CEO of East Waste, Adam Faulkner

South Australia sets agenda for a circular economy

East Waste CEO Adam Faulkner provides an overview, his insights and opinions on the potential impact of South Australia’s Waste Strategy 2015–2020.

No-one can accuse the South Australian Government of not consulting.

The waste and resource recovery sector, local government and non- government organisations have been turned to like never before in order to drive and influence the positive policy, strategy and regulatory settings for the coming years.

The narrative is very much couched in terms such as innovation, economic growth and re-manufacturing, meaning it is clearly about creating a stable and level market to encourage investment and promote and protect best practice. This is good news.

Those in our sector who encourage responsible practices, and are looking to further modernise, will succeed under increased regulatory and strategic certainty.

Details of the strategy

South Australia’s Waste Strategy 2015–2020 (the Strategy) was released by Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation Ian Hunter without fanfare on 13 November 2015.

The author and custodian of the Strategy is the Office of Green Industries SA (GISA), which is an iteration of the much-coveted Zero Waste SA. While GISA has a broader portfolio and reduced budget, it still contains much of the intent, knowledge and intellectual property of Zero Waste.

The Strategy is informed to a great extent by a review into the 2011–2015 edition. The resulting document is what my consultant friends would, in contemporary terms, call a “lite” strategy. The strategic intent is covered off in seven pages and is accompanied by additional seven pages of priority actions. It takes a target-driven approach, which aims to guide local government and industry towards landfill diversion rates of 70%, 80% and 90% respectively for metropolitan generated or municipal solid waste (MSW), commercial and industrial (C&I), and construction and demolition (C&D) waste.

The targets are sensible and reasonable, but some may say fall short of providing inspiration for transformation.

The Strategy provides additional context around energy from waste compared with the previous iteration. While it is encouraging to see some policy being developed around alternative waste technology, it is difficult to see this concept gathering momentum with South Australia’s high source separated recovery rates and low priced landfill disposal readily available for residual waste streams.

South Australia has long been regarded a leader in resource recovery performance, with high recycling rates, landfill bans, container deposit legislation and low litter rates. However, complacency is not an option. One cannot help to wonder what the Strategy could have been if it was developed under a lens of significant reinvestment of the Waste to Resources Fund, which is made up from proceeds of the waste levy.

Reinvestment

Over the life of the Strategy, it is expected that around $300 million in revenue will be collected through the waste levy at the current levy rate of $57 a tonne for metropolitan Adelaide and $28.50 outside this area indexed at CPI.

With an estimated $60 million in levy funds already unallocated as at July 2015, there is a growing appetite for responsible reinvestment back into the sector.

A reinvestment package could take the form of a multi-million dollar capital outlay over the Strategy’s five-year life. Capital contributions towards infrastructure, re-manufacturing, logistics, behaviour change and strategy through local government and private sector would help create stable markets, jobs and improve the resilience of local industry.

Dividing the fund into six markets would create a broad commercial signal to the sector. I suggest the segments could be:

1. Local Government Programs, Strategy or Infrastructure
2. C&I Systems or Infrastructure
3. C&D Systems or Infrastructure
4. Organics Systems or Infrastructure
5. Problem Wastes, and
6. Litter and Behaviour Change.

Apportioning $10 million to each segment would stimulate the sector and generate significant return on investment in terms of economic and environmental benefit.

The waste and resource recovery industry is a mostly mature sector and, if given the certainty and the capital, can easily punch above its weight in manoeuvring into the (re)manufacturing void in South Australia. However, for me, any reinvestment of the levy would need to be done in a considered way to ensure the community and the economy get the greatest return. This is where I would like to see the NSW EPA business case advisory model come into play.

It would be beneficial to establish a panel of independent experts to apply some rigour to funding applications. Its role would be to identify those with realistic and repeatable outcomes in terms of innovation, reuse of end products, establishing markets, overlapping themes (eco-hubs), collaboration, and development of systems, infrastructure and intellectual property to benefit the majority.

Reform

Concurrently with the strategic direction being set by GISA, the South Australian EPA (EPA SA) is delivering a reform agenda: Reforming Waste Management – Creating certainty for an industry to grow.

This is a bold package that closely mirrors many of the facets of the New South Wales and Victorian regulatory environment. Operational practices such as mass balance reporting, upfront levy liability and routine volumetric surveys will have the desired impact of creating a level playing field and reducing stockpiling and levy avoidance.

EPA SA is to be applauded for embarking on this reform agenda and the industry will benefit from this leadership over time.

Interestingly, the reform paper identifies a “pay as you throw” initiative with a view to influencing household practices by putting a price point on waste, which effectively incentivises recycling.

While still in its infancy, this type of intervention to effect behaviour change has the potential to be a game-changer. If implemented, this system will rely heavily on waste collectors having the sophistication and capability around GPS and radio frequency identification tracking and data management.

Missed opportunity?

Although the Strategy seeks to achieve some worthy outcomes, I think the government needs to take care to ensure that the proposed regulation does not increase operational costs for those in the industry already complying with best practice.

Some would say that the reform package missed an opportunity to look at a consistent and pragmatic definition of “waste”, for example, to ensure that legitimate recycling of food and garden organics transfers compost from a waste into a product or resource.

For others, another potential opportunity squandered is relaxing the mandatory weekly residual kerbside garbage bin. There is growing understanding from experiences in the eastern states that weekly food and garden organics and fortnightly residual collections will drive the food resources into the correct stream, where they can be recovered for beneficial compost reuse.

Currently, all South Australian Metropolitan Council collections are mandated to provide a weekly residual bin collection.

With a clearly improved policy and strategic and regulatory certainty, the time is right for reinvestment. There is a sense of collaboration between government, industry and associations that has the potential to drive the sector forward. GISA and EPA SA have set the roadmap for South Australia to continue to be a leader in resource recovery, but now it is time to become an advanced circular economy.

The full South Australia Waste Strategy 2015 – 2020 is available to download from the Zero Waste SA website’s resource centre.

 

Adam Faulkner is the CEO of East Waste, providing kerbside collection services to approximately 30% of metropolitan Adelaide, and a Board Director for KESAB Environmental Solutions, South Australia’s leading not- for-profit organisation delivering world class, community-based environmental sustainability education programs.