Waste export bans alone won’t drive resource recovery

Waste export bans won’t deliver the National Waste Policy Action Plan resource recovery targets unless recycled materials are used in packaging, products and infrastructure, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.

Led by the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, state and territory environment ministers agreed at their recent meeting on a timeline for COAG’s waste export bans and signed off on the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

The proposed waste export bans in large are being introduced to reduce harm to human health and the environment overseas. But the likelihood of them delivering the 80 per cent resource recovery target by 2030, or the 70 per cent plastics recovery rate by 2025 on their own is low.

To achieve these resource recovery targets, the demand to use recovered materials locally needs to be fast tracked.

The environment ministers commitment on the 8th November to identify significant procurement opportunities such as major road projects that could use recycled material is a good start. As is prioritising work to develop specifications and standards for the use of recycled materials in building, construction and infrastructure development.

However, this will only increase demand for glass and crumbed tyres. It won’t increase the demand for recovered plastic, paper and cardboard locally.

What is needed to create markets for plastics, paper and cardboard is legally requiring packaging companies, manufacturers and retailers to increase the proportion of recovered materials in packaging put onto the Australian market, including imports, as most of these materials come from overseas.

Some may say that manufacturers have already committed to this. But evidence to date suggests this is limited to one or two global brands that cover less than 40 per cent of the packaging market.

Likewise, none of the major supermarkets have committed to increase the proportion of recycled content in the packaged products they sell. Nor is there any commitment to indicate the level of recycled content on packaging to give consumers the choice to buy recycled.

On the phased timings proposed to implement the export ban:

The NWRIC considers the timeline for mixed plastics is insufficient for industry to purchase and install equipment, especially as there are limited markets.

The timeframe should be extended to match the 2025 APCO recycle content target. If the government wants this to progress more quickly, manufacturers should be required to meet specific plastic recycled content targets sooner.

The NWRIC also does not support the banning of single resin/polymer plastics that have not been processed (e.g. cleaned and baled PET), nor the banning of baled paper and cardboard. Both these recyclates have legitimate overseas markets, clearly demonstrating they are value added products that will not have a negative impact on human health or the environment.

To give government confidence that there will be no harm to human health and the environment overseas, exporters should be able to verify their downstream pathways and material recovery rates with the aid of third-party audits.

Submissions in response to the government’s discussion paper on implementing the banning exports of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres discussion paper are due by 3 December 2019.

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Time to get Australia’s product stewardship back on track

Product stewardship is an effective way to deliver cost effective solutions that minimise the impact of products, goods and materials on the environment and human health. Product stewardship is also an important tool that can drive resource recovery and the circular economy in Australia, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.

What exactly is product stewardship? Simply, producers take responsibility to minimise the human health and environmental impacts of their products throughout their complete life cycle.

From designing out waste to recycling at the end of life and everything in between.

Producers, manufacturers, brands and/or retailers take the primary responsibility and work with their supply chains (upstream and downstream) and customers to minimise harm to human health and the environment.

Product stewardship has been part of Australia’s regulatory framework since the late 1990’s. However, it has had a very stop and start history due to inconsistent government willingness to put in place the necessary regulatory and policy frameworks essential to make producer responsibility possible.

From 1998 through to 2001 there was a flurry of regulatory and voluntary activity with the establishment of the Used Packaging National Environment Protection Measure in 1998 and the Product Stewardship (Oil) Act in 2000.

At the same time industry led voluntary schemes for mobile phones (MobileMuster) and farm chemical containers (DrumMuster) kicked off. Meanwhile, various pilot take-back projects started for select IT equipment and televisions. As part of its 2001 Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act, the NSW Government introduced a provision to establish extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes in NSW.

However, for the next decade little progress was made in addressing the growing impacts of products on the environment due to governments’ ongoing preference for voluntary, industry-led product stewardship programs.

Fortunately, in 2011 the Federal Government took the lead, stepped up and introduced the Product Stewardship Act, which is a robust piece of legislation that provides a framework for government and industry to reduce the impacts of products on the environment and society.

