A bright future ahead: ACOR on the recycling sector

Waste Management Review speaks to Peter Schmigel, the new Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR), about some of the key issues facing the recycling sector.

Q. Tell us a bit about your past background?

A. I’ve been lucky to work with leaders in many diverse sectors, including premiers, ministers, recycling and manufacturing chief executive officers, mental health reformers, bankers, environmental protection authority leaders and journalists.

I’ve worked for organisations such as Veolia, Hyder, the Beverage Industry Environment Council and the NSW Government’s Office of the Minister for Environment.

Over the years, it’s been great to spend a lot of time in materials recovery facilities, high-tech reprocessing plants and collection trucks. I’m grateful for both the policy and practical experience to make a valuable contribution to 21st century recycling and its part in a circular economy.

Q. What influence do you hope to bring to the new role at ACOR?

A. A positive one! It’s time to change the conversation around recycling. Its direct environmental value is a given. Given all the China discussions, now is the perfect time to multiply its social and economic value.

Recycling has great return on investment and with leadership, we can double it as a growth sector for domestic jobs, get more credit for it as one of the cheapest and most available ways to reduce the carbon cost to the economy and convert overwhelming community support into the right pro-jobs and environmental policies.

Q. What inspires you about the recycling sector?

A. Its practicality. It is about offering a real solution to a real problem. I started working with the waste management sector as a Chief of Staff for the Minister for Environment in NSW in the early 90s, near the time of the beginning of kerbside recycling. Since then, I’ve always admired the industry’s can-do attitude.

Q. Some in the industry argue China’s National Sword policy will lead to a market reset. What measures do you think are needed to help solve this issue in the long term?

A. There have been ups and downs in recycling since its start and it has always resiliently made its way through. It will this time too.

The situation we’re in offers a great opportunity for renewal. Let’s really get to the specifics of the current “crisis” and put in place the right fixes. As one example, ACOR has suggested the industry adopt standard operating procedures to minimise costs for customers.

But let’s also show leadership in public policy that give consumers, councils, collectors, sorters, reprocesses and manufacturers greater certainty going forward in both supply and demand.

Positive procurement, recycled content, better planning regulations for locations, Container Deposit Scheme extensions, infrastructure investment: all of these options need to go back on the table. We all get certainty by multiplying recycling’s value.

Q. What potential to you see for forms of waste to energy such as refuse-derived fuel, anaerobic digestion and thermal treatment in Australia?

A. A long time around the sector teaches this: there is no single silver bullet. As an early adopter and proponent of life-cycle analysis – I am technology and technique agnostic. It’s better to get the right cost/benefit numbers from an environmental, economic and social perspective. And to do so within a strong integrated plan. At the end of the day, it’s also about what the community wants and is willing to pay for.

Q. Are you satisfied with the current landfill levies in place across the states and territories and are they doing enough to spur investment in recycling?

A. Were people happy when each state had different railway gauges? Probably not, but it took leadership to get the right changes.

Nowadays, any objective observer would say we can do better coordinating landfill levy levels and its purposes to get the results we want, or at least to avoid situations that basically break our public promises. Now is a good time for leadership and revising Australia’s National Waste Policy to focus on this disparity is one policy solution out of many.

Q. Another issue in recycling is that when the commodity price is low, stockpiling occurs. Is there a solution to this issue?

A. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. Let’s first look to the specifics – where are we stockpiling? What are we stockpiling and why? Let’s really get the scope of our solutions right. Einstein’s right: the way you define a problem is how you fix it. Sometimes these are specific contractual issues for specific streams in specific places.

However, let’s also look at bigger picture and get all the options on the table that make us less dependent on commodity prices that can be volatile. That’s the leadership part, from industry, councils, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments.

Q. How can we help tell a more positive story about recycling?

A. The only narrative I believe in is what happens everyday in the real world not what happens on one television show or one headline of a newspaper.

Everyday, people overwhelmingly vote with their sorting and bins. Dedicated people collect, sort and reprocess the vast majority of recyclate into new material that’s got a much smaller eco-footprint. We see technological and process innovation like container deposit schemes being introduced now in several states. The manufacturing industry becomes more conscious of its own role and how it can contribute. In recycling, everyday is a good news day when we really look hard enough. Let’s move forward with leadership on how we get bigger and better.

Q. What waste streams do you think we need to see recycled in greater numbers and what can ACOR do to help improve the situation?

A. We need to keep progress going in established waste streams by making them more economically sustainable for all players. We need to meet our own promises by growing efforts in areas like food, e-waste, batteries, medical and tyres. There are good people working hard and they deserve more government support too. It’s about leadership and not just managing the incremental progress.

Q. What is your vision for the future of recycling in Australia?

A. My practice of leadership is to put on the boots and do the hard slog toward goals. Goals like doubling the employment level of the recycling sector, getting positive public policy that captures recycling’s real value and creating industry rules that give all players more certainty about costs and investment.

And most importantly: let’s stay positive!