Keeping it green

Waste Management Review speaks to Green Industries SA’s Vaughan Levitzke about the work that has gone into achieving the highest diversion rate out of every state and the challenges that lie ahead. 

With a clean and green reputation cemented in the minds of many Australians, South Australia is well regarded for having the best diversion rate of any state in the country at 83.4 per cent. 

But the process didn’t happen overnight, as successive governments and industry spent decades implementing policies to change the way the community views, and disposes of, its waste.

The three-decade sustainability journey was spearheaded by South Australian governments, the Waste Management Commission, the South Australian EPA, Zero Waste SA and the community. Within this environmentally-conscious landscape experts such as Vaughan Levitzke, Chief Executive of Green Industries SA, have made a significant contribution to the bigger picture. This track record of reform and achievement is also recognised internationally with the United Nations Centre for Regional Development endorsing the agency’s development of an experiential training program targeting decisison-makers and executives.

Having worked in various government roles, from the SA Department for the Environment to the South Australian EPA, Vaughan speaks of a time when organisations such as Keep Australia Beautiful began in 1966, in addition to the state’s first container deposit scheme in 1977. 

He says much of the success behind South Australia’s environmental success is its smaller population size and lack of resources, which meant preserving existing resources such as water is crucial. 

“Back in the 70s after the Vietnam War we saw completely new arrangements for drink packaging that went from refillable glass into steel cans and smaller one-trip bottles. We had protests on the steps of Parliament House over the change in packaging and how it was ending up in the environment and so the government brought in container deposit legislation,” Vaughan says. 

POLICY CHANGE 

As reforms were made, decades were spent carefully analysing and ironing out issues within the legislation, including the container deposit scheme.

“When they configured the container deposit legislation in 1977, they didn’t really think that anyone would be buying water in plastic bottles and sports drinks hadn’t even entered into the minds of the producers of these products, let alone the public,” Vaughan says. 

“As a result of the litter strategy, we expanded container deposit legislation onto a range of products which weren’t previously captured by
that legislation.  

“After the first litter strategy in 1997, we worked on the metropolitan waste strategy and then soon realised that we should be doing something bigger across the whole state.” 

Following this, Vaughan was motivated to lead the establishment of Zero Waste SA in 2004 – a statutory authority tasked with promoting waste minimisation in the state through a zero waste agenda. The statutory authority also had a requirement to develop the state’s first waste strategy under the Zero Waste SA Act (2004). The authority transitioned to Green Industries SA in 2015 following a proclamation under the Public Sector Act (2009) and its own Green Industries Act in 2017. 

Vaughan says that when the first waste strategy was released in 2005, most in the community recognised the need for it which helped to get local government engaged and encourage effective use of the landfill levy across infrastructure investments, including the establishment of the Waste to Resources Fund (now the Green Industry Fund). 

He says that many have cited the single-use plastic bag ban in 2009 as an ‘epiphany moment’, but he believes there were more substantial matters that left a lasting impact on the industry. These included the largest ever food waste trial in Australia and a steady rollout of a three-bin system (recyclables, organic waste and residual) and food waste collection, in addition to working with the SA EPA on the Environment Protection (Waste to Resources) Policy (2010) which led to a range of bans to landfill, including e-waste, which he says has inspired others around the country to also take action. 

“What followed from that was the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme nationally, so I think it fitted in rather well with a national scheme. The national scheme could be improved by taking everything with a cord, not just computers and TVs, so hopefully that will come to pass, but it has stimulated business activity here locally.”

He cites the Nyrstar polymetallic processing and recovery facility at Port Pirie as an example of local innovation, enhancing the industry’s ability to recover metals in Australia and the only facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

Statutory authority Zero Waste SA developed SA’s first waste strategy.

A NEW LANDSCAPE 

Despite SA’s triumphs, national challenges remain the same, with the impact of China’s strict contamination rules (commonly referred to as National Sword), effectively a ban on 24 categories of waste – being felt around the country. Earlier this year, a $12.4 million support package was introduced to develop the state’s infrastructure. Separately, Green Industries SA had programs to commercialise research and provide seed funding for new technologies and build markets such as its partnership with Innovyz which runs a unique fast-track business development and mentoring program for early stage innovative ideas. 

“We have to clean up our waste streams and the product so we can not only put it into other markets but also use it locally here in Australia, developing our own circular economy” Vaughan says. 

