Lessons From Landfill

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity of working at a landfill carrying out a waste audit. The waste audits are done 6 monthly as requested by the landfill company. The audit was over 6 long, smelly yet enjoyable days. The consultant I was working with shared their in-depth understanding of the waste industry, having been involved for some two decades. The other workers also had interesting stories about waste to share, many of them having done these audits before, or having dumpster dived.

Me with a portion of the audited waste

The waste audit involved sorting approx. 200kg loads of rubbish that had just been delivered to the tip face. Materials were sorted in to categories, i.e. steel, textiles, green waste, timber, food waste, sanitary, paper, rubble, plastic, glass etc. We sorted over 60 loads of waste in total, which made for an impressive trash mountain at the end. The waste was coming from transfer stations and directly from registered companies, such as construction companies. For privacy and legal reasons I am not allowed to give details about the companies involved, the landfill I was working at and I was not allowed to take photos of the landfill.

I am so grateful for the learning experience and opportunity to see the processes operating at a landfill first hand. In saying that, it definitely wasn’t a glamourous job and I realised that I have a fairly high tolerance when it comes to gross things. From the week working there only one thing triggered my nausea reflex; human blood in a medical tube (I have a thing about needles drawing blood). That load was promptly dumped (and not by me)!

Here are my insights from my week sorting rubbish (plus some things I already knew)…

1. Construction/demolition waste is a huge issue: Especially in Auckland where there’s currently a major housing boom (trust me I know, I used to work in the Resource Consents department at Auckland Council). I wasn’t expecting to see that much timber heading to the landfill, it seemed such a waste. However I understand working with reclaimed materials is time consuming. Construction waste is even more apparent in areas that don’t have a huge Industry sector, such as Queenstown. Christchurch currently has the largest amount of waste going to landfill due to demolition/construction waste from the earthquakes.

2. The packaging industry is way more wasteful than I realised. All of that single use plastic packing we see in the supermarket is just the tip of the iceberg.  I was finding kilos of unused plastic packaging that had been tossed due to misprints or errors.

3. The Government needs to increase the waste levy. NZ’s current waste levy is a mere $10 per tonne.  Increasing the waste levy will mean people and companies will think twice about how to dispose of an item.  In the UK it costs 15 times more to send waste to landfills compared to NZ.  Material prices at the time determine how much is reclaimed, often if the market for a certain material is low then it is easier or even cheaper to dispose of that material at a landfill than recycling it.

5. Offices and households don’t recycle properly. I was really surprised by how much paper work from offices we were finding. Some of it was personal paperwork that could be tracked back to a specific company of person. Recycling isn’t that hard anymore, get recycling bins at your office. While you’re at it, learn how to properly recycle plastic, glass and cans. If you are based in Auckland, I recommend watching this video on recycling.

6. Soft plastics are prolific. While separating materials from each load the plastics bin was always popular. Soft plastic don’t weigh much, but they take up a lot of volume. The soft plastics that come from industry are massive, I’m talking 20Kg plus. Plus there’s all of that plastic packaging as well. These plastics last forever, yet how long were they used for? On average a plastic shopping bag is used for only 12 minutes.

7. Supermarkets and businesses waste a lot of food. I’ve mentioned food waste on my blog before so you will know it is an issue I am familiar with. It frustrates me seeing businesses disposing of food because it is too hard to rescue and redistribute. NZ needs to get on top of our food waste scandal, it’s truly heartbreaking to see kilos of food heading to a giant stinky hole in the ground when you know that people are going hungry. France has actually made it illegal to dump food waste, why can’t NZ do the same?

