Four Corners’ portrayal of the waste industry: Mike Ritchie

Mike Ritchie, Director of MRA Consulting Group, explains why the issues of stockpiling glass and interstate waste transport are matters requiring government action. 

In August, an ABC report by investigative journalism program Four Corners brought attention to a range of long-standing issues in Australia’s waste management industry.

Titled Trashed: the dirty truth about your rubbish, the program focused on contentious problems ranging from the stockpiling of glass to the transportation of waste from Sydney to south east Queensland.

Through interviews with a range of major waste companies, the NSW EPA, councils and residents, Trashed claimed to reveal hidden practices occurring in areas of the waste industry and the lucrative trade that has attracted unscrupulous operators.

The program suggested thousands of tonnes of glass are accumulating in recycling companies across Australia, namely in regional areas due to the cost of shipping. It tied this problem in with a range of issues, previously highlighted in the media, such as landfill levy avoidance and illegal dumping.

Mike Ritchie, Director of MRA Consulting Group (MRA), believes many of the issues portrayed in the program are outside the waste industry’s control.

On the issue of glass stockpiling, Mike says the program should serve as a wake-up call for local, state and federal governments in understanding the impact of volatile commodity prices. He explains that glass represents about 30 per cent of material received by materials recovery facilities (MRFs), and historically these facilities were paid approximately $70 per tonne for glass.

Mike says that broken glass and glass fines are worth even less. Due to a persistent drop in commodity prices, it is now cheaper to import glass bottles from overseas countries than to recover glass from the MRF system in Australia, he says.

“While long-term contracts provide security for councils, they do leave MRF operators with constant supply, but variable sales volumes and revenues. With commodity prices falling, we’re in a perfect storm at the moment,” he says.

“There needs to be some relief for MRF operators, either through the EPA in allowing them to store materials for longer periods, or additional research and development by governments to allow glass to move into engineering products, including road base, asphalt and concrete.”

Mike says the fact that glass is being stockpiled rather than landfilled is a sign that industry takes the public trust in recycling seriously.

The NSW EPA argued in a statement following the program corrupt conduct was suggested or implied through its own inaction in response to notifications of illegal waste activities. The statement revealed it had referred these allegations to the NSW Government’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.

“I can’t comment on the validity of those issues, but the general principle that the EPA needs to be funded for enforcement is absolutely correct. The credible operators in the market are sick to death of being outcompeted by unregulated competitors outing the law,” Mike says.

One of the more widely discussed issues surrounds the issue of waste transporters avoiding the landfill levy by carting waste from NSW to south east Queensland. In 2012, the former Newman Queensland Government repealed the landfill levy, causing a flurry of waste being sent to the sunny state from NSW, where the levy is currently $138.20 a tonne in metropolitan areas.

Mike says governments have the power to reign in this problem by introducing a landfill levy in Queensland, or amending the NSW levy so that it applies no matter where the waste is disposed.

“We also need to point out that transporting waste to Queensland is absolutely legal. It’s a failure of government policy setting, particularly in the absence of a levy in Queensland.”

Four Corners suggesting that trucks come out at night to “surreptitiously” haul waste to Queensland was simply ridiculous,” he says.

He says the criticism levelled at the NSW Government for not enforcing the proximity rule was justified. In 2014, the NSW EPA introduced the proximity rule to stop waste from being moved more than 150km from where it was generated. But as Four Corners outlined, loopholes were found in the law. It led to a major waste company challenging the proximity rule in an appeal, while the NSW Government chose not to proceed with the case.

“It is unclear why the NSW Government did not proceed with the proximity principle court case. It would have been better if they had proceeded with that case to give certainty to the industry.

“If the government had won the case, the issue of interstate transport would have been resolved. If they had lost the case, then it would have focused attention on the issue and all states could have responded quickly via other options, without the issue dragging out for years.”

