Prioritising projects: Infrastructure Australia

For the first time, the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit has included waste management in its remit. Waste Management Review speaks to Infrastructure Australia about responding to some of the industry’s infrastructure challenges. 

Since 2008, Infrastructure Australia has advised governments, industry and the community on investments needed to deliver better infrastructure across Australia.

The nation’s independent infrastructure advisor audits nationally significant infrastructure and develops 15-year rolling plans that cover national and state level priorities.

For the first time, the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit has included waste management in its remit.

Released earlier this year, the audit examines challenges faced by Australia’s waste sector, including growing pressure from population growth, export bans and heightened environmental awareness.

The audit identifies Australia as one of the world’s largest waste producers per capital, with waste management often poorly planned. The sector is also under increased pressure as waste generation increases and the capacity of infrastructure declines.

It points out that Australia is poised to take advantage of Asia’s economic development, but needs to ensure supply and freight chains operate efficiently to do so.

Some of the challenges the audit points out are well-known to the waste sector, including a lack of private investment and a reliance on exports. Likewise, residential encroachment and increase in waste generation are also widely understood.

An often undiscussed challenge highlighted is the impact that transporting waste over large distances has on the right network, leading to congestion and road degradation.

One of the key focuses of Infrastructure Australia is to take submissions and develop an Infrastructure Priority List that governments can use to guide decision making.

Peter Colacino, Executive Director – Policy and Research at Infrastructure Australia, says that the decision to include waste in the audit was an important one, as the waste sector makes a significant contribution to the national economy.

He says community sentiment is starting to shift with changing user preferences towards recyclable products. Peter says a greater focus on what we consume will leader to a greater focus in community and planning.

Communities have previously found it undesirable to live next to landfills, he points out. But as the sector becomes more sophisticated and moves from landfill to reprocessing, he says a different appreciation of the value of those sites will hopefully take hold in the community.

While its not within the scope of Infrastructure Australia to identify the gaps in buffer protection, Peter makes the point that Sydney and Melbourne are not the only cities growing at a faster rate than public services can support.

The audit shows that satellite cities such as Wollongong, Newcastle and Geelong have capacity to grow and in turn take pressure off infrastructure in the faster-growing cities.

“Sydney and Melbourne are growing rapidly because of the quality of life in those cities and access to essential services and social infrastructure. If we’re seeing places like Wollongong and Newcastle be attractive for people to settle in and therefore take pressure off our major cities, we need to ensure that people that choose to live there have access to the same sorts of services.”

The audit points out that cities can support growth by leveraging infrastructure off their fast-growing neighbours and smaller capitals. The document outlines a number of challenges surrounding waste management.

One was that a limited number of new waste facilities and landfill sites have been approved and residential development was encroaching on existing facilities. Without further action, waste freight will have to transport their loads further from the generation point.

“Encroachment is a complex issue because it’s not only with those nodes like a landfill site or a recycling facility, but it’s also around the transport links that need to be used by the sector,” Peter says.

One of the challenges acknowledge in the audit is that Australia’s freight task, including waste transport, disposal and recycling is growing rapidly. The domestic freight task is growing by 50 per cent and expected to continue to grow by another 26 per cent between 2016 and 2026.

“You do see moves from councils to restrict access of heavy vehicles to particular communities for communities that would be trafficked if you like by refuse vehicles if they were transferring waste rather than treating it locally.”

Peter says by limiting the access of waste vehicles to communities, they are forced to travel further leading to greater deterioration of the road network, increasing the cost of waste management and undermining the commerciality of the sector.

In addition, he says the provision of additional bins is another discussed that needs to be understood within the context of added pressure to the transport network.

“Interestingly, the electricity sector is performing relatively well there’s reduced emissions from the sector largely because of the role of renewables. The transport sector on the other hand has seen a growth in emissions. For local councils that’s important as large fleet owners both in terms of light vehicles and heavy vehicles like refuse vehicles,” Peter says.

He adds that electric vehicles presents an opportunity for emissions reduction in future as price parity occurs over time with potential to transition to autonomous vehicles and hybrids in the present.

Peter says Infrastructure Australia’s process follows three phases.

The first, he says, is to make sure the audit serves its role that it creates a discussion.

“It’s not a document that we want to sit on shelves it’s a document that we want the sector to engage with and use our submissions process to provide us with feedback,” he says.

“Secondly we’ll be working over the next year or more in developing the plan which will include package of reform that we hope are adopted by government and we’ll continue to engage with industry and government as we develop that document.”

He says the third process is to ensure the Infrastructure Priority List can be updated so people can respond to the challenges and opportunities identified in the audit through submissions to the list.

Peter says investment interventions on the Infrastructure Priority List are needed to ensure domestic supply chains are adequate and it can respond to respond of the imperative of government to reduce waste moving offshore.

He adds that going forward there will need to be more commercial thinking around deriving value from waste, including through new products and waste-to-energy.

“What we need to ensure and what is Infrastructure Australia’s role is that significant investment is well targeted and effective and that is the role of our Infrastructure Priority List,” Peter says.

“We also think there’s an opportunity for greater reflection on lessons learnt through post-completion reviews after projects are reviewed to understand if they’ve fulfilled their ambitions that was set out in their planning, whether or not they’re effective and if there’s lessons that can be taken away and applied elsewhere.”

Submissions to the Infrastructure Australia audit will be open to 31 October, for more information click here.

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