National waste reset

Waste Management Review speaks to various stakeholders involved in the consultation process of the upcoming relaunch of the National Waste Policy.

At the beginning of this year, Federal Government, state and territory environment ministers and the Australian Local Government Association moved to reboot the National Waste Policy.

Ministers agreed the new policy, originally launched in 2009, would include “circular economy principles” highlighting that the policy would be updated by the end of 2018. Submissions to a discussion paper on updating the policy closed in October, with numerous stakeholders providing their views on the necessary action points required.

The draft document highlights the opportunities in domestic management of Australia’s waste. It acknowledges an updated policy will need to set a clear roadmap for collective action by businesses, communities and individuals by designing systems and products to avoid waste, conserve resources and maximise the value of all materials used. 

The updated National Waste Policy will also require the preparation of action plans by 2020 to determine and address priorities such as landfill levies, research and development, regulatory and legislative incentives, financial measures and national waste to energy responses. The document indicates action planning will be supported by data and analysis, including a Waste Market Study undertaken by the Department of the Environment and Energy in late 2018. At this stage, it is understood the consultations will be presented to the Meeting of Environmental Ministers for review and endorsement in December. 

The discussion paper proposes targets such as reducing total waste generation in Australia per capita by 10 per cent by 2030, an 80 per cent average recovery rate from all resource recovery streams by 2030, 30 per cent recycled content across all goods and infrastructure procurement by 2030 and phasing out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2030. It also proposes halving the volume of organic waste to landfill by 2030 and creating fit-for-purpose and timely data available for individuals, businesses and governments to make informed decisions. 

Five core principles underpin the policy: avoiding waste, improving resource recovery, increasing the use of recycled materials, better management of material flows and improving information with a series of questions posed for stakeholders to answer. 


The Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA), Australian Council of Recycling, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) and other stakeholders actively participated in a working group during August to update the National Waste Policy.   

Gayle Sloan, WMAA Chief Executive Officer, says the key to ensuring the new policy is successful will be in implementing clear accountabilities and responsibilities.

“We know the 2009 scheme ran out of steam. No-one held government to account and government didn’t hold itself to account,” Gayle says.

“There are 14 strategies under the National Waste Policy, so each one of those will need an action plan. Even within those, some strategies might have four to five outcomes, so all of those will need to be action planned and held accountable with clear timelines, responsibilities and resourcing. 

“While it is disappointing that there is no funding on the table to support this document, there is significant investment in this industry already at each state and territory and it may be about how we reallocate that.”

She says that the 2009 National Waste Policy lacked Federal Government leadership around driving recyclables.

“For example, making recycled packaging competitive like we’ve seen in France – a 10 per cent reduction, managing standards on what comes into the country, including e-waste,” she says.

Gayle says the Federal Government is now addressing issues that previous governments had not addressed in the now defunct National Waste Policy, including responding to market failures.

The European Union has led the way with policies on single-use plastics.

She notes that one of the key issues is the lack of a national proximity principle, which NSW attempted to address but had faced challenges in implementation. Gayle notes the EU has legislated principles where materials cannot move around unless for a higher and better purpose.

“It’s not enough with Queensland’s waste levy coming next year. We don’t want waste to move to regional Victoria, which will have one of the lower levy rates,” Gayle says, adding that the issue of medical waste moving from WA to Melbourne or hazardous waste moving from Victoria to regional SA has gone on too long. 

She says the Federal Government needs to clarify the constitutional interpretation of the proximity principle and get advice from the Commonwealth attorney general, which the Federal Government has so far refused to do.

Gayle says she understands the Waste Market Study will be ready by the end of the year. She notes that the National Waste Reports are a good starting point, but stronger national data is needed around material flows and employment which state agencies such as Sustainability Victoria are good at. Overseas, she says WRAP UK has achieved success in mapping material flows.

In terms of circular principles, Gayle says a national approach is required, while encouraging collaboration at the back and front end of resource recovery to hit the 80 per cent target.

“I am encouraged that circular economy principles are on the table. The key to success is going to be engaging with the rest of the semicircle, not just the waste industry and government, but the reprocessors, the producers and the purchasers – Woolworths and Coles,” she says.

Gayle notes the 30 per cent recycled content target is in step with the European Union. She says that there is plenty of supply for food-grade packaging, with materials such as PET readily available. Gayle says HDPE faces difficulties in sourcing 100 per cent HDPE for a food-grade product, but between 25 to 50 per cent is not an issue. 

“We have integrated suppliers such as Visy who are now providing food grade packaging for plastic, and have done for a number of years,” she says.

“We’ve had Nature’s Organics, a fast-moving consumer goods company that have been doing 100 per cent recycled PET for years.” 


In its submission to the draft policy, the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) welcomed the Federal Government’s work. It called for priority to be given to a National Waste and Recycling Infrastructure Plan, 30 per cent procurement of recycled materials to create markets, a common approach to waste regulation and a product stewardship scheme for batteries. 

The NWRIC highlighted that to achieve the target of 80 per cent resource recovery and halve organic waste to landfill by 2030, waste and recycling infrastructure capacity will need to be doubled. In addition, it noted a need to renew the existing major infrastructure as unless there is a significant shift in consumption behaviours, and a rapid transition to a circular economy, total waste generated is expected to grow between 60 per cent to 100 per cent by the year 2050. 

