At this year’s Australasian Waste and Recycling Expo (AWRE), the effects of COVID-19 on the waste and resource recovery industry took centre stage.
While the expo’s virtual format highlighted these effects on a practical level, day one’s afternoon session, The COVID Effect on the Waste Industry, delved deeper – exploring the successful solutions, learning and opportunities presented by the pandemic.
Panellist and AWRE host Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group Managing Director, noted that the overnight stop to many businesses, specifically the hospitality industry, saw an immediate 20 per cent reduction in commercial waste collection.
Conversely, the pandemic lead to a 15-20 per cent increase in domestic waste generation.
Local Government NSW President Linda Scott said COVID-19 had led to an increase level of contamination in kerbside bins, highlighting the need for ongoing public education.
“Education during these times has been challenging, but it really shows that we must not stop with it,” she said.
Furthermore, Ritchie highlighted that the lack of disaster plans for most of the country when it comes to waste and recycling during a time of crisis needed to be addressed.
He added that future planning and preparation needs to be done around having a flexible plan in place for the day-to-day operations of the industry.
That said, Ritchie noted that the industry performed incredibly well in Australia, and should be credited for it.
“Australia has had no breakdown in waste services,” he said.
Jim Perry, Veolia Head of Solid Waste Transport, said the biggest learning for him was operating with staff and the general public’s health and safety at the forefront.
“I will never take that for granted again,” he said.
Tony Khoury, Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of NSW Executive Director, added that it is important to acknowledge the work of the NSW Government, which has worked closely with the waste industry throughout the pandemic.
Additional day one panel discussions included a showcase of innovative circular economy initiatives supported by the NSW EPA, and a discussion of the 2025 packaging and 2030 food waste targets, sponsored by the Australian Institute of Packaging.
To close day one, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean offered an update on where NSW stands with its 20-year Waste Strategy.
Kean acknowledged that managing the global pandemic has forced everyone into uncharted territory, explaining that “adaptability has become the order of the day.”
The Minister thanked the waste industry for their hard work throughout the pandemic.
And said that as NSW begins to refocus towards waste goals and strategy, “we’ve got to do what’s right for the environment and what’s right for the community as we move to a more circular economy.”
Kean added that if the state doesn’t act now, there is a risk that NSW waste systems wont cope. He then explained that the draft 20-year Waste Strategy can be expected in early 2021, with the final strategy and additional Plastics Plan released in June.
“We are serious about phasing out key single-use and problematic plastics. We have to shift the idea of waste from being a problem to be managed to a resource to be used,” he said.
According to Kean, the strategy will seek to triple the production of plastic recycled in NSW by 2030, and make NSW a leader in research in both Australia and internationally.
“The NSW Government waste strategy will be based on sustainable, reliable and affordable principles,” he said.
Kean added that the state’s container deposit scheme, Return and Earn, is helping to promote the development of the domestic recycling industry.
“It’s proof that smart policy can reduce costs,” he said.
“Community is ready to make changes to the way they live and generate waste if the industry and the government can guarantee it will make a difference to the health of the environment and community.”
AWRE supporting partner, the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC), facilitated four sessions across two days, including Waste-to-Energy (WtE) with Hitachi Zosen Inova’s Marc Stammbach, NSW DPIE’s Justin Koek and Veolia Australia and New Zealand’s newly appointed CEO Richard Kirkman.
The session explored Australia’s future in using waste to provide alternative energy sources, as the practice continues to gain global traction in other countries such as Japan, the US and Europe.
During the discussion, Stammbach commented on the lack of similarities between Australian WtE policies and those that have been successful in Europe.
He recommended Australia follow a national standardised policy and highlighted the proactive approach of the Western Australian Government.
“We engaged with the EPA and the community at large. Our job for energy from waste is to make it safe and provide a long-term sustainable solution,” Stammbach said.
Alternatively, Koek argued that a slower, thought-out process of implementation is important for each state, especially NSW.
One point all members of the session agreed on was that WtE systems are not a solution to waste, but rather one tool that must not unnecessarily take precedent.
“It’s not about energy from waste, but where it fits into the whole scheme. It’s part of an overall hierarchy treating different materials,” Kirkman said.
One day two, NWRIC CEO Rose Read facilitated a panel discussion on the Recycling Modernisation Fund with Environment Minister Sussan Ley and Cleanaway CEO Vik Bansal.
Ley provided an update on the fund including progress in finalising agreements with states on the roll out of these funds to increase plastic, glass and tyre processing capacity and the Federal Government’s expression of interest on expanding paper processing capacity nationally.
“We do know that creating demand and markets for recycling is critical. The focus of next year’s budget entirely, will very much be a job’s budgets. That’s where I see opportunities,” Ley said.
Bansal then reiterated the importance of cleaning up inputs to MRFs by ensuring a consistent national four bin system and a container deposit scheme in every state.
He added that successful recycling policy comes down to three key factors: contamination, scale and logistics.
“If you link infrastructure spend, and the procurement link, we as an industry know where to invest, because we know where the product is going to go,” Bansal said.
The Recycling Modernisation Fund panel was followed by a discussion on the national state of waste, during which Assistant Waste Reduction Minister Trevor Evans noted the important role of product stewardship.
“Product Stewardship has a big role to play, and the Federal Government recognises this. We recognise it in the investment fund, and that’s a first,” he said.
“Industry people who have those great ideas now have options with this Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence.
“We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from those who have already been through the process to support more product stewardship solutions.”