Story: Sewage, water and waste

Page 9. Air pollution

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Air pollution began early in the first New Zealand cities, mainly from burning coal for domestic and industrial use, but also from burning waste and as a by-product of certain industries that produced noxious gases. Burning domestic rubbish in backyard incinerators was a weekly or fortnightly ritual. In winter, cities and towns had palls of smoke. Respiratory diseases were common in towns from the 1860s.

There was little in the way of town planning until the Town Planning Act 1926. Following an amendment to this act in 1953, town planners increasingly used land zoning (separating industrial and residential areas) to minimise problems like smoke from factories and smell from slaughterhouses. Zoning changed the shape of cities yet it did not address the source of the problem.

Industrial air pollution was bad in all main centres. Campaigning to clean up the air did not begin seriously until the 1960s, starting in Christchurch, which was worst affected by smog. The Clean Air Act 1972 attempted to control industrial pollution by issuing licences for permissible emission levels, and led to more monitoring of air pollution in major centres. Local authorities were able to create clean air zones, and this was done in Christchurch. The act formed the legal basis for slow attempts to reduce pollution from domestic as well as industrial sources.


By the 1960s emissions from the rapidly increasing numbers of private motor vehicles were also a problem. Lead was first added to petrol to improve engine performance in the 1920s. By the 1970s lead emissions from cars had become a major urban pollutant, with children especially vulnerable. A campaign to remove lead from petrol was started by Friends of the Earth New Zealand in 1980. Phasing out of lead in petrol started in 1986 and took a decade to complete.

Costs of pollution

A 2007 study estimated that each year urban air pollution was causing around 1,100 premature deaths, 1,500 extra cases of bronchitis and related illnesses, 700 extra hospital admissions, and 1.9 million days when air pollution restricted people’s activity. It estimated the total cost at $1.14 billion per year.

Water, waste and recycling, early 2000s

In the early 2000s supplying clean water and disposing of waste safely remained a problem for New Zealand cities – as much as in the late 1800s. The same methods of supply and disposal – pipe it in and out, cart it away and dump it – were being used, with some diversion to recycling and municipal composting. The eco-design of buildings and urban areas so waste and water are not pulled in and pushed out, but natural resources are constantly regenerated on site instead, is one future option. But in the early 2000s the 19th-century model just went on getting bigger and more complex.

How to cite this page:

Christine Dann, 'Sewage, water and waste - Air pollution', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Christine Dann, published 11 Mar 2010