Waste Management Review catches up with outgoing Waste and Recycling Industry QLD CEO Rick Ralph, talking international waste bans, Queensland policy setting and his career journey.
In 1981, a 20-something Rick Ralph was selling toilet paper and towels in Melbourne.
He’d introduced hospitals to a range of one-way clinical products and disposal paper products, but little did he know his life would be about to change.
Four years prior, he had dropped out of university and followed the sabbatical adolescent rite of passage to travel the globe.
“I probably didn’t apply myself as much as I should have. It’s ironic that I’ve just been installed in the School Hall of Fame for my achievements in the community and environment now 40 years later – quite incredible,” he recalls.
A call out of the blue from one of Rick’s mentors at Comalco Aluminium led him to head up the Cash for Cans Initiative in Victoria – a world-first container refund scheme.
“Someone had heard about someone, who knew someone, who knew someone, and I got a phone call. I thought this was interesting and in January 1981, started my career in recycling and waste management,” he says.
Comalco promoted aluminium can recycling to the general public by inspiring children and community groups to collect their cans. It saw the establishment of buy-back centres where users could return their cans for a cash return. Much like modern container refund schemes, they raised significant funds for community and charity projects across Australia.
The occasion calls for reflection as Waste Management Review Editor Toli Papadopoulos caught up with Rick, the Chief Executive Officer of Waste Recycling Industry Association (QLD). As Rick recently announced his retirement, I spoke with him over lunch to discuss his 39-year career in waste and recycling.
CASH FOR CANS
Comalco Aluminium’s Cash for Cans initiative would later inspire similar schemes in Western Australia and internationally, and led to a ban on glass sales at Australian Rules Football grounds in Victoria.
“The introduction of the aluminium can and Comalco’s program was the complete reset of the environmental recycling movement in Australia,” Rick says.
“It changed recycling from putting out your 55-litre bin and a few bottles and paper for the garbo to collect to a wholesale reform where it introduced and supported community-based litter programs. It shifted the way glass recycling occurred and shifted the light weighting of glass bottles.”
He adds that it removed steel cans from beverage one-way use and reduced litter of cans from the waste stream. It also triggered the paper industry to change its recycling model.
“We paid out millions each year. At one stage we had 33 per cent of Australia’s primary and secondary school system actively engaged, we had employees developing school’s programs and it was the founding of community events such as the can raft regattas that still go on today.
“What many in government and the community don’t realise is that the aluminium can had the highest recycling rate in the world. At its peak, it performed well over 65 per cent recovery and stabilised somewhere near 60 to 62 percent regularly.”
As the program matured and kerbside commenced in the late 90s, focus shifted, and the program was disbanded.
In the years since, Rick helped introduce beach litter programs with the late Dame Phyllis Frost from Keep Australia Beautiful, while also later working in WA and South Africa.
But in the early 90s, he went back to the Sunshine State as Director of Waste Services at the City of Brisbane, a role which he held for three years.
“I left that because it was either politicians winning or Rick, and Rick was never going to win,” he jokes.
“I then bought a recycling business and we were one of the first materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in Brisbane and the state’s largest glass recycler.”
He stayed in this role for around five years.
Rick then went on to work at an Australian-first pyrolysis municipal solid waste plant as General Manager Recycling and Resource Recovery in Wollongong in NSW.
“It was a genuine attempt at waste-to-energy at the turn of the century and a time when a lot of the alternative waste treatments got going in NSW. We were competing in a very noisy and developing waste space,” Rick says.
THE BUSINESS VOICE
In 2006, an opportunity arose to start an industry association which would become what Rick says provided a business voice for waste and recycling. Working with Tony Khoury, who heads up the Waste Contractors Recyclers Association (WCRA) NSW, one of the oldest waste industry associations in the world, Rick helped established WCRA QLD. Formed in 2007, the association would later be rebranded to Waste Recycling Industry Queensland (WRIQ) in 2012.
On his achievements with WRIQ, he cites supporting the development of environmentally relevant activities such as the Department of Environment and Science (DES) version of EPA guidelines for waste-related activities and our future leaders’ program.
Additionally, replicating the governance model of WRIQ in the Northern Territory and supporting state-based associations in WA and SA was another highlight. Not least, his work setting up the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council in partnership with former CEO Max Spedding.
In respect to the repeal of the levy by the Campbell Newman Government, Rick says there are those that accused WRIQ of advocating for its repeal – a complete falsehood.
“We advocated to get it right because the framework was wrong. The current levy is still wrong as we have this disconnect where only half the state has got it and only that half is paying for the levy.”
Reflecting on the lessons learnt from Cash for Cans, Rick says the Queensland Government’s container refund scheme (CRS) changed forever the operating parameters of existing recycling systems.
Rick says that disruption was inevitable but he doesn’t think we have truly yet analysed where that will stabilise. He says that coupled with changes in commodity values, international quality specifications and product market access, 12 months along only now are we seeing the real impacts to kerbside systems.
