Building a more resilient sector: Sustainability Victoria

Waste Management Review speaks to Stan Krpan, Chief Executive Officer at Sustainability Victoria, about the organisation’s future approach to data capture, Victoria’s e-waste ban to landfill and the health of the waste sector.

The discussions we’ve been having since January with the industry and local government is that we do need a more resilient sector,” Stan Krpan, Sustainability Victoria (SV) Chief Executive Officer, told a National Sword panel at Waste 2018.

“One that has traditionally competed and innovated around price and the lowest price and offtake markets, to competing on innovation and quality. Because contamination is a measure of quality of that resource and I do think we can do better there,” he added.

As the Victorian Government prepares to roll out a new waste to energy (WtE) strategy and results of a recycling taskforce, Waste Management Review speaks with Stan to discuss its circular economy approach to data capture, the state’s progress on WtE, Victoria’s e-waste ban and the health and future of the sector.

While hinting that there will be “more to say” on market development, government procurement and waste education once the taskforce wraps up, Stan highlights the shift towards a circular economy following the release of its waste data portal.

The recycling taskforce was introduced following the Victorian Government $13 million stimulus package to support household waste collection. The package responded to China’s ban on imports with a contaminant of more than 0.5 per cent, known as National Sword.

SV recently released a publicly available data portal, which shows actual and projected waste quantities and recovery rates in Victoria – broken down by material. It established this using a circular economy model to integrate its 15 years’ of trend data. The waste data portal contains information such as ready access to Victorian statewide garbage bin audits, the Victorian Recycling Industry Annual Report and the Victorian Local Government Annual Waste Services Report 2015-16.   

SV’S WASTE PORTAL

The waste portal features interactive data mapping and offers users access to Victoria’s waste projection model, kerbside waste data and biomass residue generation estimates by local government area.

Users can scroll through the waste projection model to map waste generation, landfill and recovery from 2005, through to projections to 2045, broken down by source sector (municipal, commercial and industrial and construction and demolition) and material type: aggregates, masonry, paper/cardboard, metal, organics, glass, plastics, rubber, e-waste, textiles and other. It can also be mapped interactively by regions throughout Victoria.

Stan says the shift towards using data and predictive analytics will drive planning for infrastructure, procurement and investment. He explains the goal for the portal going forward is to add material flows to understand where waste is during the design and production stages of gross state product, while also looking at measuring waste by volume instead of tonnes for materials such as plastics.

The model supports SV’s transition towards a holistic data set characterised by the circular economy. He says materials such as e-waste would also be better mapped in grams, as they contain precious metals.

To fully unlock the circular economy model outlined at Waste 2018, SV would need to be able to map material flows in the economy and design and production and usage stages, as opposed to that which is coming through as waste in its concrete data on generation, recovery, residual waste and landfill, exports and end destinations.

SV plans to address the data gaps by merging market data with material data, as well as taking advantage of machine learning to generate the data in greater volumes and at a faster rate.

It is working with RMIT University to better inform its data sets using machine learning and decision trees, beginning with organic waste collection data. Stan says machine learning could require close to one million data points, as opposed to the current 20 to 30,000 different data points SV currently has.

Stan discusses SV programs at Waste 2018.

WASTED MACROECONOMICS

Stan says that we can no longer rely solely on resource recovery figures and data on waste and recycling.

“What we’ve realised, and we’ve been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think we’ve caught up with the reality that is facing us, is that our data needs to be much more granular about where the waste is coming from and where it’s going,” Stan says.

He explains that as recyclate is a commodity with materials such as HDPE, PET, paper and cardboard being traded, the key will be to measure the raw materials and commodity markets.

“I think that the trend around the world is around open data and I think the possibilities then escalate on that because the private sector and individuals can then use and manipulate the data,” he says.

SV’s data shows 97,000 tonnes of plastics were exported in 2015/16, equivalent to 65 per cent of the recovered amount, with destinations such as Hong Kong, China and Indonesia.

“If we keep that structure within the market, we’re going to be exposed again the next time say Thailand or Indonesia or someone else no longer wants our plastics,” Stan says. He adds that this is why promoting local Victorian plastic manufacturing is important.

“If we’re going to tie an essential service like waste collection to a commodity market, you better be watching the commodity market as well.”

It’s why SV has mapped Australian dollar fluctuations against the Chinese yuan and US dollar. It found there was some correlation between the Australian dollar rising and exports going up as a result, which appeared back to front, as exports should in economic theory go down when the Australian dollar is on a high and imports go up.