“This is all part of a bigger picture here. To the Chinese Government’s credit they’re addressing it in a pretty straightforward and quite formidable way to address the impacts that this is having on their people and environment to build their circular economy. The repercussions are being felt everywhere else.”

In the face of China’s National Sword policy, Vaughan says it’s crucial we continue to invest in grants and loans that support improvements in the industry. 

The next step for Green Industries SA is to ramp up government procurement of recycled materials and Vaughan says significant time and effort will need to be taken to frame these policies at a state and local government level. 

He says he hopes the South Australian Government can learn from procurement trials in states such as Victoria and WA and apply its learning without having to undergo new trials in the state. Likewise, Vaughan says analysing international guidelines within a local context could support the South Australian Government’s strategy.  

“We just need to trial it once to make sure it works and then get on with it and adopt it. I know there is a sense of nervousness around this, particularly around the engineering community, but part of this is informing them about where it has worked and where it is working,” Vaughan says. 

He says conversations have begun with the various authorities about how this may be achieved. 

MAPS OF MEANING

Earlier this year, the South Australian Government released a Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Plan to provide a clear guide for waste and resource recovery infrastructure in the state. The plan projects future waste flows and maps existing waste and resource recovery infrastructure by major types, while identifying the state’s infrastructure needs, investment opportunities and associated risks. 

With technological changes such as mechanical biological treatment and waste to energy (WtE) slowly creeping into the Australian market, the plan acknowledges that these activities may have broader impacts on amenities and may be deemed a form of special industry. It notes there is a need to take advantage of locations where existing intensive industries occur or look at rezoning to accommodate the desired locations. 

The plan examines land use considerations for waste infrastructure and specifies the need to develop planning and design code policies that protect buffer distances, duplication requirements and strategic infrastructure for major waste management facilities.

“It’s going to be really interesting for those types of technologies because we’re still unclear on how our waste stream is going to change over time with the new efforts by Australian Packaging Covenant and the ministers looking towards packaging and what needs to change to absorb this material locally,” Vaughan says. 

“There’s obviously a range of technologies coming to the fore because the cost of waste disposal is going up. I think we’re going to have to review this plan quite regularly going forward because of the changing nature of the waste stream, but also the change in technologies.” 

Vaughan says the South Australian EPA has received significant consultation on a WtE policy and a policy is expected soon. 

“This isn’t easy territory for WtE providers because they need to shore up not only the waste supply, but also comply with emissions standards and public perceptions. As we’ve seen in NSW it’s not an easy road to hoe, particularly at scale.” 

With some facilities in QLD and Victoria reporting issues of residential encroachment, as reported in Waste Management Review’s July issue, Vaughan notes this has happened in the past in South Australia but the state government has responded.

“For example, in Wingfield (located on Adelaide’s northern fringe) we made that a zone for waste management activities and ‘eco-industrial precinct’. But composting was moved further out in the north and south of the city. The risk is always that through poor management or other issues they have an odour problem and the locals get upset.”

“You can put in all the management systems you like, but I think it comes down to the operators of these facilities as well in making sure that they do everything properly and they do it according to the requirements under the law.”

South Australia set a target for a 35 per cent reduction in landfill disposal from 2002-3 levels by 2020.

STRATEGISING

South Australia set a target for a 35 per cent reduction in landfill disposal from 2002-03 levels by 2020 and is expected to hit the target shortly, well ahead of schedule. South Australia’s Waste Strategy 2015-20 identified priorities, actions and objectives for each waste stream, including municipal solid waste, commercial and industrial and construction and demolition waste. 

Having made significant progress in construction and demolition and organics, Vaughan says the next step is to target mixed plastics and other materials such as fibre. 

“We’re starting to work on the next waste strategy now and will be putting together a discussion paper for the next strategy, which is for 2020-25, and get feedback and work out what the new targets might look like,” he says. 

“For some of the more problematic waste streams, the landscape may change with new technology, increased public expectations, including dealing with some of the more difficult plastics as well as mattresses and tyres. It’s also about making sure we have robust standards in place for recycling materials, from roads to remanufacturing.” 

Green Industries SA is also doing market research to look at re-evaluating statewide household kerbside education programs. 

“This journey that we’ve been on and continue to drive towards is one that you’re always having to innovate and learn and I can’t stress that enough.”

This article appeared in the October issue of Waste Management Review.