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  • We all throw away rubbish, we all produce waste – items we decide we cannot use any more. This may be anything from food wrappers to clothes and furniture.

    In New Zealand, there is a strong sustainability network of people, communities and industries working towards a different system – a system that has a focus on the end life of products produced and ensuring the life cycles of materials are maximised. We call this system a circular economy. It provides a different way of thinking about the production of products and services. Most products produced presently are part of a ‘take-make-waste’ linear model.

    One person's trash is another person's treasure.

    Even in a circular economy, waste streams are inevitable – so what happens to the ‘stuff’ that has come to the end of its usable life?


    New Zealand generates almost 2.5 million tonnes of waste each year that is buried in landfill sites. Decades ago, landfills were large open holes in the ground, normally on the outskirts of urban areas. People would take their rubbish to these sites and dump it. When landfill sites reached capacity, they were covered with soil and reinstated into vegetation. In some cases, historical landfill sites now have extensive urban housing development on them.

    Now local refuse stations are where we take the waste that is not picked up by roadside collections. From there, it is sorted, and what cannot be repurposed is trucked to a landfill along with the roadside collected rubbish.

    The problem with old landfill designs

    Over the last 30 years, landfills have undergone major advancements in design, management and monitoring. We’ve moved from an open landfill system to using closed systems.

    When it rains on open landfills, water percolates through the waste. As it moves through, it becomes contaminated with suspended and dissolved material, forming leachate. If this is not contained, it can contaminate groundwater.

    Old landfills are not contained and are considered a hazard Many of these are scattered across New Zealand, and events such as flooding or earthquakes can compromise them and cause significant environmental damage. Examples of these events include the Fox Glacier landfill in 2019 and a landfill near Te Araroa in 2020.

    Regulations now require waste to be sorted into four main waste streams of:

    • cleanfill
    • municipal – household solid waste landfill
    • industrial waste landfill
    • hazardous waste landfill or hazardous waste containment facility.

    This system ensures the management of the waste is matched to the waste stream held in specific landfill sites.

    New municipal landfill sites containing our general household waste are now regulated to be closed systems. This system ensures new landfill sites use impermeable liners, made up of a thick compacted sub-base of clay overlayed with a geosynthetic clay liner and then lined with a synthetic flexible membrane. They also have collection systems to contain and capture leachate. Once a landfill site or cell is full, it is sealed off to prevent rainwater from moving through the landfill and forming leachate. The ground around landfills must be tested for leachate to ensure any breaches of the liner are identified, and action is taken to prevent pollutants from contaminating groundwater.

    General waste landfill gases

    New general waste landfills have larger air-filled spaces between objects. Oxygen in the air space is used by microorganisms in a cellular process called respiration, and carbon dioxide is released. The microorganisms break down organic matter, like food or paper. As the landfill gets fuller and more compacted, oxygen is used up and the deeper sections of the landfill become anaerobic (without oxygen). Some microorganisms are able to respire in anaerobic conditions and continue to break down organic matter. This anaerobic process produces the methane that is found in mature landfill gas. This gas is able to be captured and used to fuel numerous other innovative initiatives.

    Nature of science

    Over time, as our understanding about environmental impacts changes, science and technology ideas develop together as our understanding and knowledge grows. New innovations are tested and implemented to improve or mitigate environmental impacts.

    Related content

    Discover more about Waste management in New Zealand.

    Building Science Concepts: Rubbish has information on the science concepts that underpin student understanding about how we classify materials, alternative conceptions about rubbish and a curation of resources about this topic.

    These Science Learning Hub resources are designed for teachers exploring recycling and biodegradability in their teaching and learning programmes.

    Activity ideas

    These activities look at the issue of waste in our local environments: Looking at modern landfill systems (this includes the interactive Modern landfill systems) and Label the landfill.

    Thinking about landfills is a ready-to-use cross-curricular student worksheet for NZC levels 4–5. It does not require internet access – making it suitable for students working away from a school setting.

      Published 17 August 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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