Infrastructure Victoria’s Elissa McNamara explains how Victoria could recover up to 90 per cent of its waste if $1 billion is spent on recycling infrastructure in the next two decades. Brittany Coles reports.
“The recent pandemic has accelerated what was already a big change. Victoria is shifting to a greener economy and it’s time to accelerate that,” Elissa McNamara, Infrastructure Victoria (IV) Resource Recovery & Recycling Advice Project Director says.
IV’s advice on recycling and resource recovery infrastructure, prepared for the state government in May, suggests that Victoria could recover up to 90 per cent of its waste if $1 billion is spent on recycling infrastructure in the state by 2039.
Additionally, the state will need to boost its recycling capacity by more than three million tonnes per year by 2039 to meet recovery targets and address stockpiling and illegal dumping issues.
It is now three months since IV released its advice, which recommended upgrading or building 87 new processing facilities for six priority materials: plastics, paper and cardboard, glass, organics, tyres and e-waste, to achieve a 90 per cent recovery target over the next two decades.
“We’ve certainly had no shortage of interest from local governments, industry stakeholders and the private sector, who are responsible for building a stronger and more sustainable recycling and resource recovery industry for Victoria,” McNamara says.
More than 1500 stakeholders have attended various briefings and webinars held by IV in the past three months to discuss its infrastructure advice.
Importantly, McNamara says there has also been strong interest from investment funds and market analysts looking to identify development opportunities in the sector.
Through multiple IV stakeholder briefings and discussions, state government responsible agencies are already acting on parts of IV’s advice.
McNamara says IV is pleased with the response and call to action so far, but adds that the sector now has a weight on its shoulders to initiate change in an unprecedented era of uncertainty.
THE NEXT PHASE
Currently, 69 per cent of Victoria’s waste is recycled into useful products but only one third of the state’s 79 councils offer a food and garden organics collection service.
Victorian councils collected 580,000 tonnes of household commingled recyclables in 2017-18, equivalent to 230 kilograms per household. As more waste is being produced and recovery rates have stagnated, the state’s resource and recovery sector is under increasing pressure.
In May, IV CEO Michel Masson said the advice delivered by IV contains all the elements for Victoria to develop a world-class recycling and resource recovery system within the next two decades.
“We need to use less, recycle more and collect our waste smarter, so that we are recovering its value and not relying on export markets to deal with our waste,” Masson said.
The report’s 13 recommendations were developed in consultation with government and industry stakeholders. IV’s October 2019 interim report informed the Victorian government’s recently released Recycling Victoria policy and is aligned with associated programs like Recycled First.
From its findings, IV determined that Victoria will need to boost its recycling capacity by more than three million tonnes per year by 2039.
Although the 2020s have been labelled the decade of change by some sustainability experts, the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a challenge for recycling and waste operators, who have experienced unprecedented levels of kerbside material, especially soft plastics.
During recent lockdown measures, Australian households threw out more than 10 per cent more rubbish and recyclables via kerbside bins.
Assistant Waste Reduction Minister Trevor Evans launched a report by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) in May to track the progress of the national 2025 packaging targets.
“We need change at both the supply and demand ends: behavioural changes from Australians to get it right at kerbside and to return soft plastics to supermarkets, and policy changes from governments,” he said.
National packaging targets can be met if Victoria can transform its resource and recycling sector.
“Government agencies such as Sustainability Victoria and Waste and Resource Recovery Groups (WRRGs) across the state are already building on our specific infrastructure recommendations as part of their future planning,” McNamara says.
She adds that the next step for the agencies is developing more detailed plans for vital infrastructure investments by industry and government.
According to IV’s advice, Victoria’s capacity and capability to manage recovered organics and e-waste will be exceeded by 2025 and 2030 respectively, as a result of policies such as the National Waste Policy and Victoria’s e-waste to landfill ban, introduced in 2019.
“We know that the Victorian Government is starting to invest more money in behaviour change programs. They want households and businesses to be recycling correctly,” McNamara says.
