May 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Our waste policy is rubbish

By Alex McKinnon
Has Australia’s ad-hoc approach to waste management backfired?

In 2017, the Chinese government introduced “National Sword”, a policy restricting the kinds of recyclable materials the country will accept from overseas. Western nations long used to treating the developing world as a dumping ground were caught off guard. In Australia and elsewhere, domestic recycling industries had been allowed to run down in favour of shipping waste cheaply to China. Now that option was off the table, and governments were forced to confront growing piles of trash they had no idea what to do with.

The thought that the bins might not get picked up has sent media outlets into overdrive. Headlines warn of the impending collapse of kerbside recycling. In March this year, contractor Wheelie Waste suspended collection of household bins in two central Victorian council shires, prompting the state government to release a $13 million temporary funding boost to keep garbage trucks rolling. A week later, a federal Senate inquiry hearing into the waste and recycling industry heard that New South Wales was “four to eight weeks behind” Victoria’s crisis point. The NSW state government announced its own $47 million relief package soon after.

Ever-growing mountains of waste and overflowing council bins make vivid images, but they’re only one symptom of a desperate sector hamstrung by almost a decade of policy inaction and dysfunction. The National Waste Policy, agreed upon by state, federal and territory governments in 2009, has languished for years, devoid of funding or attention. Instead, states and territories have gone it alone, resulting in a bewildering patchwork of regulations, policies and programs that create as many problems as they try to solve.

The waste and recycling industry has long warned that Australia’s ad hoc approach to waste management would backfire. Waste collection and recycling is typically seen as a state issue, or one that comes under the local-government mantra of “roads, rates and rubbish”. But without the federal government providing heft and direction, even popular and well-known waste reduction policies can wilt due to opposition from vested interests, or simply come unstuck. In February, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian was forced to admit that the state’s Return and Earn container-refund scheme, offering 10-cent refunds for returned drink containers, has encountered “major teething problems”, mainly due to a lack of collection points across the state.

The botched rollout prompted the Queensland government to push back its own container-refund scheme from July to November, to better learn from New South Wales’s mistakes. Western Australia’s planned container-refund scheme, which starts next year, is facing stiff opposition from brewers, who have warned that the price of beer may go up by $5 a carton.

Even if all three schemes eventually pan out, they will simply create another ludicrous inconsistency reminiscent of pre-Federation rail gauges. People will be able to redeem soft-drink cans and beer bottles in Albury, but not across the Murray River in Wodonga. When Victoria’s pledge to ban single-use plastic bags is ratified, the bags will be off limits in Wodonga, but not in Albury.

The lack of a consistent national approach has seen Australia develop the bad habit of shipping its trash to the nearest place that will take it without asking too many questions, often relying on unscrupulous operators to do the dirty work. Where recyclables such as cardboard and glass bottles were shipped to China for processing, repurposing and selling on as new products or raw materials, in recent years non-redeemable waste (including plastic, concrete and hazardous material) has made its way to Queensland. The former Liberal National Party government’s slashing of red and green tape has turned the Sunshine State into a de facto national tip.

It’s a phenomenon most visible in the south-eastern city of Ipswich, where a grey market in interstate garbage dumping has thrived since the LNP scrapped a $35-per-tonne waste levy in 2012. The economics of driving a truckload of trash from Sydney to Ipswich and dumping it for free, rather than paying the $138-per-tonne levy New South Wales imposes on city waste, encouraged legally murky operators to cart more than 900,000 tonnes of Sydney’s trash up the Pacific Highway in the 2016–17 financial year. Besides turning the old coalmines on Ipswich’s outskirts into giant landfills, the trucks making the journey north have further congested traffic on the Pacific Highway and caused several serious accidents.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has promised to bring back the levy, but the problem extends beyond generalised landfill. Robert Kelman, executive officer of the Australian Tyre Recyclers Association, told the federal Senate inquiry that Queensland’s lack of regulation encourages rogue operators to buy old industrial sites, fill them with up to a million used tyres, and “get their cousin to set them alight one night”. In Kelman’s words, “Queensland is our basket case.”

If Queensland does get its act together, the black market will simply move on to the next jurisdiction with a light touch, either domestically or overseas. The inquiry heard anecdotes of medical waste being trucked from Western Australia to Victoria, and of fire crews in the Victorian town of Stawell being dispatched to guard massive piles of tyres during summer to prevent waste fires. Many of the 56 million used tyres Australia produces in a year are baled for export to countries with lax environmental standards, potentially spreading diseases around the globe due to the ideal breeding environment tyres provide for mosquitoes.

The Australian National Waste Report 2016, prepared for the Department of the Environment and Energy, shows Australians have a genuine desire for a responsible and sustainable waste and recycling system. People are recycling more and wasting less. We generated the equivalent of 565 kilograms of waste per capita in 2014–15, down from 620 kilograms in 2006–07. And the high recovery rate of household paper and cardboard waste shows Australians are fairly diligent if recycling is made easy, clear and mandatory. Educational campaigns like those run by the ABC’s War on Waste have helped clear up confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, and have prompted people to action.

But the report’s fine print exposes the inadequacy of relying on individual consumers to do the heavy lifting of recycling themselves. Without government policy to guide behaviour, good material is wasted as misconceptions, uncertainty and laziness take over.

The catch-all nature of the household bin that goes to the kerb means people typically mix organic waste with other types of garbage, making it more difficult for processing facilities to salvage useful materials. While many of us obediently put empty jars and bottles into yellow recycling bins, the waste-sorting process often breaks these into unusable pieces, contaminating other potential recyclables, and posing a health and safety hazard to workers.

As a result, municipal kerbside collection is the least environmentally friendly method of waste disposal, with only 51 per cent of council-collected garbage being put to use. The lack of a uniform domestic approach also creates huge disparities in how well different states and territories manage household garbage. South Australia recovers almost three quarters of its municipal waste, while Tasmania recovers less than 40 per cent.

That lack of consistency also helps explain why Australia lags so far behind comparable nations. Austrians produce roughly the same amount of household waste per capita, but recover 94 per cent of it. Germans, Swedes, Danes and Luxembourgers produce far more, but recover between 87 and 100 per cent.

Like any other sector, the recycling industry needs certainty: a reliable stream of raw material, a guaranteed market buyer at the other end, and a clear legal framework ensuring everyone plays by the same rules. Instead, honest operators that voluntarily comply with industry codes are constantly undercut by rivals. Australian producers are under no obligation to buy domestically recycled products such as glass bottles or tyre crumbs. Chances to grow the local industry and dispose of domestic waste responsibly go begging.

During the Senate inquiry, industry leaders delivered a withering assessment of the federal government’s failure to give the domestic recycling sector a chance. Waste Management Association of Australia CEO Gayle Sloan told the inquiry that “a lack of clear vision and cooperation between the Commonwealth and the states” has prevented the growth of the domestic waste management industry, and that the federal government “needs to start stepping up to the plate”.

Jeff Angel, the executive director of environmental advocacy group Total Environment Centre, told the inquiry that encouraging people to be more proactive about recycling “doesn’t particularly help if it’s an ad hoc voluntary exercise, because you just don’t get the sufficient scale of a new collection system”.

Rather than buying into talk of a crisis, the waste industry has largely responded to China’s National Sword policy as an opportunity to progress towards a “circular economy” – one in which we absorb the by-products of our consumption habits, rather than discard them. Perhaps the ongoing impact of China’s decision will force state and federal policymakers to support such efforts. In more ways than one, it may be time to clean up our own mess.

Alex McKinnon

Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media’s former morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.

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