The waste management sector’s reputation will require rebuilding over the coming months to instil public confidence through a concise narrative, writes Victorian Waste Management Association Executive Officer Mark Smith.
Most Australians don’t understand what happens to their waste. I’d go as far as saying that for most of us, waste and resource recovery management is an afterthought.
The community probably doesn’t realise or acknowledge that they are interacting with the waste system every day and this interaction is increasing as our population swells and the volumes of waste we generate increases along with it.
When I talk about the waste system to people outside the sector, I discuss the integrated system that exists to support each and every household and business in the country. This is a system that enables them to dispose of “stuff” they no longer want or need.
This “stuff” is collected from their home or workplace by an extensive fleet of vehicles steered by a legion of drivers that effectively move materials around the country. It is then consolidated, processed further, transported some more, maybe stockpiled here and there, recovered, recycled, buried or exported. The system is interdependent and works best when all of its components are working together.
The sector operates in all municipalities across the country, managing the environmental impacts of consumer “waste”, owning and operating the infrastructure that services the country. It also helps to maintain our current living standards with minimal support from government when compared to some other sectors. Yet we don’t have a compelling story to tell as a sector.
Earlier this year, the system was put under pressure due to recycling trade restrictions in China, which the sector, and I include local and state government, did not adequately prepare for. This was intensified with some operators gambling with the international commodity market.
These restrictions had reverberations that were felt in local markets differently ultimately leading to the interruption of kerbside collection in parts of regional Victoria, with potential for service interruptions to spread further. The reason for these interruptions primarily relates to the contractual arrangements that were in place with some operators.
These events have seen a sharp rise in media interest which has been focused across the sector and eroded public confidence in recycling and the broader “system”. This undermines decades of investment by industry, local and state governments working to educate the public about the importance and benefits of appropriate waste management, including recycling.
What’s come to surface for me over the past few months has been the lack of cohesion and the united front that the system needs when engaging with the community which it services.
Fragmentation of the sector has clouded communication and messages to the public on the current issues facing the sector.
Nationally, with a range of competing agendas and narratives at play, we’ve lost sight of the broader system as we’ve focused our attention on the ramifications of Chinese trade restrictions.
Unlike other essential services that are provided to the community, such as water and electricity/energy, waste management is not afforded any of the same government protections or intervention points that enable a quick and responsive decision made regarding the continuation of supply. This has been evidenced through the paralysis that was caused across many jurisdictions earlier this year and the lack of clear, concise and authoritative information running through the mainstream media on the recycling issue.
WE CAN REBUILD
A challenge for the sector in coming years will be how we decide we want to work together and present the system as an essential service to the community. The sector’s public image and brand has taken a hammering over the past months and it is something we and government are going to need to rebuild. Before we rebuild the brand, we’re going to need to agree on the story we want to tell. Rebuilding confidence can’t just focus on promoting an individual company image but needs to also promote a big, integrated, efficient and effective system.
This is a system that employs thousands of Australians, provides an essential service to the nation and offers flow on benefit to other sectors, including manufacturing, vehicles and logistics and agriculture that requires public participation to succeed.
To hear more about our brand and the importance of the sector’s image join the VMWA State Conference on 31 July to 1 August 2018.