That will for change is matched by Victorians – IV conducted a survey that found 93 per cent of people feel it is important to reduce non-recovered waste, and 89 per cent are open to changing how they sort waste.
McNamara acknowledged that during COVID-19 many businesses are closed or partially operating due to restrictions, but there are opportunities to rethink the way they have been managing their waste capabilities that will be most cost-effective and contribute to successful environmental outcomes.
“In some ways this pandemic has been an opportunity for many businesses to re-evaluate their approach to recovery. In particular, the transport sector has really put a lot of effort into using more recycled material in major infrastructure projects and has progressed from a start-up phase to where the use of recycled material is now a more standard business requirement for construction,” McNamara says.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Victoria already recovers more than $1 billion worth of resources each year, but IV says there is huge potential to grow this figure by reprocessing and reusing materials locally or by selling them overseas.
McNamara says individuals and businesses are willing to change the way they sort their waste.
However, consistency is key, and she thinks there is a massive potential for facilities and organisations to leverage the growing amounts of waste being stockpiled or sent to landfill.
“It is very important to be consistent and focus on both state and national approaches,” she says.
Investment in improved data will also be needed.
“The Victorian Government’s planning and policy decisions need to be informed by reliable data on recycling and resource recovery. Gaps in data create issues for policy and strategy implementation, particularly in monitoring progress towards targets,” the IV Resource Recovery & Recycling Advice states.
Every Australian state and territory will have its own challenges across the next decade, but McNamara says interstate colleagues are willing to share learnings and contribute to the national waste action policy.
She notes that there is national focus on boosting landfill levy consistency and examining how consistent approaches could be economically viable for infrastructure investments.
McNamara says collaboration is essential to providing a consistent service across Victoria.
“Certainly, what we identified in our report is that having a consistent service across Victoria in terms of the appearance of household bins and what materials go in them, allows service providers and the public sector to be more specific with requirements,” she says.
By processing materials from both Melbourne and local areas, regional Victoria can provide products, such as compost for agriculture, closer to end users, reducing transport costs and creating new jobs and services.
McNamara highlights that it won’t be possible to have every single recycling and household service the same, as residential complexes across regional and metro communities differ.
“What we can do is offer the same services such as food and garden waste collection. If we’re accepting the same materials it makes it easier to support the behavioural change needed to boost recycling and recovery,” she says.
According to Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) CEO, IV’s report and advice is comprehensive, but it comes very much from an infrastructure lens.
“Simply building better collection systems to clean up inputs and more processing infrastructure will not increase recovery rates. You also need to build markets at the same time to match demand with supply,” she says.
While NWRIC supports all of IV’s recommendations, Read says focus must be placed on strengthening markets for priority materials, cleaner inputs, greater recovery of energy from non-recyclable waste and better planning by strengthening the status of, and processes around, Victoria’s Recycling Infrastructure Plan.
The state government has listened to industry and learnt from recent challenges, as demonstrated by the Recycling Victoria program.
“This will fix many of the major systemic problems Victoria currently has, but to really drive and create a circular economy, it must look at waste as more than an essential service but also as an important resource industry,” Read says.
McNamara confirmed that the Victorian Government has been working on the next stage of infrastructure planning, which is setting the state up for post COVID-19 recovery and investment in a sustainable long-term future.
“There is an opportunity now for government and private waste agencies to begin piecing the puzzle together, by focusing on short term opportunity during this economic disruption,” she says.
“There clearly is an increased appetite from government agencies to partner with industry in order to get the best outcome,” McNamara says.
This has been seen in construction project specification in state infrastructure projects.
McNamara stresses the opportunity for the private and public sector to collaborate in ways they haven’t before, to develop cost-effective infrastructure and facilitate a stronger waste and recovery market in Victoria.
“Our work shows there is not one single approach to achieve these outcomes, all levels of government, business and households will need to work together if we are to realise the huge opportunity before us,” IV stated in the report.