Changing our view on waste

Newly-appointed Victorian Waste Management Association executive officer Mark Smith discusses National Sword, his past research and the state of recycling in Victoria. 

Eight years ago, Mark Smith, 27, had just completed his Bachelor of Applied Science in consumer behaviour and planned to embark on a career in public health and education.

At that stage, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was less involved in the public environmental health space, having recently taken on additional responsibilities, including from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017. After working across VicRoads and Toyota in an auditing role, Mark experienced the turmoil many graduates face when looking for work in their field. He was underqualified for positions suited to his skills – while overqualified for less relevant jobs that offer a foot in the door, having also held a Diploma of Business. 

“There were only two government areas I was looking to apply for and one of them was the old Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure and the other was the EPA,” Mark explains.

Mark says he ended up applying for a junior role at the EPA in 2010, snaring a role as project officer supporting the delivery of the Illegal Dumping Strikeforce team. 

“It was just a really exciting program because it was the first time that particular program had been launched. There was a huge amount of resource behind it – $6 million.”

Over four years, he worked his way up to project and program manager roles, including program manager of the Litter and Illegal Dumping team, before moving onto statutory body Sustainability Victoria in 2014. At Sustainability Victoria, he oversaw the development of the Victorian Waste Education Strategy, which aimed to provide an overall framework for the arguably disjointed system, before long receiving a promotion to waste education team leader.

“The team was delivering about $6.5 million worth of projects including social research with CSIRO – a world-first for the waste and resource recovery sector. We looked at community attitudes and perceptions to the sector, with a focus on the low level of public understanding of the waste system,” he says.

Part of the Victorian Waste Education Strategy and Statewide Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Plan, the CSIRO research project, Engaging communities on waste, helped inform Mark’s views of the public perception of the waste industry in 2018. He says the basis of his views were developed by public sector experience, working across a range of projects in regulation and compliance. In addition, he’s also lived in close proximity to one of Victoria’s largest landfills in Melbourne’s south east.

In 2016, Sustainability Victoria conducted a 20-minute survey with 1212 Victorians, asking them about their attitudes, knowledge and behaviour towards waste and resource recovery. The research was inclusive of all adult Victorians, including those that lived within a two kilometre radius of waste and resource recovery infrastructure. The results showed knowledge about household waste collections was good, but knowledge about landfills and the use of recycled materials was low. While people agreed waste was an essential service, they viewed the responsibility for reducing waste as primarily falling on businesses and companies, followed by governments and lastly households.

A follow up report on the findings made a host of recommendations, including the development of guidelines for industry to better consider community sentiment when going out to tender, promoting a wider understanding of the societal benefits of waste management, promoting best practice operators via the media and providing real-time community feedback to site operators about the impacts of their facilities.

“The waste and resource recovery sector needs to get a clearer narrative on it and some headline metrics and that’s what this research was underpinning,” Mark says.

“People don’t realise or understand how the system works. Beyond kerbside collection, they don’t know what happens beyond that. I think it’s really disappointing because state government can’t tell a really clear story on the waste and resource recovery system,” he says.

“You could potentially argue that it’s not the government’s role to provide this narrative because it’s predominately privately run, but I think the sector is really at a disadvantage in that we can’t really capture jobs figures, economic benefit, potential cost of assets, compared to some other sectors, be it mining and manufacturing that are able to rattle off similar figures.”

In 2018, Mark joined the Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA) as Executive Officer, a member-based not-for-profit representing the waste and resource recovery sector in the state.

He says over the next 24 months he hopes to build the VWMA brand, in addition to showcasing his social research to its members and working to build the reputation of the sector to the public.

The events which have played out with National Sword, a Chinese crackdown on paper and plastics waste imports and the nation’s subsequent ban on 24 categories of solid waste with 0.5 contaminants have led to media extensive scrutiny, Mark says, as they manifest further in 2018. The challenge is then to restore public faith in the system, he adds. Greater public understanding of the importance of waste as a resource and its potential for job creation can lead to the development of more resource recovery facilities, or other government benefits to help grow the sector and the broader economy.

“With the way population and urban sprawl has happened it’s just not feasible to have huge infrastructure any more. I think we’re going to see a lot of decentralised infrastructure in waste and resource recovery, not dissimilar to what happened with water – with waste integrated into the planning of our new suburbs and towns,” Mark says.

On February 20, the VWMA Executive met to discuss National Sword and its impacts on Victoria. They recommended numerous measures to be prioritised by state and local government, including reviewing the contractual models for waste and resource recovery models, such as linking contracts to an indexed commodity price and a greater distribution of risk between all parties. He hopes this will be backed by the state government, which is investigating the matter through a taskforce to develop a strategy going forward. Mark says the VWMA looks forward to contributing to the taskforce.

“The feedback received from members is on the way that council contracts are written up – the contractor needs to take on all of the risk which isn’t always a reasonable option,” Mark says.

“Especially when sometimes the financial incentive and higher order priorities we want to tick off in terms of the quality of the material stream isn’t always met because the contractor is meeting the local government requirements instead of the higher order requirements.”

Mark says that even though the waste sector is privately run and may in part be administered by local government, if the system is not working, it then becomes a public health issue, which makes it a state government issue.

The VWMA has also proposed to unlock the state government’s Sustainability Fund, which is collected by landfill levies, to boost investment in the form of low-interest loans and grants to the private sector and local government. Other measures include stimulating markets for recovery through minimum requirements in procurement contracts.

Mark believes stimulus is needed to reset the market, which is not dissimilar to construction and demolition recovered materials mandated in government construction specifications, including by state roads authority – VicRoads.

Better engaging the community and schools about waste as an essential service is another VWMA recommendation post National Sword.

“You could argue to some extent we don’t recycle, we collect and sort and export.

“So many friends and family have told me that since the National Sword onset they were really surprised we don’t do a lot of that here,” Mark says.

The issues have placed the industry into tumult, he says, so much so that he believes the Victorian Government may need to re-think its priorities for 2018 such as the proposed e-waste ban.

“I don’t know how realistic it is for under resourced local governments to be dealing with all of these issues at once,” Mark says. 

Fortunately, Mark says public awareness of environmental issues is building, as evidenced by much of the understanding towards the reality of tackling climate change.

“The reason why we did the CSIRO research is that government research tells us that we need to see growth in the resource recovery sector to keep up with waste generation, which means new resource recovery facilities or upgrading existing facilities, but we know that whenever this happens, communities rally against them.”

“For example, people need to feel confident in the government controls in place to protect human health and the environment. Is the EPA ensuring these sites are compliant, and if not, what action is being taken?”

Mark says that in Sustainability Victoria’s research, the agency also found that there is a direct link between understanding how the system works and engaging in more appropriate waste disposal practices, including producing less waste and recycling better.

“Another important factor in keeping the public’s morale high is the impact of waste infrastructure, which is harder to fix. If you’re doing everything amazing, but you still have those odour issues once a week, it just undermines everything else. So facilities need to keep on top of that.”

He remains optimistic about the new EPA Victoria agency in continuing to manage these environmental issues in the future, which is currently going through a restructure to better define its legislative role.

You can read the report, Engaging communities on waste here:

www.sustainability.vic.gov.au/About-Us/Research/Engaging-communities-on-waste 

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of Waste Management Review.