The first suite of products to be addressed under the Act were televisions, computers, printers and accessories. Within 12 months the Product Stewardship (Television and Computers) Regulation was passed establishing the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) requiring all companies who import or manufacture these products in Australia to provide free, reasonable accessible collection services, achieve agreed collection and recovery targets.

The result, within five years collection rates jumped from 18 per cent (under sporadic voluntary programs) to 60 per cent. Australia’s e-waste collection and recycling capacity increased, creating jobs and revenue for Australia at minimal cost to local councils, state or federal governments. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of tonnes of electronic waste being diverted from landfills. With, more than 90 per cent of the materials recovered to an Australian Standard for reuse.

Unfortunately, though, the impetus government for smart, cost effective regulation to create a level playing field for producers was short lived.  As eight years on all we have is a suite of poor performing, partly industry funded, voluntary schemes for tyres, paint, printer cartridges, and mattresses.

Plus, we still don’t have any form of producer responsibility scheme for batteries, other electronics or photovoltaics. Even though these products have been on the product priority list for up to six years.

But fingers crossed, with the new Federal Government’s election commitment of $20 million for product stewardship the tide is changing.  However, we have yet to hear from the government as to how it will invest these funds. Let alone what the outcomes from the Product Stewardship Act Review are, which was initiated way back in 2017.

So, here are a few suggestions to help them get things moving.

Do not change the objects of the Act. They are fine. Just get on and implement them.

Using regulation effectively and efficiently

Free riding is the biggest barrier to getting producer stewardship schemes up and running. To solve this problem, amend the Act so that when a product is placed on the priority list all organisations who put those products in to the Australia market must either:

  1. register and establish a voluntary accredited scheme either as part of the government’s process or on their own within a given timeframe, or
  2. be a member of an existing accredited voluntary scheme.

If not, they will be required to pay an agreed advance recycling fee for each unit placed on the market to the Product Stewardship Fund, which will be used to support local and state government activity in recovering and dealing with the product.

To ensure the APCO packaging targets are met within the required timeframes, establish a regulation under the Act that replaces the Used Packaging NEPM and call out these targets, with penalties similar to the NTCRS for failure to meet the targets.

Getting the priorities right

Batteries and photovoltaics, given the diversity of both these industries free rider regulation needs to be put in place. A voluntary approach will not work. Therefore, resources should be applied to establish the necessary regulations under the Act and assist the industry in getting these two schemes up and running by the end of 2020.

Expand the scope of the NTCRS to include all electronics. The ACT, SA and Victoria have all banned e-waste from landfills. This means the cost of collecting and processing these products is unfairly being borne by local councils and state governments rather than the producers and users.

Making Voluntary Accreditation Meaningful

Amend the voluntary accreditation system to a three-tiered approach: 

Tier 1 – companies register to develop a voluntary scheme within 12 months that includes a three-year product stewardship business plan.

Tier 2 – companies apply for accreditation by submitting a three-year product stewardship business plan.

Tier 3 – companies apply for renewal of accreditation by submitting a five- year product stewardship business plan.

At each tier the Federal Government will provide funding (on a dollar for dollar basis) and/or in-kind resources for any of the following activities – material flow analysis, risk assessment, cost sharing agreements, market development, communications, governance compliance requirements, industry and stakeholder engagement, business planning assistance.  As well as government accreditation and access to product stewardship logo.

The first priority would be to have the current suite of voluntary programs for tyres (TSA), paint (Paint Back), farm chemical drums (DrumMuster, ChemClear), printer cartridges (Cartridges for Planet Ark), soft plastics (Redcycle) become accredited. Why? To increase industry participation, improve performance and transparency and to promote them to the community.

The second priority would be to encourage other companies and industries to apply to become accredited through direct approaches and greater engagement with industry.

It’s time for the new Minister for Environment and Energy and her Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management to turn their election promises into action. It’s also time for state and territory governments to get behind the federal government’s product stewardship commitment by contributing matching dollars to the National Product Stewardship Fund.

If the federal government doesn’t get going soon waste will continue to be exported.  Landfills will fill up with products that leach potentially harmful substances. Stockpiles and risk of fires will continue to grow due to lack of markets and infrastructure to process products. Batteries will continue contaminate kerbside bins, causing explosions and fires, putting recyclers and infrastructure at risk. Potentially recyclable, rare and valuable resources will be lost.

