Joe Pickin, Director at Blue Environment, explains the challenges of improving the nation’s waste management data, with a new National Waste Report to be released this year.
In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) introduced the nation’s first waste account.
The data was heralded at the time by the ABS as an “experimental environmental economic account”, which created a valuation for the waste sector. The first account valued the supply of waste management in 2009-10 at just over $9.5 billion, and was released at the beginning of 2013.
The ABS data provided information on waste generation and its management, treatment and disposal in tonnage. This was also considered a pilot program based on the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA). Using the SEEA framework, the ABS estimates were developed using solid waste and recycling data published by the states, territories and the waste industry. The data provided to the ABS was compiled by environmental consultancy firms Blue Environment and Randell Environmental Consulting into the National Waste Report and commissioned by the Federal Government.
However, in response to externally-imposed budget requirements, the ABS was forced to end its waste account. In a submission to the senate inquiry into waste and recycling, the ABS said that should user demand require and “concomitant resources” become available, the organisation would consider reinstating the collection.
Blue Environment and REC have continued to compile a bi-annual report for the Department of the Environment and Energy and are currently working on the 2018 report, to be released at the end of the year, which will utilise data from the 2016-17 financial year.
Dr Joe Pickin, Director Blue Environment, says a majority of the data is obtained from states and territories, with some supplementing with national industry data or other national estimates. Joe says there is now a nine-year national data time series, of which only three years were interpolated.
Blue Environment’s National Waste Report 2016 notes that to obtain a national picture of waste, a common set of assumptions and categories were applied to the collected data in consultation with the states and territories. As well as presenting national data, the report presents tonnage flows and recovery rates by state and territory. It discusses influences on waste generation and fate, including population and economic growth, access to recycling markets, carbon policy and state and territory policies. It divides waste sources into municipal solid waste, commercial and industrial waste and construction and demolition waste. It subsequently includes corresponding data on the generation and fate of masonry materials, metals, organics, paper and cardboard, plastics, glass, hazardous waste and fly ash. The report adds the end destination of waste is divided into disposal, which “overwhelmingly means landfill”, recycling and energy recovery. Data in the report may differ to the state and territory data due to differences in scope and categories, and because the national approach presents landfill gas collection as a form of recovery, together with recycling.
Joe says Blue Environment aims to improve the data quality, scope and analysis and is working to iron out any past issues with the information.
In 2017 and early 2018, Blue Environment undertook a series of workshops with relevant agencies in each state and territory to discuss ways to improve national waste reporting. At the same time, an industry consultation program was undertaken.
“Following on from the Four Corners report and the War on Waste, being able to distinguish materials that have been used for recycling, rather than just processed, is an area we’d like to improve on,” Joe explains. He notes that the voluntary nature of much of the national recycling data can also limit data accuracy.
“Most of the states and territories will collect data from the waste industry asking them what they processed but they’re not always able to find out: what did you process and sell?”
Joe adds that New South Wales has made reporting of recycing data sets compulsory. Western Australia is due to follow and other states and territories could do the same.
He says a key issue for Blue Environment is ensuring the states and territories deliver their data sets on time to the firm’s deadline.
“We’re also looking at improving the timeliness of the data. The report we released in mid 2017 was for 2014-15 data, which is not very timely. We couldn’t get NSW 2014-15 recycling data so we had to estimate it, which was unexpected. I’m confident we’ll do better this time and we’re looking at ways we can not be held up by the slowest state or territory,” he says.
“We’ll put together a timeline and if we don’t get the data in, we may need to use previous data with some estimates attached to it.”
Joe says any delayed data may be published online later.
Another issue is the poor historical data of hazardous waste, and Joe says the 2018 report will try to tighten this data set. Landfill composition data could also be improved, he says, through more judicious compilation of audits.
In regards to returning the National Waste Accounts, Joe notes there is potential for the ABS to use the Blue Environment reports for its estimates, should the data set be re-instated.