Mike also noted that EPA Director Steve Beaman was instrumental in establishing the proximity rule. He added that there are legislative barriers preventing the intervention of state governments in free trade. Section 92 of the Constitution of Australia stipulates that trade and commerce among the states shall be absolutely free.

While the program exposed some challenges facing the industry, Mike says some positives can be gleaned from it, particularly as the Queensland Government has announced a three- month investigation into the dumping of interstate waste.

NSW has extended its parliamentary inquiry into waste. The Federal Government is also conducting an inquiry into markets for recycled waste and its role, with the closing date for submission on October 20, 2017.

“Hopefully all the political attention on waste will finally address some of the key roadblocks to success.”

He says the key issues that need to be resolved by government are inconsistent market price signals for recycling, insufficient enforcement of existing laws and planning approvals processes that take too long. He says the sector could employ another 30,000 people easily by achieving the stated target of 72 per cent national recovery. Mike says governments need to iron out these problems and set the framework for growth in recycling.

“The recycling industry recovers 26 million tonnes (or 52 per cent of all material generated) back into the productive economy every year. Stockpiles of glass in Australia represent less than one per cent of that. Recycling is overwhelmingly positive for the environment and for Four Corners to undermine public confidence in the system is very irresponsible. They provided no evidence that widespread landfilling of recyclables was occurring,” Mike says.

Waste disposal trucks targeted with Operation Cover-Up
Mike says Four Corners suggesting that trucks come out at night to “surreptitiously” haul waste to Queensland was ridiculous.

“The idea that 50 per cent of recyclables placed in kerbside bins is landfilled is patent nonsense.”

Waste Management Review put several questions to the ABC TV’s Four Corners program, including why s92 of the constitution was not mentioned as playing a role in the prevention of state governments being unable to intervene in interstate waste trade. A spokesperson for ABC TV’s Four Corners noted a prominent case mentioned in the program was settled, meaning that s92 was not put to the test.

“The EPA announced it was suspending the proximity principle after settling the case. This hasn’t actually happened as far as we are aware, and instead it is declining to enforce the rule,” they said.

“With the lack of an outcome in the case it is difficult to make the assertion you make, and we chose not to. It is also nearly two years since the case, and all EPAs have failed to come up with a co-ordinated response.”

Four Corners was also asked why a greater focus was not paid to the failure of government policy in preventing interstate waste transport, including the repeal of the landfill levy by the former Newman Government, rather than blaming the EPA NSW for not enforcing the proximity rule.

“The whole program was about the failure of government policy in multiple states. It highlighted the absurdity of the differing rules between states and the bizarre outcomes that follow.

“The NSW proximity principle and the failure to enforce it was part of that. We also pointed to Victoria’s lack of stockpiling rules, and the repeal of the levy in Queensland by the Newman government. So no, we don’t acknowledge that,” they said.

Finally, we asked Four Corners whether they acknowledged that the stockpiling of glass only made up a small part of the 26 million tonnes of material recycled each year. We asked them to consider this in light of their portrayal of the recycling industry.

“Glass is a significant part of the waste stream, and accounts for roughly one third of kerbside recycling. It was a legitimate issue to tackle and one that the public was unaware of,” they said.

“We also interviewed the head of the Australian Recyclers Association, Grant Musgrove, who told us that about 50 per cent of material recovered is actually recycled. In our view this is something the public is unaware of, and of public interest.”

The EPA NSW was asked if it was concerned at all with its portrayal in the program. A spokesperson directed us to the EPA’s statement on the show.

The statement mentions the proximity rule was introduced to address issues with interstate waste transport.

The statement reads: “It has proven challenging to enforce so the NSW EPA is leading work with its interstate counterparts to discuss national approach to waste regulation.”

You can read the EPA NSW’s full statement here: http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/epamedia/ EPAMedia17080802.htm

The Queensland Government and NSW Government did not respond to comment.

This article appeared in Issue 14 of Waste Management Review.