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Levy reform urgently needed

A national approach to levy pricing, adoption of the levy portability principle by all jurisdictions, and more transparent management of levy funds are urgently required, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council. 

Waste or landfill levies are a key regulatory tool used to improve recycling and fund environmental liabilities from waste generation. They have a significant effect on both the commercial environment of nearly every waste and recycling business and community behaviour. They also generate significant amounts of funds for each jurisdiction. Therefore, carefully considered levy regulations nationwide are essential to advancing Australia towards a circular economy.

The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) has recently undertaken a review of the current status of waste and landfill levies across Australia (see www.nwric.com.au). It examines by jurisdiction, how much the levies are, what waste types are levied, where and when they apply, how they are administered, the amount of funds raised each year and how these funds are spent.

It also analysed the impacts and benefits of these levies on waste and recycling outcomes across Australia and identified a number of issues that need to be addressed urgently to ensure the levies achieve what they were set out to do and not drive waste down the hierarchy.

Waste/landfill levies were first introduced in 1971 by NSW at a $0.56 per tonne. Since then South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland have introduced levies. In 2018-19 rates ranged in price from $0 to $250 with an estimated $1.13 billion raised. In 2019-20 this is expected to increase to $1.54 billion with the introduction of the waste levy in Queensland. This will equate to approximately $58 per capita per year, up from $39 per capita per year in 2018-19.

Of the $1.13 billion funds raised in 2018-19, an estimated $282 million or 25 per cent nationally was reinvested into activities relating to waste and recycling, state EPA’s or climate change (in the case of Victoria). At a state level the reinvestment rate of the levy ranged from 10.9 per cent in NSW, 25 per cent in WA, 66 per cent in Victoria to 73 per cent in South Australia. Funds not reinvested were either retained in consolidated revenue (as in the case of NSW and WA) or retained in nominated funds such as Victoria’s Sustainability Fund, SA’s Green Industries Fund or SA’s Environment Protection Fund where some of the funds may be invested in various non-waste or recycling related environmental activities.

In 2019-20 it is estimated that of the $1.54 billion in funds raised, around $569 million or 37 per cent will be reinvested into waste and recycling activities. This increase can largely be attributed to the Queensland government’s commitment to reinvest over 70 per cent of the levy, with local councils receiving 105 per cent of their levy contribution

On the positive side, the levies have increased resource recovery over time and enabled the commercial development of local resource recovery businesses including material recovery facilities, processing facilities for plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, timber, organics, alternate waste treatment plants and waste-to-energy facilities for fuel manufacture, thermal and electricity generation.

The levies have also funded various waste and recycling initiatives. These range from state EPA and local government environmental compliance activities, community and business waste and recycling education campaigns, research and development, data collection, construction of new infrastructure by local government and private enterprise, to cleaning up waste and pollution generated from illegal actions.

On the negative side however, differentials in levies across regions and between states has created a levy avoidance industry, both legal and illegal, resulting in potentially recyclable material ending up in landfill, and hazardous material being disposed of inappropriately. This has become big business particularly in NSW and WA due to the significant variability of levy rates for solid, hazardous and liquid wastes. It is estimated that between 1.5 million to three million tonnes of waste has been transported per annum either significant distances to landfills where levies do not apply, dumped into the environment, stockpiled or in the case of hazardous wastes hidden or mislabelled to reduce or avoid state levies.

Key learnings from this analysis are the vastly different approaches states and territories take to levies. This ranges from how much is charged between regions and states, what wastes are levied (e.g. solid, liquid, hazardous or prescribed) and how they are defined, where liability for the levy is charged, how the levy is administered and how levy funds are managed and reinvested into activities to improve waste and recycling practices and reported on.

Of major concern is the lack of transparency in most jurisdictions of how many funds are collected per year, how and where they are invested in waste and recycling activities and assessment of the effectiveness of the investment in achieving waste and recycling strategies and targets.