“From the social equity view it’s been hugely successful as it provided many communities in Queensland previously without access to recycling an opportunity to participate – a great result,” he says.
“However, it’s time we step back, analyse these changes and leverage those outcomes. We must refocus our attention and ensure kerbside and many other commercial systems are just as sustainable. Existing kerbside models are outdated. They need revitalising and readjustment for them to survive this new community norm.”
Rick says right now one of the great challenges facing Queensland is a disconnect between government policy and industry, describing the regulatory framework as a failure.
“Be it developing and improving existing assets of brownfield sites or even greenfield developments, Queensland currently is a ‘basket case’ in terms of its planning arrangements and the approvals framework and government is totally responsible for that confused and complex environment.”
Industry was blind-sided when the Queensland Government exercised its legislative powers, introducing new requirements for buffer zones on all new or expanded facilities in the Swanbank and New Chum industrial area.
A Temporary Legislative Planning Instrument (TLPI) was used to suspend part of their planning scheme and took effect for two years from 6 April 2018. The TLPI introduced a 750-metre buffer from existing, approved or planned residential areas for new and expanded waste facilities, including in landfill.
“If you look historically in planning terms, WRIQ agreed in 2013 with the government of the day introducing planning instruments that gave protection to all our existing assets and gave sensitive receptors and community protection as well.
“With the re-election of this current government, it again changed the planning framework, the third government in six years to do so, by slapping a TLPI on us in the most sensitive and secure landfill region for southeast Queensland without any industry consultation.”
Rick’s frustration with the slow process of reform saw him commission an independent survey of 67 WRIQ members in 2018 into the performance of the DES.
The feedback called for a complete overhaul of the DES and the instalment of an EPA to regulate the industry. He maintains that position is more apt today than ever.
I ask if there’s been any progress on the matter since then, he laughs and says Queensland is on Fijian time.
“As a local Fijian once said to me, ‘no worry, no hurry here’,” he says.
“From an industry perspective I think government has heard us. But there is this continuing reluctance to genuinely understand and change things. However we’re going to maintain the pressure. We must.
“I think there’s an opportunity to have a look at what Victoria has done. It may not be perfect, but I think from time to time we need to actually take a step back.”
“I hope my successor goes harder than I ever did on getting our reforms through with the regulator.”
And despite Queensland introducing a $70-per-tonne waste levy in July 2018 on waste to landfill, with council and state elections coming up in 2020, Rick says we are heading for a 10-month period of political paralysis.
“When you add the slowed local economy and lack of industry development, it’s very difficult to actually identify if the levy has worked or not.
“Yes it’s caused a rethink, but what’s disappointing is that industry wants to invest, industry wants to go forward, industry wants to create jobs, but we can’t build a thing.
“You’ve got a culture in Queensland where you can set up, start operating, build it and get retrospective approval. This is the greatest threat to our economic development.”
He says the role of the Federal Government should now be to focus on improving regulatory planning processes to ensure states can support and deliver the national targets.
While his achievements over the past two decades are distinct, he says WRIQ has been grateful just to have a seat at the table.
“You’re never going to influence policy, but you must be at the table to talk.
“You can, however, influence regulations because regulations are where it is for any business owner.”
On the issue of the international waste ban, Rick says we need to get serious and stop referring to it as a ban on “waste”.
He points out that we don’t export waste, but rather recyclate. As waste management in Australia has traditionally focused on collection with a lack of substantive local end markets, he questions why we are banning material if there is a sensible end destination for value-added material.
The National Waste Report finds around 5.6 million tonnes of paper and cardboard was generated in 2016-17, with 60 per cent of this recycled and 40 per cent sent to landfill.
A mere 12 per cent of the 2.5 million tonnes of plastics was recycled that same year. Given the high generation figures, Rick ask if the focus is on international environmental and human health harm, then there are far more urgent materials for the attention of COAG, such as baled up scrap metal that is going out under the radar.
“For goodness sake, industry can’t even update an existing brownfield site. How the hell are we going to find remanufacturing for 1.2 million tonnes of paper and products, and more than 250,000 tonnes of plastics in just a couple of years?”
He adds rushed policy is bad policy, and advocates for a full regulatory impact study that quantifies the economic, social and business impacts of these bans before they happen.
“It’s great we’re talking about remanufacturing, but in the current environment of the interference by government at all levels and our elected representatives, it’s going to be difficult. Realistically, if we don’t have a home for it, materials will go straight to landfill with the only benefits going to government from waste levies.
“That’s the reality and that’s not acceptable.”
As for whether he has any regrets. Rick sips his drink and responds without hesitation: ‘nothing’.
He says you need to make the mistakes of past to know what you’ve done wrong, so you don’t make them again.
“It’s been fun, but it hasn’t ended. This is a personal reset of my own priorities and handing things over to a new generation of leaders.”