Last Word

NSW senate’s waste plan: NWRIC

The NSW senate has released a comprehensive and welcomed reform plan for waste and recycling in NSW, writes Alex Serpo, Policy Officer at the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.

It all began with a simple premise – review Dial a Dump Industries’ (The Next Generation) proposal to build a waste to energy facility at Eastern Creek. Public opposition has been fierce. The NSW Senate, compelled by public opinion and Greens NSW, launched the mundanely titled Portfolio Committee No. 6 – Planning and Environment – Waste to energy technology inquiry.

The NSW senate team, seeking to get an understanding of the risks and opportunities of waste to energy, called in a comprehensive line-up of industry associations, experts and top executives. Perhaps to the surprise of the senate, most experts had little to say on waste to energy, other than it represents a lost opportunity for the state.

Instead, the industry’s brightest used their senate appearances to catalogue the key reform failures and barriers to advancing waste and recycling in NSW. This resulted in a final report, released on 28 March, of which only three of the eight chapters address waste to energy or The Next Generation proposal.

As experts testified, the terms of reference for the inquiry grew like tomato seeds in fresh compost, offering the fruits of reform in every possible direction. Issues addressed in the final report included: planning, illegal dumping, regulatory enforcement, levies, recycling residuals, waste to energy plus a lot of content on the role, and performance of, the NSW EPA.

The final recommendations are in my view an excellent catalogue of the regulatory reforms needed to advance waste and recycling in NSW. The final report makes 36 recommendations, few of which are sheepish. If you have the time, they’re worthy reading online.

Consider Recommendation 6. “That the NSW Government urgently consider attaching the waste levy to the waste generator in NSW, particularly for large waste generators”. Or Recommendation 21 – “That the NSW Government investigate options to restructure the NSW EPA so it can improve its performance”.

Broadly, the 36 recommendations offered by the senate review validate what the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) have identified as the three most important reform priorities. They are better enforcement of regulations, better planning for waste and recycling facilities and reform of landfill levies. Most of the recommendations in the report address these priorities.

I’ll briefly address each of these three topics. In regards to enforcement, the key suggestions from the senate report include: giving additional resources to the NSW EPA to police illegal dumping, that it strengthen its relationship with NSW Police and finally that GPS tracking and drones have an important role to play. Broadly speaking – these are obvious recommendations. If waste from Sydney to south-east Queensland was to stop, then NSW would have an additional “$155 million” per year in levy income to pursue these initiatives.

There are also some less obvious, but welcome recommendations on enforcement. For example, “the NSW EPA complete the draft protocol calculating the quantum of the monetary benefit from illegal dumping and landfilling in NSW”. That would make for interesting reading.

Next, planning. The report makes this very welcome recommendation: “That the NSW Government identify a government body…responsible for leading waste management infrastructure planning in NSW.” Further, this body should collaborate with the Department of Planning and include suitable buffer zones in its review. In my view, this is the single most important recommendation of the senate report.

The report also identifies two other important planning reforms. Firstly, that as currently structured, Regional Organisations of Councils don’t have sufficient power to effectively tender for infrastructure. The report recommends “the NSW Government enhance the collaborative powers of the Regional Organisations of Councils to encourage investment in waste facilities, to be funded by the waste levy”.

The report also identifies that under Waste Less, Recycle More, money received cannot be used to purchase land for waste and recycling infrastructure. Further, grants issued aren’t sufficient to establish new infrastructure. They focus on “piecemeal” improvements to existing infrastructure and systems.

The NWRIC has also established a solution to this problem. As I have written previously, the NWRIC recommends a ‘national recycling bank’, funded by the waste levy, which gives low or no-interest loans for infrastructure and innovation. This approach solves this problem and many others. Most importantly, it makes every levy dollar go further, as the money comes back.

While the senate report explores levy reform, this is one of its areas of weakness. It touches on the two key issues arising from the very high landfill levy in NSW – interstate waste and the cost of disposing of recycling residuals. Ironically, the title of the report is perhaps the best solution to the recycling residual problem – these residuals should go to waste to energy rather than landfill and therefore attract no levy.

However, this only half the solution. The other half of the solution is this: when recycling, the waste generator needs to be liable for the final disposal cost of contamination. For example, the concept of tossing anything and everything that could be recycled into the recycling bin should be billed directly back to local government. This idea of tossing anything possibly recyclable into the bin is what Visy, in its public submission to last year’s federal government waste and recycling senate inquiry, had so aptly referred to as “wish-cycling”.

With commercial contracts, this liability should flow back to the waste generator.

This process ensures that recycling exports are internationally competitive. Our domestic recyclers aren’t hindered by the high cost of local landfill or waste to energy. Meanwhile, a real and positive market incentive is passed back to the waste generator to ensure that their recycling stream is clean. Great source separators will pay less, commercial recyclers will export more.

The NWRIC would welcome the implementation of any or all of the recommendations from the NSW Portfolio Committee No. 6 – Planning and Environment – Waste to energy technology inquiry. As the report notes “there are many, pressing issues facing the waste and recycling industry in NSW”. Now is the time to seize the opportunity.

This article appeared in the May issue of Waste Management Review.

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