The NWRIC believes there is an urgent need to reform the current state levy structures, pricing, administration and investment management. It is critical this reform is done in a coordinated manner between all state and territories to remove interstate inconsistencies that are clearly driving poor waste disposal behaviours contrary to the objects of the levy to increase resource recovery and environmental protection.

This will be the only way to ensure the best return on investment of levy funds in delivering better waste management and resource outcomes expected by the community.

This article appeared in the October edition of Waste Management Review, some figures have been changed. 

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Tightening standards to build markets for recycled organics

The drive to divert organic waste from landfill around Australia has created a supply of recycled organics that remains largely underutilised and undervalued, writes Angus Johnston, Principal Consultant at Jackson Environment and Planning.

Too much organic material is released as low-quality pasteurised products, containing too much contamination. Due to the policies and regulations of state and federal governments, a lot more supply will come on-line in the next five years. There remains an urgent need to tighten standards for compost use and build markets that will absorb this supply.

Urban markets for compost (e.g. landscape supplies) are well developed but highly competitive, because supply often exceeds demand. These markets cannot consistently use all the organic matter available for recycling. Using compost for gardens and landscaping also squanders the opportunity to return carbon and nutrients to the soils they were extracted from — the farms where our food and fibre are grown.

Fortunately, there is enormous potential demand for use of compost in agriculture. At an average annual application rate of 10 tonnes per hectare, we only need 100,000 hectares to absorb one million tonnes of compost.

There is roughly 65 million hectares of farmland in NSW alone. However, this demand can only be accessed at the right price, quality and specification. That price doesn’t have to be low, but quality and performance absolutely must be high.

The highly regulated nature of the organic recycling sector means that state and local government can strongly influence whether compost price and quality conditions are met by industry. Industry can also play a role by agreeing on and adopting higher product standards.

Organics recycling is suffering from the same issues that caused the China National Sword packaging crisis.

Local government procurement of recycling services often has a much greater focus on transfer of risk and price than on recycled product quality, beneficial use and value adding. This approach creates an incentive for contractors to do the minimum processing necessary to divert waste from landfill and comply with state government regulations. They then release these low-quality outputs into the market as ‘compost’.

Low quality products that cost less to manufacture can then be sold at a lower price point. Such products undermine the market for higher quality products that cost more to produce. If a farmer can purchase a product claiming to be ‘compost’ for $10 per tonne (delivered), why would they pay $100 per tonne?

If that low-cost compost does not deliver enough tangible result, or is clearly full of rubbish, farmers often apply their negative experience to every product claiming to be a compost. Only a few farmers take the time to understand the difference in value between the $10 and $100 product.

This scenario has played out repeatedly in agricultural and other compost end markets, and is still happening right now around the country.

Every time contaminated immature products are sold as “compost” we undermine the credibility of compost and organic recycling. There are producers that make quality fit-for-purpose composts and have built up trust for their brand in certain markets. They can command high prices for their products, however, they are the exception rather than the rule.

There needs to be tighter standards and improved quality assurance and quality control. For example:

  1. Mandatory requirement for independently audited quality assurance programs at each processing facility
  2. Regular auditing of batch test results to requirements of the relevant Resource Recovery Orders and Exemptions (in NSW) or equivalent standards in other states
  3. Physical contamination requirements reduced to 0.2 per cent (plastic, glass and metal) and 0.02 per cent (film plastic) by weight for all soil conditioners
  4. Soil conditioners to meet the AS4454 definition of compost or mature compost (not just pasteurisation)
  5. Define compost using selected test results (such as respirometry) rather than a minimum six weeks process duration

Some established commercial composters may see the tighter standards above as a threat because their current operations have been set up to meet lower standards. Many are locked into long-term contracts at set gate fees. This is where state and local governments have a role in supporting industry to make a transition to higher standards by helping to fund facility upgrades, allowing variations to contracts, and regulating free riders who don’t adopt tighter voluntary standards.

