative with other local authorities, provide for either a periodic collection or a drop-off facility for disposing of household hazardous waste. However, hazardous waste – for example, paint – is recycled where possible.

Rules and resource consents

The RMA prohibits the discharge of contaminants into the environment (unless the discharge is expressly allowed by a rule in a regional plan, resource consent, or regulations), and hazardous waste may be classed as a contaminant.5

The RMA also has provisions for hazardous waste substances. It provides for regional authorities to control the use of land and territorial authorities to control any actual or potential effects of using, developing, or protecting land, including for the purpose of preventing or mitigating any adverse effects of storing, using, disposing of, or transporting hazardous substances.

The effectiveness of the rule-making process is determined by the quality of the regional and district plans. We were therefore concerned to note that the Ministry prepared a Cabinet paper in September 2004 that reported:

  • Most, but not all, regional councils had regional plans.
  • The quality of these plans varied considerably.
  • Some local authorities had spent a lot of time producing detailed plans that did not provide certainty or the environmental outcomes desired by the community, and were difficult to interpret or did not reduce the need for consent applications.
  • Fewer than half of the district plans required to be produced under the RMA had been completed and were operational.


The RMA requires every local authority to monitor and keep records on:

  • the state of the environment, to the extent necessary for the local authority to carry out its RMA functions;
  • the effectiveness and efficiency of policies, rules, or other methods in its policy statement or its plan; and
  • the exercise of the resource consents that have an effect in its region or district and, where necessary, to take appropriate action.

We understand that some local authorities (for example, Auckland Regional Council, Environment Bay of Plenty, and Environment Waikato) have conducted surveys to determine how much hazardous waste is being generated in their regions.

Discussion and conclusion

New Zealand has adopted a hazardous waste management system that relies heavily on policy, and gives local authorities a wide degree of autonomy to develop “local solutions for local needs”. We were therefore not surprised to find different approaches to managing hazardous waste within local government. While different approaches are acceptable, we note that, because of the lack of an overall national framework, local authorities give different priority to hazardous waste management depending on their particular circumstances. For example, some local authorities are energetically managing hazardous waste, whereas others – for a variety of reasons (for example, lack of resources, knowledge, or expertise) – have much scope to improve their performance.

Establishing joint strategies and initiatives between regional and territorial authorities is one way in which hazardous waste management can be improved at a local level. We saw examples of, and encourage, this type of co-operation.

At a local level, the RMA gives regional and territorial authorities wide powers to make rules (which have the force and effect of regulations) through their regional and district plans. However, it does not require those plans to address waste management in general and hazardous waste management in particular, apart from requiring the plans to state the local authority responsible for specifying the objectives, policies, and methods for controlling the use of land to prevent or mitigate the adverse effects of storing, using, disposing of, or transporting hazardous substances. The RMA covers only hazardous waste substances and the environmental effects of the release of contaminants (which may include hazardous waste). The RMA has no mechanisms that would avoid or minimise the creation of hazardous waste.

There needs to be rigorous monitoring to ensure that objectives, policies, and rules set out in the regional and district plans are actually operating effectively, and, if not, that the policies can be developed so that this does happen.

We note that the definition of hazardous waste drafted by the Ministry6 should address previous concerns about a wide range of definitions being adopted and applied among local authorities. The lack of a national definition was identified as a major weakness of the hazardous waste management system in New Zealand in a number of earlier reports. For example, in 2002, the Ministry noted:7

Current definitions of hazardous waste are done at a local level, and vary significantly throughout the country. Some wastes that are typically regarded as hazardous are labelled “special wastes” and continue to be disposed of in unlined refuse dumps. Liquid hazardous wastes are often tipped into stormwater drains, or dumped to sewer without a discharge permit.

A national definition should ensure that hazardous waste is managed more consistently by local authorities. It will also mean that data on the type and quantities of hazardous waste collected will be comparable between local authorities as well as within the same local authority over time.

However, we consider that the draft definition alone will not decrease the likelihood that hazardous waste generators will unwittingly release hazardous waste or contaminants into the environment. Several studies undertaken in New Zealand suggest that a number of hazardous waste generators have a poor understanding of what hazardous waste is (especially in smaller industries).

Local authorities will need to educate waste generators about:

  • the composition of the waste they produce;
  • regional and district plan conditions; and
  • resource consent requirements.

Ongoing information on both the type and quantity of hazardous waste produced is critical to the effective management of hazardous waste. Local authorities need to consider how best they can capture trends and data on hazardous waste volumes.

1: The State of New Zealand’s Environment, Ministry for the Environment, 1997, ISBN 0-478-09000-5,

2: OECD Environmental Performance Reviews – New Zealand, 1996, “Conclusions and recommendations, New Zealand”, available on; Review of Overseas Approaches to the Management and Landfilling of Hazardous Waste, Volumes 1 & 2, 1997 – a study of hazardous waste management in five overseas countries, commissioned by the Ministry for the Environment; Hazardous waste management, 1998, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment – see the reports section of

3: The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (Approvals and Enforcement) Amendment Act 2005, which came into effect on 22 December 2005.

4: Ministry for the Environment, 2002.

5: A contaminant is defined as any substance (including gases, liquids, and solids) that, when discharged either by itself or in combination with other substances, is likely to change the physical, chemical, or biological condition of the land, water, or air onto or into which it is discharged.

6: Module 1 of the Ministry for the Environment’s guidance for managing hazardous waste at

7: Ministry for the Environment, Policy Instruments for Waste Management in New Zealand – A Background Document to Implementation of the New Zealand Waste Strategy, 30 September 2002.

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