For Nicholas Harford, Managing Director of environmental consultancy firm Equilibrium, issues in data quality relate to the definitions of waste across different states and territories, along with their varying legislative differences. Nicholas worked with the Federal Government on its National Waste Policy in 2009-11, which he says was the catalyst for bringing these data issues to the forefront.
“We as a company have looked at data capture systems and big data technologies that can in some instances assist in gathering data and reporting, but you still need a combination of survey/site-based gathering, along with assumptions and calculation,” he says.
“The industry is always changing. Materials are changing, waste arising is changing, so you need to be able to adapt.”
Nicholas adds the ABS carries strong expertise and it would be of benefit for it to return the National Waste Accounts. At the same time, the National Waste Report continues to improve, he adds.
“The National Waste Report has continued to show refinement. The latest report in particular now identifies why and where there are differences between state-based data and reporting,” he says.
Nicholas says a lack of an overarching definition of waste and recycling causes problems for businesses working across a range of states and territories.
“The lack of data is problematic only in the sense that in general economic terms, the more informed the market is, the more efficient that market can be in unlocking greater resource recovery.
“In the waste and recycling sectors, the data may be sufficient at a higher level, but at times there’s not enough detail to enable policy makers and investors to make a secure decision.”
Nicholas says this can be an issue by material source, stream and location. For example, he says, mattresses have for may years been widely collected through sources such as local government and the commercial and industrial sectors, however, until recently there has been no state or national consolidated data.
“This has led to regulatory and policy inertia, lack of investment and poor environmental outcomes. Now that this data has been compiled, it shows government that mattresses present a significant waste challenge that warrants intervention and shows industry that investment opportunities exist,” Nicholas says.
Joe says Blue Environment is also looking at its methodology and various definitions of waste.
“We’re looking at things like what is recycling: what is the definition of it? What is the scope of what’s included? What do we include in municipal solid waste? We’re trying to tighten our definitions so we can be sure everyone’s data means the same thing,” he says.
“One thing we’re also now trying in this version is to assess the proportion of the reported waste that went over a weighbridge rather than is estimated from volumetric measures.”
He says the organisation was working on gathering data which further breaks down each source sector and where it is collected from, especially commercial and industrial waste, which is currently grouped.
“We hope to have a bit more disaggregation into the types of waste rather than just the broad categories, including the types of organics. And we’re looking at enhancing the standardisation of those issues.”
Joe notes the states and territories have become more responsive in recent times to coordinating language, as regulatory harmony will help achieve better outcomes for waste in Australia.
While improving the quality of the data set poses a significant challenge, Joe says Blue Environment has a solid plan to improve the data and the ways it is presented, in consultation with government and industry. He is confident the next report will improve on the last, strengthen the time series record and add more detail.
“We’re going to be pushing hard to get the data on time. To pull all this data together, make it uniform, get the states and territories to sign off on it in our timeframes and present it as a coherent national picture is always a very large challenge.”
When asked if the ABS had discussed the need for additional resources with the federal government to restore the National Waste Accounts, an ABS spokesperson said it prioritises its statistical collections to ensure it can meet current and future requirements within its resources.
“To do this, the ABS constantly reviews its work program, in consultation with governments and other key stakeholders,” they said.
“The primary focus of the National Waste Account was on solid waste. Data on the physical supply and use of waste is now primarily derived from reports commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy such as the National Waste Report.”
Waste Management Review also asked the Federal Government if it would re-consider providing the ABS with additional resources to allow it to return the National Waste Accounts and we asked if they were satisfied with the National Waste Report.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment Energy said that in late 2017, the Department commenced a national consultation on options for improving Australia’s national waste data and reporting. “The results of this consultation will be presented to the states and territories in February of 2018 and will inform the development of the 2018 National Waste Report and the Hazardous Waste in Australia 2019 report,” they said.
The spokesperson added issues being investigated in that consultation included how Australia can improve its compliance with relevant international standards for waste data and reporting, such as for waste accounts under the SEEA.
“We are also looking at options for better data on key waste management issues such as the prevention and clearance of waste stockpiles.”