There is a cost to implementing higher standards, but there are also rewards:

  • Access to much greater demand from agricultural markets
  • Fewer complaints from the public and customers
  • Fewer fines and less negative attention from the regulators
  • Reduced product related risk
  • Higher barriers to entry for new competitors
  • A more ‘level playing field’ during tendering

The packaging recyclers did not seek to tighten their own standards and neither did the processors of mixed waste in NSW. Both groups could have agreed to produce cleaner products to a higher standard but chose not to. For these recyclers either their customers or their regulators decided to tighten their standards for them, at great financial and reputational cost to the recyclers involved. Some businesses didn’t survive the change.

Tighter standards need to be introduced in consultation with all stakeholders, and with time allowed for the industry and their customers to adapt.

The Australian Organics Recycling Association provides an ideal forum for industry led tightening and enforcement of standards.

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Waste export bans are one part of the solution

The Prime Minister’s August announcement to ban the export several waste types is a welcomed development. It has the potential to reboot local reprocessing and markets for recovered materials, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council. 

First, just the facts. As part of the Council of Australian Governments communique on 9 August 2019, the Prime Minister, along with the states and territories announced:

“Leaders agreed Australia should establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres – while building Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities and associated demand.”

Further, the communique also said:

— “Leaders agreed the strategy must seek to reduce waste, especially plastics,”

— The government will work to; “decrease the amount of waste going to landfill and maximise the capability of our waste management and recycling sector to collect, recycle, reuse, convert and recover waste,”

— “The strategy should draw on the best science, research and commercial experience, including that of agencies like the CSIRO and the work of Cooperative Research Centres.”

These developments are a decisive push in the right direction. However, there are two key elements that need to be addressed to achieve its intention of stopping waste being dumped in developing countries, and stimulating Australia’s resource recovery industry.

These two elements are: building markets at home and clearly specifying how waste paper, plastic, tyres or glass must be processed to become a resource suitable for manufacturing.

Building markets at home

In regard to building markets, two key priority materials stand out. The first is plastics. In order to use the plastics we currently export at home, we will need to increase domestic reuse of plastics by more than 180,000 tonnes per year. To use those plastics here, every Australian would need to purchase products that contain an additional seven kilograms of recycled plastic per year. This still only represents seven per cent of the total plastic waste produced by Australians annually.

Using plastics in civil infrastructure will help. Examples include street furniture, decking by local councils and railway sleepers such as the recent project by Sustainability Victoria, Integrated Recycling and Metro Trains. Integrated Recycling say more than one million railway sleepers in Australia need to be replaced, so just creating railways sleepers from mixed plastics could create a market for up to one quarter the plastics we previously sent overseas.

However, clearly higher end markets for plastics are also desirable, especially putting PET and HDPE back into packaging. These higher end markets will create the necessary pull to stimulate development of Australia’s reprocessing capacity and the collection systems to ensure quality material.

The second market is tyres. According to the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, Australians generate in excess of 400,000 tonnes of end of life tyres per year. Plenty of scope remains for creating local markets for tyre derived products. Key products produced from tyres include rubber crumb, or explosives and adhesives. Likewise, waste tyres can become high quality engineered fuels for local or export markets.

Positive procurement by local and state governments as well as businesses including the waste and recycling industry is also urgently needed. As consumers of products and materials we must match our rhetoric with action by preferentially purchasing products with recycled content.

Clear specifications and definitions necessary

Clearly, the intention of these bans is to stop the export of unprocessed waste to countries that do not have the ability to process it responsibly. So to untangle this problem, the first step is to have a clear definition of waste.

State and Territory EPAs have done preliminary work in this area as part of their domestic landfill bans, which identify certain goods and materials that should be processed and not buried. Examples include whole baled tyres, whole cars and white goods, all of which are banned from landfill in South Australia.

The next step is to define and agree nationally what minimum material specifications must be met before each waste material type becomes a resource suitable for manufacture locally or overseas.

To some this may seem simple, but in reality it is quite difficult as currently each state and territory have a different approach to this problem. For example in NSW, ‘Resource Recovery Exemptions and Orders’ are used. In Queensland, there is an ‘end of waste (EOW) framework’ of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Act 2011.

This divergence in approaches will need to be resolved urgently, as national agreement on ‘waste’ and ‘resource’ definitions will be key for the COAG’s national ban on the export of waste paper, glass, plastics and tyres is to be successful.

