Does New Zealand need a Waste-to-Energy plant?


Runtime - 8:59

SIRRL director Paul Taylor says he got behind the idea of a Waste-to-Energy plant because, “as a farmer, I’m a caretaker of the land.”

Project Kea is an initiative from South Island Resource Recovery Limited (SIRRL) to build the first Waste-to-Energy plant in New Zealand. The proposed site for the plant is near the Glenavy township in Waimate.

“Waste-to-Energy is about the conversion of non-recyclable materials into various practical forms of energy,” Taylor explains. It sounds appealing: instead of shoving New Zealanders’ waste into landfill, such a plant could burn our waste at high temperatures, producing valuable energy.

So why are more than 150 Waimate locals against SIRRL’s proposed Waste-to-Energy plant?

“There is no doubt that, in terms of absolute risk, this plant raises the stakes,” says Dr. Crispin Langston, a Waimate GP.

“In South London, around the Edmonton plant (also known as Edmonton EcoPark), there’s an increased incidence of cancers and birth defects, and these have been attributed to the plant.” Greenpeace have previously staged protests at the Edmonton plant to “stop the facility emitting cancer causing chemicals.”

But according to Taylor, Project Kea will incorporate new technology which is much safer than older technologies. “Dioxins were a major issue. As I understand it: now, dioxins are handled very comfortably within the processing system.”

“My concern,” replies Langston, “is that it’s technology. And technologies always fail at some point.”

“Why have they chosen Waimate?” Robert Ireland – artist and spokesperson for Why Waste Waimate – asks. “They want to truck the waste from all around the South Island, mostly from Christchurch, incinerate it, and truck the residue ash away again. It’ll be 134 heavy truck and trailer movements per day.”

Taylor explains: “[Waimate is] an area that’s centrally located to waste throughout the South Island. It’s intended that we will move upwards of 50% by rail, if possible.”

In March 2023, members of Why Waste Waimate took to the streets to protest the proposed plant.

“Since SIRRL have come here and pitched their proposal, they haven’t really acknowledged us,” says Ireland.

“They were not readily engaging with the local community,” agrees Langston. “So the local doctors, five of us, got together and wrote an open letter [about health risks of the proposed plant].”

“We went to discuss the project initially,” Taylor says. “We didn’t have a piece of land at that stage, and we hadn’t prepared all of our technical reports. That process took a long time, so it was a long time before we returned to the community.”

“At one of the meetings,” Ireland says, “Mr. Taylor was asked: If the Waimate community showed that we didn’t want the incinerator, would [SIRRL] leave town? And his response was: ‘They’ll get to like it.’”

Langston believes that New Zealand does not have a severe enough waste crisis to require building an incinerator. “There are countries that have a true waste crisis, where they have to send waste offshore. But that’s not the case here.”

Niki Bould, a Dunedin-based sustainability consultant and waste expert, agrees. “We do need to make change, in terms of what we’re all buying, consuming and throwing away. But it is changing. I’ve been working in this space for years, and I can see that.”

Bould points to Waimate’s four-bin system as an example of Kiwi councils working hard to encourage recycling and reduce residual waste.

Taylor acknowledges the efforts being made to increase recycling. But, he says, there will always be residual waste, “albeit in smaller volumes,” and the question is what to do with it.

“We do not have the population in New Zealand to sustain massive burning machines,” says Bould. “To keep the energy coming [out of the plant], we would have to feed it.

“Where are we going to get all that waste from? It just means we’re going to have to encourage people to waste, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

In late 2022, SIRRL applied for resource consent for the Project Kea waste-to-energy plant. They were rejected twice due to a lack of environmental and cultural impact information. They have since appealed, and, on May 15, it was decided that their application will enter the system.

So: how do Taylor and Ireland summarise their thoughts about Project Kea?

“I’m pretty passionate about this,” says Taylor of his company’s initiative. “I think it’s the right thing for New Zealand.”

“We need to be designing waste out of our lives,” says Robert Ireland. “Not creating another market for it.”

Producer/Director: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Tracey Jury
Online Editor: Andy Johnson
Researcher/Writer: Nicole Phillipson
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design and Mix: Chris Sinclair

Architect’s drawings of proposed plant provided by SIRRL
LondonWaste EcoPark photograph by John Davies, CC BY-SA 2.0
“Action at Edmonton Incinerator in London” photograph © Greenpeace / Nick Cobbing