News | 5 February 2024
Share on social

The tale of Wellington's recycling history

Back in the 1840s, there was no public collection of rubbish so waste gathered outside homes and businesses and littered the streets. Rubbish collections were eventually introduced to the city and in the 1970s recycling was too. With recycling standardisation being introduced across New Zealand in February 2024, read about Wellington's rubbish and recycling track record.

Archive image of the destructor in Wellington Harbour.
Corporation Yard and the Destructor from Clyde Quay, circa 1910. Wellington City Council Archives, 00138-13462.

The Destructor 

In 1888, Mayor Samuel Brown officially opened the first ‘Destructor’ at what is now Waitangi Park in central Wellington.  

Around the same time, Wellington City Council employed scavengers to clean the streets. Scavengers drove horse drawn carts, collecting the refuse from around the city. The carts were driven to the Destructor, and their contents burned.  

The destructor in clyde quay wharf.
View of the Corporation Yard and chimney stacks of the Destructor, with dwellings on the lower slopes of Mount Victoria in the background. Wellington City Council Archives, 00138-8602.

In 1908 a second Destructor was built with the capacity to burn 20,000 tonnes of rubbish a year!  

The Destructor also powered Wellington’s sewerage system with the steam generated by the furnaces. Long story short – the Destructor was not the answer to Wellington’s waste issues due to several factors including; increasing costs, the sewerage system’s transition to electricity, and the move to bury rubbish instead of burning it.

By 1939, the use of the Destructor had declined dramatically, and by 1946, the operation had completely stopped. 

Internal view of the old Destructor from the Wellington waterfront with workmen.
The interior view of the Destructor in 1908, showing the furnaces and workmen. Wellington City Council Archives, 00138-2162.

Kerbside recycling as we know it 

Throughout the 1960s the public grew more and more concerned about the issue of waste, with the issue of pollution becoming a national political matter for the first time. In the 1970s recycling became a priority for environmental activists who campaigned on reducing and reusing waste.  

By the early 1990s, kerbside recycling became common practice around New Zealand and by 2006 around 75 percent of New Zealanders had access to it. In Wellington there were a few bumps at the beginning, with some suburbs recycling being left out for a week before it got collected.  

Despite the shaky start, kerbside recycling was on its way to become the system we know today! By January 1994 Robin Darling, the Council’s customer service manager, said that more than 70 percent of people in the northern suburbs were using the recycling scheme.  

City Voice publication.
Wellington City Council’s Kerbside recycling programme ad in the City Voice publication, 20th November 1997.

This brings us to the 21st century. In recent years we have seen some major developments including Wellington City Council’s adoption of  He anamata para kore mō Pōneke, a zero waste future for Wellington, our strategy for creating a zero waste city.

Some of the strategy’s targets include reducing kerbside waste per capita by 40 percent, reducing total waste to landfill by 50 percent, and diverting 50 to 70 percent of organic waste from the landfill  all by 2030.   

It’s hoped the standardisation of recycling across the country will help with that – as now we all know exactly what to recycle and how – no matter where we are.  

There’ll be no difference to recycling in Wellington City now that nationwide recycling standards have kicked in. Wellington City Council has been keeping tabs on the changes, and has made sure any updates to our kerbside recycling has been in line with what’s been coming. 

If you need a hand to recycle right, check out our website.