In closing, this approach should also be harmonised with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, which has recently expanded its scope to include various plastics. It should be noted that the Australian Government has yet to ratify these latest changes to the Basel Convention.

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Balancing the good and the bad of plastics

There is a raft of potential changes and interventions that can be made to better position plastics as the remarkable material that it is, writes Matt Genever, Director Resource Recovery, Sustainability Victoria.

I recall not too long ago seeing a 1950s TV advertisement from the United States promoting the virtues of disposable plastics. A typical American family seated around the dinner table, enjoying a meal on plastic tableware – off the plaid orange and brown tablecloth (classic 50s!) – and sweeping the whole lot into the bin when they’re done…plates, bowls, knives, forks…all of it.  Selling the dream of a “hassle-free” life.

Thankfully things have changed, somewhat, since then. We saw the first global plastic waste revolution in the 80s – then in the 90s, with the move away from traditional glass packaging spurring the creation of the first kerbside recycling programs. More recently, the focus has been on the significant impact of poorly managed plastic entering our marine environment and the accumulation of microplastics.   

It is fair to say that the balance isn’t quite right yet. This useful, flexible, malleable and now ubiquitous material can play an infinitely useful role in our world, from lightweight prosthetic limbs to 3D models printed seemingly from mid-air. On the flipside, its use has also become a pervasive vehicle to feed our throwaway culture.

In Australia, we generate around 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, that’s around 100 kilograms of plastic waste for every person in the country. Despite the options for reuse and recycling, almost 2.2 million tonnes (87 per cent) are sent to landfill (National Waste Report 2018). However, recently shoots of new growth have emerged, signalling a dramatic change in the way we use, recover and, ultimately recycle plastic globally.

There is a raft of potential changes and interventions that can be made to better position plastics as the remarkable material that it is.

Demand and supply both need a kick start

There has been a good deal of talk on the role of government procurement in stimulating growth in the recycling sector, and rightly so. This is a fundamental step we need to get right in order to grow a healthy recycling ecosystem.

One of the things that strikes me is the fragmented nature of our current secondary manufacturing market for recyclables. On one side, there are materials that have well developed markets that need little or no intervention at all – like the use of recycled aggregates in roadbase and other civil construction. On the other side, there are markets that, even if government sent a strong procurement signal, would not necessarily be ready to respond immediately.

Plastic is a great example of this. The emerging opportunities are endless, from compressed plastic railway sleepers to companies like Advanced Circular Polymers who are producing food-grade recycled rPET and rHDPE. But in reality, there are only a handful of companies currently producing domestic, market-ready recycled products at scale in Australia.

So, it is important for government and industry to work together to make sure that the supply side is getting the support it needs to scale up as the demand grows through procurement mechanisms.

Industry has the momentum in its supply chain

One of the key factors that helped the United Kingdom to turn around its recycling system was a shift in the supply chain.

Specifically, the major supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s moved to control more of the waste and recycling flows in and out of their businesses, in some cases becoming quasi-recyclers in their own right.

In recent months, reflecting on the meetings I’ve had around investment in plastic recycling, it’s encouraging to see how many of these are from the packaging industry and food and beverage supply chain itself rather than from traditional recycling businesses. The convergence of public attitude toward plastic, new national packaging targets and the diminishing export market for mixed plastics is generating huge momentum.

You can’t spell circular economy without “jobs”

It is equal parts frustrating and astonishing that collectively we have not made a stronger link between recycling and the creation of new “advanced manufacturing” jobs in Australia. With a minimum wage of almost $19 and hour and wholesale energy prices sitting around 300 per cent higher than the US, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be a country that goes back to low margin mass-producing widgets. There is a huge opportunity for high-margin, bespoke plastic products to be made locally from recycled materials and exported internationally.

In its Advanced Manufacturing Roadmap, CSIRO notes that Australia could position itself as a sustainable manufacturing hub, focusing on high-value advanced materials and applications. At the core of these materials and products will be polymers, both natural and synthetic.  The options are there for us to either feed from energy-intensive virgin materials or plug in directly from a well-developed, domestic Australia recycling sector.

