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A new normal: wrapping up Waste 2022

Greg Freeman, Conference Convenor and Director of Impact Environmental, delivers the Waste 2022 opening address.

The 2022 Coffs Harbour Waste Conference was a highly anticipated return to relative normalcy. Conference Convenor Greg Freeman explains.

Since 1996, the Coffs Harbour Waste Conference has developed into one of the waste management industry’s most highly regarded events. As the sector has continued to evolve in scale and complexity, the annual conference has evolved with it – blending global trends with local knowledge, technological advances with education.

In keeping with global trends, last year’s conference was underscored by a sense of COVID-19-induced trepidation and compromise. After a virtual offering in 2020, Waste 2021 trialled a hybrid of limited in-person participation, live broadcasts and interactive events.

Waste 2022, from 3-5 May, continued the format, though now balanced out with the return of crowds and an expanded outdoor trade show which encompassed the newly introduced ‘Equipment & Technology Expo’.

Greg Freeman, Conference Convenor and Director of Impact Environmental, says the success of the live broadcasts and hybrid events provide new opportunities and challenges to consider for the future of the conference.

“I think one of the benefits of COVID-19 is it accelerated the shift to technology, which we’ll keep using going forward,” says Greg.

He says ongoing virtual accessibility is also a win for regional councils and waste management players from the far reaches of Australia and beyond.

“Running the conference in a regional area, we are very mindful of councils that aren’t as well-endowed as metropolitan ones, both in a financial and resource sense. So, if we can help them get access to our conference, that’s really important.”

Regardless of its form, Waste 2022 couldn’t have come at a better time for the waste management industry, according to Greg. He says ongoing post-pandemic challenges, the uptick in floods and fires across the country, and the interlinked discourse on climate action all culminated in an event marked by a feeling of urgency – for the industry and beyond.

“Coming through COVID-19 and coming through disasters really focused our attention on disaster management in a waste management context,” he says.

“We did have a few presentations that dealt with that. Cate McQuillan [Creative Producer/Owner of children’s television production company One Story], who gave one of the opening keynotes, talked about the resilience that communities need in the face of these disasters. We had speakers from the Lismore and Shoalhaven city councils on a disaster waste management panel. I think these are very stark reminders of how closely disasters and waste management are linked.”

McQuillan’s keynote presentation set the theme for the rest of the conference when she, along with co-presenter (and well-known Gardening Australia host) Costa Georgiadis invited delegates to imagine the ideal future world of 2030, and what positive action could be taken now to make it a reality. The most consistent theme across the conference’s three days – if not for the whole sector itself – was the pursuit of a circular economy.

“When the concept was first introduced four or five years ago, not many people understood it – but now, I think they do,” Greg says. “The idea that you really need to design products to stay in the system longer. Recycling is a bit of an end-of-pipe solution by itself, but circular economy is more of a whole system solution.”

He says day two’s keynote followed this theme, addressing circularity through product stewardship. Claire Kneller, Executive Director of WRAP Asia Pacific, explained the importance of rethinking the design, use, consumption and disposal of products in developing a new paradigm for sustainability across all industries.

Further panels on extended producer responsibility, container deposit schemes and energy from waste continued conversations along this theme.

With the aid of a grant from Destination NSW, Waste 2022 also introduced the new ‘Equipment & Technology Expo’. An outdoor marquee adjacent to the existing outdoor exhibition provided a space for a selection of exhibitors to pitch their products through a series of scheduled presentations.

“We wanted to enable exhibitors to have the opportunity for a more structured sales pitch,” Greg says.  “We’ve been at pains over the years not to push products and services too hard within the conference itself, just to avoid detracting from the quality of the knowledge. So, we thought we’d provide that as a space by itself.

“With a lot of the technology that’s emerging in the waste industry, it’s important for the people selling these products to be able to explain what they do. A lot of the delegates don’t otherwise get that opportunity to be exposed to it.”

Despite the growth in challenges facing the waste management sector, Greg is excited for the future of the conference and the industry.

“What started in 1996 as a conference about landfilling, waste collection and a bit of recycling is now a multi-faceted event that deals with 30 or so issues. It’s moved more into resource recovery than waste management,” he says.

For more information, visit: www.coffswasteconference.com.au

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