Is the Federal Government’s $190M Recycling Modernisation Fund the answer to transforming waste and recycling capacity? Brittany Coles speaks with Josh Wilson about the reform needed to deal with Australia’s waste crisis.
“Let’s be clear, recycling and reprocessing infrastructure is only one part of the major reform needed to deal with Australia’s waste crisis,” Shadow Assistant Environment Minister Josh Wilson says.
Waste Management Review sat down with Wilson shortly after the Federal Government announced its $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF) in early July.
According to the Federal Government, the RMF will generate $600 million in recycling investment and drive a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity.
Sussan Ley, Federal Environment Minister, said the investment is part of a national strategy to change the way Australia looks at waste, while growing the economy, protecting the environment and reaching a national resource recovery target of 80 per cent by 2030.
“As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy,” she said.
Wilson says Australia needs national leadership through effective policy and matching resources.
“You can’t say those things have been delivered in full yet and the waste crisis is well and truly with us,” he says.
So far, the Federal Government has commissioned an independent analysis that shows Australia may require a 400 per cent increase in recycling infrastructure capacity to cope with additional waste following the export ban.
Wilson says Australia has less capacity for plastic reprocessing today than it did in 2005. He adds that there has been an absence of investment at the national level for some time.
“The RMF is certainly welcome, but time will tell. The Commonwealth has committed to one third of the funding, so it will require participation from the states and industry,” Wilson notes.
The RMF will support innovative investment in new infrastructure to sort, process and remanufacture materials such as mixed plastic, paper, tyres and glass.
“We now have to see the actual proposals of infrastructure projects developed and come forward from this stage,” Wilson says.
“The question now is how will that occur from a timing point of view and how quickly will that infrastructure come on stream.”
Just over a week after the RMF announcement, Ley announced a partnership between the Australian and ACT Governments to provide $21 million to the ACT’s MRF under the fund. She said the upgrade would facilitate better separation and processing of paper, glass and plastic, and in turn, create higher quality recycled products.
Wilson says as a nation, Australia knows it needs new infrastructure.
“But we’re a big country. It has to be at the right scale to work,” he says.
National coordination will be essential, Wilson says.
He adds that the challenge lies in infrastructure location and how different states and territories have access to the infrastructure they need.
“This is why we need national leadership, rather than leaving it to the states and territories.”
“Resilience, self-sufficiency, and sustainability should be objectives in all areas of Australian life, especially for waste and resource recovery,” Wilson says.
“You essentially have to approach the waste crisis from every direction.”
The Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) welcomed the new fund but noted that to “turbo charge” Australia’s recycling capacity, several other elements have to be driven now, and driven at full throttle.
Gayle Sloan, WMRR CEO, says key to the success of the RMF will be states matching with new funds as well, not rebadging existing monies.
Wilson says Sloan is right in advocating for all elements to be driven at full throttle.
“Infrastructure is one side, but we also need action on procurement because that demand side of this picture needs more work,” he says.
Wilson draws on Australia’s scale when saying resource recovery requirements will be different across regions.
“The states have been quite good in recognising their own needs and now it’s up to national leadership to turbocharge a circular economy and build towards the infrastructure and demands that are required in a strategic way” he says.
The nature of Australia’s waste crisis is not new, Wilson says the nation has been aware of challenges in the sector for a long time.
“Australia has always risen to the challenge both at a community and industry level when it comes to progressive change and innovation,” he says.
Wilson is proud of the nation’s appetite for less waste. He says community and local governments are crying out for the opportunity to reduce waste and the final piece of the puzzle is federal policy.
“Industry knows we need action across the full waste-to-resource-to-manufacturing cycle,” Wilson says.
He believes that requires innovation to design-out waste and design-in re-use and recycling, as well as further product stewardship reform.
“It requires further improvements to collection and sorting, and infrastructure for recycling and reprocessing infrastructure; and it requires procurement to support demand at a necessary scale to kick-off what should be a job-creating surge in Australian manufacturing.”
Wilson highlights positive steps forward, especially the Federal Government’s long-awaited Product Stewardship Act 2011 review, which was released 9 July this year, just three days after the RMF announcement.
“The devil is in the detail though; we are still in a waste crisis. At the moment, whilst these export bans come into effect and we draw closer to the National Waste Policy targets, we can’t be complacent,” he says.
Ley agrees that the government needs to strongly pursue National Waste Policy Action Plan targets in order to remodel waste management, which is why the Commonwealth has invested $35 million to implement its commitments under the Plan.
“We need manufacturers and industry to take a genuine stewardship role that helps create a sustainable circular economy,” she says.
Trevor Evans, Assistant Waste Reduction and Environmental Management Minister, says that the unparalleled expansion of Australia’s recycling capacity followed close consultation with industry.
“Companies are already moving, with The Pact Group announcing a $500 million investment in facilities, research and technology, Coca-Cola Amatil committing to new recycling targets, and Pact, Cleanaway and Asahi Beverages establishing a $30 million recycling facility in Albury.”
National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) CEO Rose Read says the RMF will rapidly scale up Australia’s paper, plastic, glass and tyre recycling capacity.
Read says that Australia must have strong local demand for recycled materials to maximise the potential return on investment of recycling infrastructure.
“Whether making packaging, products, roads or buildings, each project engineer, each product manager and each designer should be encouraged, supported and equipped by these organisations to ask how can I replace virgin material with recycled material?” Read says.
She adds that the industry is looking forward to working with the Federal Government and its state counterparts to build more productive and resilient resource recovery infrastructure.
The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has also welcomed the planned investment in resource recovery infrastructure – labelling the RMF a “massive milestone for recycling.”
According to ACOR, the RMF marks the joint participation of the Commonwealth, states and territories and industry on a mutual investment basis, with an emphasis on ‘pulling’ new products, rather than ‘pushing’ through material collection.
Pete Shmigel, ACOR CEO, says the next key step for the transformation of Australian recycling industry and to meet Australians’ expectation that their efforts stack up is ‘buying recycled’ by governments, corporations and the community.
“More recycling factories only make sense when there is demand for their recycled content products, such [as] roads and packaging,” he says.
Shmigel says with ambitious National Waste Policy targets only 4 years away, it’s time governments put money, such as the $1.5 billion collected from the community in landfill levies, “where their mouths are.”
Wilson is on the same page and says talk is cheap. He adds that we need more substance to transform Australian recycling and help make it domestically sustainable.
“Identifying programs to drive a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity is important,” Wilson says.
“But it’s time to get the skates on and get funding to action really quickly considering 2025 is only 4 and a half years away.”