This paradigm isn’t new. Ten years ago, it was concrete. Five years ago, it was glass. We’ve built businesses, infrastructure and end-uses for these materials and we’ll do the same for plastics.

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Location, location, location essential to the future of C&D

Construction recyclers do most of the heavy lifting in Australian recycling, but several stones remain in the gears to drive its future, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC).

The trend isn’t hard to spot, behind the successful recycling strategy of any city are construction and demolition (C&D) recycling companies recovering large material volumes. C&D waste generation in 2016-17 (the latest year available) was just over 20 million tonnes nationally, or 38 per cent of the waste produced in Australia by weight.

Recovery of C&D materials across major urban centres can be as high as 90 per cent. So C&D recyclers have taken a hard problem, and over the last decade, have thoroughly crushed it.

Despite this welcome progress, many stones remain in the gears that drive its future development.

In 2019, the NWRIC undertook a survey of key C&D recyclers to determine barriers to advancing recycling in this sector. Our research identified six key areas for improvement:

  1. Implementation of effective specifications for the use of recycled aggregates in infrastructure construction
  2. Competition with virgin products
  3. Inconsistent landfill levies and insufficient enforcement resulting in levy avoidance
  4. Planning frameworks which often fail to provide certainty of site tenure
  5. Poor waste data that can inhibit policy and investment decisions
  6. Market economics that inhibit greater recovery of C&D materials in regional areas

While several of these challenges are self-explanatory, a few are worth discussing in detail.

The first is that local and state land use planning can fail to provide the site tenure required for some of the state’s highest performing C&D recovery facilities. This is a major challenge, as for C&D recovery facilities to be financially sustainable, they must be set close to urban centres where the waste materials are generated and eventually reused. Minimising transport distances is a key driver to the success of these facilities.

Likewise, these facilities require a reasonable footprint to be able to manage the flow of materials through the process; from receival, sorting, processing to stockpiling the various grades of final products ready for reuse.

Unfortunately, many of these sites across Australia are being threatened by encroachment of urban or commercial development, and in some cases, are being closed by local councils to create parks.

To solve this problem, the NWRIC recommends that current waste and recycling infrastructure plans that provide for C&D recycling be formally incorporated into local and state planning regulations, so that precincts or green zones for such facilities are clearly identified and protected for the long term. To be effective, the location and duration of tenure of these ‘green zones’ must be agreed by all levels of government.

A second major challenge is waste levy avoidance in the C&D recovery sector. Construction recyclers charge a gate fee to cover the cost of sorting and processing the materials they receive. This gate fee must be lower than the cost of landfill. To reach this cost, typically a landfill levy is required.

Unfortunately, where there are landfill levies, there is also levy avoidance resulting in potentially recyclable material being dumped or transported vast distances outside levy zones. One prominent example is the illegal waste stockpile in Lara, Victoria. This site contains a massive stockpile of up to 320,000 cubic meters of construction and demolition waste, including materials such as timber, concrete, bricks, plaster, glass and ceramics.

If one cubic meter weighs half a tonne, then this stockpile represents a loss of more than $10 million in levy revenue.  To clean up this illegal dump of C&D waste, the Victorian Government has committed $30 million, the largest waste related budget item for Victoria in 2019.

To ensure the success of the C&D recovery sector, states must address levy avoidance urgently. Possible solutions include better inter-agency engagement (across Police, EPAs and the ATO) to monitor and prevent illegal activity, and more widespread use of regulatory tools like mass balance reporting and GPS tracking.  Setting levies so any differences do not encourage its movement from one region or state to another, or applying the levy portability principle (i.e. the levy liability is a point of generation not disposal) both within and across state and territory boundaries.

Finally, C&D recovery providers can also help to support other recycling streams, including the recovery and reuse of tyres, glass and used plastics. Where these products are not suitable for cradle to cradle recycling, they can be reused as a substitute material for civil construction works. This further diversifies the market opportunities for these recovered materials, which in the past have relied on limited opportunities locally and internationally, ended up in landfill or illegally dumped.