8. Textiles are becoming a growing problem. With fast fashion comes cheap clothes that don’t last long. As such the clothes head to the landfill quicker. A lot of the clothes we were finding were still in pretty decent condition, some were even brand new. The fashion industry is one of the most environmentally destructive industries, and most clothes these days are synthetic so they do not break down. I recommend watching the documentary  ‘The True Cost’ it explains the environmental and social costs of fast fashion. This video provides a brief look at the issue:

9. Second-hand shops don’t want your junk. I’m a huge advocate for shopping second hand and donating to charity shops. Minimalism and down-sizing are trending at the moment (I’m totally on this wave as well) so more people are donating their old things. However second hand stores are now getting inundated. We uncovered a few bags of items that had obviously be donated to a charity store. Please don’t burden secondhand stores with junk, donate generously and consider if you would buy that item secondhand. In saying that, I was surprised by some of the rejected items. Clothes that were in great condition were tossed because they were branded with a company logo. There was also a plethora of trinkets and books. Here are two great blog posts from Treading My Own Path and Gippsland Unwrapped respectively, about how to declutter with waste in mind.

10. The landfill landscape is constantly changing. Over my 6 days at the landfill I could already see the landscape had changed from when I first arrived. That isn’t surprising considering some several hundred tonnes of waste is dropped off at the tip face per day. There is a need to constantly move and compact the rubbish as it arrives to avoid taking up unnecessary airspace on this several hundred hectare property. There are some pretty serious procedures in place to ensure the landfill doesn’t harm the surrounding environment, and that the workers are kept safe. 

1 week of rubbish from Auckland alone fills a rugby field to the goal posts

Some of the more interesting items we found…

  • Unopened food
  • Money, yes I found $1.40!
  • A bowling ball
  • Unopened packets sanitary pads
  • Unopened 10 pack of undies from Australia
  • 25kg soft plastic bale
  • 10 kg bags of flour
  • Unopened chocolate bars
  • Unopened packets of biscuits
  • Homemade bongs
  • A flesh light
  • Family photos
  • Personal documents
  • Unused packaging from manufacturing
  • A fidget spinner (already!)
  • Several rolls of unopened toilet paper from a hotel
  • A painfully awkward love letter 
  • A working iPod
  • Bag of rejected items from the charity shop; clothes with logos, trinkets, ugly pants, old wallets
  • Wool insulation (that stuff is expensive and also compostable).

Even after working at the landfill for years the people working there are always collecting treasures. One part of the tip face always seemed to have really interesting items there, because the guys driving the machines would always spot these items and pile them up. The items didn’t seem to go anywhere, but they were ‘rescued’ regardless.

I hope to be given the opportunity to do another waste audit with the consultancy so I’ve tried my best to write an accurate description that isn’t full of negativity. As realistically, landfills are better than unauthorized dumps or trash ending up in the ocean. As such I have included some interesting blogs below for a different perspective and further readings.

For more information check out these blog posts:

Lastly, don’t forget that Plastic Free July starts tomorrow! If you are in NZ, join us for Plastic Free July Aotearoa, and while you’re at it join the Zero Waste in NZ Facebook Group.

Update: A new report about NZ’s waste levy was released a few days after I published this post. For more info on the waste levy click here.



  1. Inge   •  

    Thanks for this great post! Very interesting. How did you manage to join this waste audit? Where they looking for volunteers?

    • Amanda Chapman   •     Author

      Thanks Inge. Yes it was advertised through a community waste group so I jumped on board. Bonus: It was paid work! Including travel time days were about 10 hours long, so it was quite tiring, but I’d totally do it again!

  2. Liz   •  

    Great post Amanda. I’d love to do the same. Your #5 I think this is why I have mixed emotions when the Zero Waste movement is so hard on recycling. While curbside recycling is imperfect in a number of ways, I think that message contributes to apathy and distrust amongst the general public for recycling schemes, which means spotty participation, and as you’ve detailed, lots of wasted materials. If we were all recycling properly, we’d still have problems to solve, but we’d be closer to a circular economy at least.

    • Amanda Chapman   •     Author

      Thanks Liz, I totally agree. Recycling is not the answer but it’s a good place to start!

  3. Gemma   •  

    Hi do they sort through a lot of the rubbish and distribute it accordingly or does it continue down into landfill?

    • Amanda Chapman   •     Author

      It just goes all to landfill, we were only sorting & separating materials to do an audit. It all went back down the big hole afterward. There was a lot of recyclable and compostable material there unfortunately.

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