“What we’ve been doing is digging deeper and we’ve figured that if the Australian dollar goes up in value, it means that the manufacturers are bringing in virgin plastics at a cheaper price. If that’s coupled with a dive in the oil price, you get a situation where virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic,” Stan says.

It means the materials need to be watched from both a policy and investment perspective, as domestic manufacturers need to use recycled plastic. He says it may then prompt the need for interventions.

AN ESSENTIAL SERVICE

Stan says the economics of waste should be driven by waste as an essential service and looking at the system as a whole, rather than the commodity price, with interventions such as landfill levies required to drive investment.

“I think the narrative around essential service is something that has been ingrained in me since I’ve been in this sector,” Stan says.

“We are among the world’s best recyclers and I think people connect to that on more of an emotional level and they just see it as the right thing to do.”

He says he’d like to see more no or low-interest loans in the social enterprise sector. He says two recycling investments have been made through the Victorian Government’s Social Impact Investment for Sustainability program.

Stan says he hopes to see more green loans in Victoria going forward, including from federal government specialist financier the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Despite this, he says the sector is already sustainable on its own.

“The waste sector is a $50 billion industry. Nationally it employs 50,000 people. That has happened with some policy intent and strategy, but it’s really the private sector and local government that are driving it,” he says.

“There’s considerable investments from the state but really that happens because there’s a market. I think it will grow. The focus on China at the moment and for the Victorian Government has been how do we work with the sector and with local government to build some resilience,” he adds.

As the Victorian Government prepares to finalise a decision on WtE, Stan says he believes it will be part of the mix for residual waste so it doesn’t “cannibalise” recycling. He says large-scale projects may also be on the agenda, but he is unsure of the economics yet. The state government released a WtE public discussion paper for consultation in late 2017 in order to determine the appropriate role of WtE in Victoria’s waste and energy systems. It now finalising its position on the matter, with details expected shortly.

“I think much of that is driven by levies, taxes or incentives and I think that’s something we’ll need to look at when the policy lands. At the smaller scale, the government has been very supportive of things like anaerobic digestion and organic waste processing,” he says.

E-WASTE TO LANDFILL BAN

The Victorian Government is now implementing its 2014 election commitment to ban e-waste to landfill, with a commencement date of 1 July, 2019. The ban on e-waste comes as Victoria enters an election year. Sustainability Victoria is rolling out a $16.5 million e-waste infrastructure development and awareness program to allow waste businesses, local government and the community prepare for the ban. SV’s package also includes $15 million in grants to Victorian councils and state government entities to upgrade infrastructure at more than 130 collection sites and a $1.5 million awareness campaign to educate Victorians about how to properly dispose of e-waste.

According to the Victorian Government, e-waste will likely be defined as “any device with a power cord or battery that is no longer wanted or useful”, to be further tested when the government rolls out its education campaign. The Environment Protection Authority Victoria will enforce the ban through administrative notices as first recourse, with potential to escalate to enforcement action if the duty holder does not comply.

Stan notes that e-waste is the state’s fastest growing waste stream and an area of concern. It’s estimated that e-waste from television and computers will grow by more than 60 per cent or 85,000 tonnes over the decade to 2024. Stan hopes the e-waste to landfill ban will develop the local manufacturing and reprocessing sector in Australia.

In 2015/16, Victoria’s reprocessing sector reached above 8.4 million tonnes of material recovered, with a recovery rate of 67 per cent.

He says the ban will create a market opportunity and notes there’s some exciting research around solar panel product stewardship, in addition to research and development around the valuable rare Earth metals and commodities available in solar photovoltaic panels and mobile phones.

However, he says there needs to be a strong research and development and market development focus on e-waste, particularly solar photovoltaic panels. Stan notes Victoria is developing a draft strategy for this and has a pilot scheme in place. The items are currently not on the Product Stewardship Act 2011 Product List and its associated National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme. But the federal government is currently conducting a review of the Act, with findings expected mid-2018.

A NATIONAL PLAN

With a push towards greater national alignment, the federal government is also reviving its National Waste Policy by the end of the year. While the original policy was set out in 2009 but its recommendations never widely actioned, Stan is optimistic the next strategy will be actioned.

“I think the community expects and deserves this and I think if we do develop that strategy then we have got to get behind it,” Stan says.

“That means that there has to be some very decent measures and targets in the strategy. It’s got to be really clear at who’s accountable for them and what level, but also how we will work together.

“We have a market development strategy in Victoria we’d love to see adopted nationally so we can start getting on with the job.”