This is why integration of state resource recovery infrastructure plans into local and state land use planning regulations is critical to the future success of C&D resource recovery. By securing space and long term tenure for these facilities states and territories will ensure a viable industry that can supply materials to the ongoing infrastructure development and construction needs of Australia.

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Composting remains our biggest recycling opportunity

With all the recent discussion about plastic exports, it’s easy to forget that organics remains our single largest recycling opportunity, writes Rose Read CEO of the National Waste Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC).

The numbers speak for themselves, according to the National Waste Report, Australia generated 30 million tonnes of organic material in 2016-17. Of this mass, about 6.7 million tonnes went to landfill (or 22 per cent) of which around 43 per cent is food waste according to the National Food Waste Baseline Report.

What are the benefits of composting?

There are many benefits to composting organics over sending them to landfill. Firstly, composting helps to recover nutrients and organic material that can regenerate soils, critical to agricultural productivity. Secondly, diverting organics from landfill reduces greenhouse gas emissions, odour and leachate.

Composting can also save council’s and ratepayers considerable expense. In the case of councils and shires that already have a kerbside garden organics recovery services, food can also be added at little cost, which currently can make up as much as 40 per cent of a kerbside rubbish bin.

Where is composting today?

Currently, about 42 per cent of households nationally have access to kerbside organics collection service according to the National Waste Report and 15 per cent have access to food and garden collection Services (FOGO).

South Australian households have the highest access to organic kerbside collections at 92 per cent, NSW 60 per cent and Victoria 56 per cent as reported by the federal Department of Environment and Energy in its report ‘Analysis of Australia’s municipal recycling infrastructure capacity’.

Strategically, each jurisdiction has a different approach to advancing their organics recovery and only Victoria has a dedicated organics resource recovery strategy. Overall, each state government has resource recovery targets for the next decade in the order of 65 per cent to 75 per cent for commercial and municipal streams. To achieve these targets the majority of tonnage will have to come from diverting organics including food waste to composting.

In terms of investment, NSW has the single largest funding program for organics recovery, with around $9 million per annum from 2017 to 2021 as part of the Waste Less, Recycle More. Victoria recently completed a $3.3 million organics recovery program and is currently focused on implementing its e-waste landfill ban and recycling challenges.

While Queensland does not have a specific organics’ program, funding is available through its Resource Recovery Industry Development Program. A key element of Western Australia’s new 2030 waste avoidance and resource recovery strategy is to have a consistent three bin kerbside collection system, including separation of food and garden organics from other waste categories, to be provided by all local governments in the Perth and Peel region by 2025.

How can we accelerate the diversion of organics from landfill in Australia?

While there is clear intent by each state and territory government to divert food and organics from landfill, the NWRIC, in consultation with the Australian Organics Recycling Association (AORA) has developed a four-part plan on how best to advance the composting sector.

1. Develop markets for compost

Further development of urban municipal and commercial markets has the potential to utilise large volumes of compost. Key markets include mine site rehabilitation and urban redevelopment such as highways. However, long term, agriculture has the potential to be the largest market for compost, improving soil carbon, providing healthy soils and promoting sustainable food production. Coordinated research and action that links organics diversion with the direct benefits of compost and soil carbon in agriculture is required to develop this market.

2. Long term planning for siting and protecting organic recycling facilities

In order to meet the recycling targets proposed in the state and national waste policies, Australia will need many new organics recycling facilities. The creation of organics recycling facilities requires appropriate sites and surrounding land buffers that are protected for the life of their operation. It is important that these sites are provisioned for in local and state government plans.

3. Reduce contamination in municipal and commercial waste derived compost

Compost derived from household and commercial bins can be contaminated with plastics and other undesirable materials. Through improved education and product stewardship, contamination can be reduced, and clean compost produced. Equally important will be ensuring that all compostable packaging used complies with Australian Standards for home composting AS 5810-2010 and or industrial composting AS 4736-2006 and is clearly labelled.

4. Enforcement of nationally consistent standards for the outputs from organics processing.

While most operators manufacture high quality organic products the presence of substandard products and facilities can undermine the market and damage consumer confidence. Therefore, the enforcement the existing standard for composting output AS4454 – 2012, Composts, soil conditioners and mulches is critical.

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