New opportunities

By learning from the policies of the European Union, the Federal Government could shift Australia to a circular economy with its next National Waste Policy, writes Gayle Sloan, Chief Executive Officer of the Waste Management Association of Australia.

The Federal Government has been receiving a lot of attention recently and not always for the right reasons.

As of August, we have a new Environment Minister – Melissa Price MP!

 The Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) actively participated in a working group during August to update the National Waste Policy 2009 which went on public exhibition in September 2018 for comment. This has made me think a bit more about what the role of the Federal Government is, or should be, in our essential industry in 2018 and beyond.  

In November 2009, the Federal Government issued the National Waste Policy. This should have been a defining moment for our industry but we all agree that it did not deliver what we’d hoped. Why? Due to it lacking vision as to where the industry needed to head and having no common direction for governments to aim for. Add to that, we continue to see different levers, for example levies and diversion targets, being pulled in different directions creating an uneven playing field with limited market development.

To understand what the Federal Government role could look like, we need to look at the steps, actions, and role the European Union (EU) has played in recent years – driving away from a linear approach to waste to a circular economy. 

The EU recognised that waste could not be managed under one portfolio (environment), rather it took a whole-of-government approach, utilising energy, climate, agriculture, consumer protection, regional development and research departments. The resulting policy was, and remains, one of the largest in the EU’s history, with more than 54 clearly defined measures, all with responsibilities allocated. 

Just some of the measures of EU policy over the last few years are:

  • Targets of 450-600 million tonnes less carbon emissions/year.
  • A plan that by 2030, €1 trillion worth of recyclables not be sent abroad and a seven per cent increase in gross domestic product.
  • Target of 170,000 direct jobs in waste management sectors by 2035 and potentially three million extra jobs across sectors by 2035.
  • Targets of 50 per cent reuse/recycling for household and 70 per cent for construction waste
    by 2020.
  • Household waste and recycling targets of 55 per cent by 2025, 60 per cent by 2030 and 65 per cent by 2035.
  • Landfill phase-out: by 2035 no more of 10 per cent of municipal waste.

The EU has mandated a clear objective of adhering to the waste management hierarchy. One of the first steps in this is to introduce a polluter-pays system that ensures manufacturers and waste generators handle their waste correctly and have clear financial obligations for not doing so. 

THE INTERSTATE WASTE TRADE

The EU also strongly advocates and enforces proximity principles to ensure that waste generated is handled as close to the source as possible. Transferring waste from a country where environmental standards are high and treatment is expensive to one where standards and costs are lower is not a sustainable option. 

Much the same has recently been highlighted with the interstate transportation of waste around Australia, an issue that not only occurs between NSW and Queensland, but we also see medical waste move from WA to Victoria and hazardous waste from Victoria to SA. The Federal Government has the ability (and only it can do this) to clarify the issues surrounding the NSW proximity principle and find a solution to proximity nationally, so that waste does not move unnecessarily and we have certainty of volumes to build necessary infrastructure and the jobs that come with this. 

AFFECT LANDFILL STANDARDS

The EU has a commitment to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill each year as well as the number of operating landfills as they become more reliant on the circular economy. Thousands of sub-standard landfill sites have been closed across Europe and the amount of municipal waste put into landfills in the EU has fallen by more than 25 per cent since 1995. A common approach to diversion targets nationally in Australia, including landfill management, would arguably address the very different diversion rates we currently see across the country. 

It is a matter for the states how they achieve these targets as each state (and arguably – region) is unique. However, we need a vision as to where we are heading.

Will Australia, for example, establish a zero waste to landfill target, and if so, does that mean that there needs to be more active uptake of waste to energy (WtE)? The Federal Government recently made investments towards WtE, and the EU has already made great strides in this regard, with primary energy production from municipal waste incineration more than doubling
since 1995. It is true that sometimes you need to “be careful what you wish for”, and the current federal interest in our sector is a good thing. However, the current exercise of reviewing the National Waste Strategy in one month after effectively being ignored for years is challenging at best.  

Australia is a long way behind the rest of the world in transitioning to the circular economy and recognising that waste is in fact a resource. The current attempt to update the document in a month does not enable both local and overseas learnings to be properly considered and incorporated. We cannot sufficiently capture the paradigm that there is more to our industry than regulating and arguably a different set of skills are required to develop markets and industries that go well beyond respective departments of environment. 

AGREE ON A SHARED VISION

So, what should the Federal Government be doing? First, it needs to listen to industry and all who are working on the review of the policy and slow the process down to get it right – with 50,000 employees and a $15 billion turnover each year, we are way more than a tick the box exercise!

Second, we need to agree on the vision for Australia, for example, mandate the ‘waste management hierarchy’, agree on national diversion targets (increasing towards zero waste in 2050 perhaps) and agree to transition nationally to a circular economy.

Third, identify the tools in their kit that are unique to them. For example constitutional issues around proximity, tax powers that incentivise research and development, recycled material uptake, consumer protection aligning lifecycle with warranty period, importation and exportation that can incentivise buying recycled Australian products. 

Fourth, identify the common levers and drivers for successful market development and coordinate with the states on the delivery of these as well as best efforts in resolving some of these challenges. For instance, there is no point in three states working to solve the recycled glass challenge when one can do this with the others turning to other market issues. 

Finally, given so many companies operate nationally (for example Wesfarmers, Woolworths and Aldi), there is value in bringing these companies to the table with industry at a national level to discuss the circular economy. At present, it feels like a semi-circular conversation with industry, local councils, state government and parts of the community. We need to elevate these conversations and have the entire supply chain at the table and the Federal Government can play a very key role in this. 

We need to stop and breathe, start doing things differently and get this right, otherwise we will keep doing what we have always done and we know that does not work!

This article was published in the October issue of Waste Management Review.