Rose Read, NWRIC Chief Executive Officer, says the key to doubling infrastructure will be targeting organics composting facilities and waste to energy for residuals. She says an opportunity exists over the next two years to close the gap on non-recyclable materials. In this process, she says long-term planning for landfills is required, with adequate capacity to deal with intractable, contaminated soils or materials that can’t be used. 

“There needs to be a National Infrastructure Strategy where the Commonwealth brings together the states to look at what’s needed across the country. We would like to see the strategy completed by 2020 at the latest,” she says.

Rose adds that the strategy also needs to address servicing regional areas in an intelligent and proactive way, as commercially it is a challenge for industry.

“The Federal Government needs to facilitate collaboration between industry and all state governments to come up with a coherent plan that gives our members certainty around long-term investment,” she says.

She adds that this also needs to be developed at in the context of export markets and population growth. 

The NWRIC’s submission also highlighted the ongoing issue of contamination in kerbside and commercial commingled bins. One of the industry’s challenges is the low quality of recovered materials due to poor source separation at the front end and lack of sophisticated processing technologies.

“This is where a common approach to community education by all states is desperately needed. That is why together with our state affiliates, the Australian Local Government Association and ACOR, we kicked off the Recycle Right message earlier this year in response to China’s National Sword,” Rose says.

In the submission response document, the government asks whether different targets should be included in the plan. The NWRIC believes there is a need for a specific waste generation targets for toxic materials which most impede recycling, including asbestos and asbestos contaminated materials.

“There is also a need for consistency across states in the definitions on what are acceptable and not acceptable levels of asbestos in construction and demolition (C&D) waste.” Rose says.

For procurement, she says the Federal Government should take the lead in ensuring recycled materials from C&D and organic waste are being used in road and infrastructure construction, and that states work with local councils to remove barriers to the uptake of these recovered materials in civil works.

In fulfilling its vital role, the NWRIC believes the Federal Government must allocate additional resources to implement the policy and give it higher priority by appointing a Waste and Recycling Commissioner. 

Rose says she envisions the commissioner as not only ensuring the implementation of the policy, but driving collaboration across states and industry, and reporting on progress annually to the Meeting of Environment Ministers. Furthermore, she says they could establish the National Waste Account, prepare the biennial National Waste Report and ensure the delivery of the Product Stewardship Act, including the outcomes of the current review and promote the transition to a circular economy.

Rose says the biggest disappointment in the draft policy is the 2025 deadline for a battery stewardship scheme. NWRIC believes it should be in place by 2020 and mandatory. She says batteries should be included under the National Television Computer and Recycling Scheme if manufacturers can’t agree to a voluntary approach approved by the competition regulator.  

In its submission to the National Waste Policy, University of Technology Sydney’s  Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) agreed the targets and strategies in the draft proposal were a good start, but could go further. ISF’s key point is that the current proposal’s inclusion of circular economy principles is minimal, despite acknowledging the importance of a circular economy in its preamble.

The ISF’s submission notes that the policy is focused squarely on recycling – and while this is definitely a circular activity, it only cycles materials at end of life after intensive reprocessing. Jenni Downes, Senior Research Consultant at the ISF, explains that a truly circular economy is one where Australia’s whole systems of production and consumption are transformed to restore and maximise the value of products and materials. She says this is achieved through innovative design, durability, sharing, reuse, repair, refurbishing, remanufacturing, recycling and energy recovery, all while minimising resource use, emissions and waste. 

She  says that the ISF has performed modelling for some metropolitan councils and based on these assessments, achieving a 70 per cent resource recovery rate on all municipal streams would be achievable with current technologies, but innovation is needed to go further. In its submission, the ISF asked for a separate recycling sub target excluding waste to energy alongside the 80 per cent recovery target to ensure the waste hierarchy is followed. 

In terms of the 30 per cent average recycled content across all goods and infrastructure, Jenni notes further modelling is needed to identify if this is an appropriate target.

“Our onshore reprocessing capacity is limited, so even 30 per cent is a big improvement, but should we strive for more? Without modelling we can’t know,” she says.

Jenni notes the policy could quite easily be updated to focus on circular products instead. 

“There is a ‘design’ section under ‘avoid waste’ so it would be quite easy to expand that design to include designing for reuse, repair and manufacture, and doing this through innovative business models.” 

To enable a circular economy, the ISF proposes the appointment of a commissioner for the circular economy to be a recognisable focal point for industry and government to ensure data is available to track progress. It also proposes to adopt an overall measure of the transition to the circular economy, such as a resource productivity target, which compares raw material consumption against gross domestic product. Furthermore, the ISF wants to ensure the metrics and approach to targets are designed carefully to assess progress in both relative and absolute terms and take account of external factors.

To ensure many of these policies are implemented, the key point for Jenni is that they are adopted in partnership with state and territory governments, with clear responsibilities, at the Meeting of Environment Ministers.

This article appeared in the December issue of Waste Management Review and pre-dates the December 2018 meeting of environment ministers.

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