Maintaining mental health during COVID-19

In the second part of Waste Management Review’s series on industry challenges during COVID-19, we speak to mental health experts and the private sector about strategies to support one’s well-being for those working remotely or in a customer-service role.

Read moreMaintaining mental health during COVID-19

Protecting staff essential in the face of coronavirus

Keeping staff safe, employed and ensuring waste and recycling stays on track is essential in the face or coronavirus, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC). 

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, defining what is and isn’t an essential service is a hot topic of discussion across every industry sector in Australia.

While not necessarily reflected consistently or comprehensively in all state legislation and regulations, there is no doubt governments at all levels consider waste and recycling services, and more importantly the workforce that make it happen, as essential.

“With a national focus on hygiene, the role of waste and recycling companies and their workers servicing homes, hospitals, building sites and supermarkets underlines the Prime Minister’s declaration that everyone who has a job in this challenging economy is now an essential worker,” wrote Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley on social media in March.

This is welcome news from the government. While it would be ideal to have a nationally consistent definition used by all states, what is key is that trucks can move across state and territory borders where necessary, staff can get to and from work and waste service providers have access to critical supplies needed to do their job.

This is evident by the willingness of all levels of government to listen and work with our members to address issues and challenges as they arise. From relaxation of collection curfews and flexibility in facility licensing conditions, to securing PPE and other key operational supplies.

Most state government Environment Ministers and departments have now set up weekly catch ups with key representatives from the waste and recycling sector to stay on top of issues, and feed them into the relevant state emergency and COVID response teams for consideration. Likewise at a national level, ministers and key federal agencies are accessible and listening. There is a lot on their plate.

For the NWRIC members, their focus has been on helping staff adapt to new working conditions out in the field or working from home. It’s a massive shift in everyone’s daily life and supporting staff through this process is an absolute priority.

Substantial work is also being undertaken on business continuity plans including working with council and business customers to maintain services in the context of social distancing, hygiene and staff safety. Likewise, looking at how businesses within the sector can help each other out in maintaining collections and operation of facilities, should the need arise.

The willingness to cooperate and help each other out where needed across the sector is a key strength. One example of this has been the driver exchange program setup by the Victorian Transport Association, which allows companies to share drivers should the need arise.

On the financial side, volumes are changing across the sector, which will obviously impact the bottom line for every business. With many businesses closing up, volumes in the C&I are slowing, while MSW are increasing as more and more of us ‘#stayhome’. It is still unclear how C&D or organic and FOGO volumes will change at this time.

On the e-waste side, the demand for second hand computers, screens and associated IT accessories to set up home offices has gone up, as has the need and ensure everyone has access to services online.

In terms of handling COVID-19 waste, the Federal and State Departments of Health provide guidance on this, with it being declared as a clinical waste in the health care environment, and to be bagged up and placed in the rubbish bin for residential properties.

With federal and state government support packages being announced on a regular basis, we encourage businesses to reach out to their state associations, the ATO and centrelink for information on what is available and relevant for your organisation.

The NWRIC has also suggested that relief be considered for landfill levy charges where relevant. For example, it is likely that some businesses will default on debts during this difficult time. Therefore, we propose that levies on bad debts be waived.

Similarly, planned levy increases, such as proposed recently by Victoria, should be deferred for six months. In the case of WA, a temporary waiver of levies at this time will discourage the disposal of metropolitan C&D waste out into regional areas.

Further, we believe now can be a challenging time for some recyclers as ports and overseas markets are slowing or closing. This is of particular relevance to those recyclers exporting recovered metals, paper, plastic, shredded tyres and refuse derived fuels. Providing temporary levy waivers on residuals from these recycling facilities would help keep staff employed and businesses operating.

The clear messages we are receiving from health departments are: practice good hygiene, social distancing and stay at home unless you are going to work, shopping, exercise or other essential travel. Even if we’re fit and well, these important actions will keep our staff safe and protect vulnerable Australians and health care workers.

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Industry responds to COVID-19 support packages

Waste Management Review will be running a four-part series throughout April on conquering waste industry challenges amid COVID-19 and possible future opportunities. In this first part, we highlight a summary of support packages available to the sector across each jurisdiction and what industry groups are hoping to see going forward.

Read moreIndustry responds to COVID-19 support packages

WA defers CDS launch in wake of COVID-19

The Western Australian Government has deferred the launch of its container deposit scheme Containers for Change due to COVID-19 concerns.

Originally planned to launch June 2, Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said the decision to delay the scheme reflects the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 and its expected disruption to refund points.

According to Mr Dawson, the postponement is in accordance with advice from the scheme co-ordinator, WA Return Recycle Renew.

“COVID-19 has resulted in significant global, national and state impacts and there has been disruption across the board for government initiatives and services,” he said.

“The state government, in close consultation with WA Return Recycle Renew and the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, determined that under the COVID-19 environment we are all faced with, there are too many potential health risks and logistical difficulties to start the scheme on June 2, 2020.”

The state government will review the situation in August 2020 to determine whether the scheme’s new start date will be November 2020 or June 2021.

“Delaying the scheme until after the major impacts of COVID-19 are felt will eliminate the public health concerns such as potential risk of infection from handling containers, as well as over-the-counter refund points contravening social distancing,” Mr Dawson said.

“While it is disappointing to be deferring the scheme, we remain committed to delivering the most diverse and accessible scheme in Australia. We will continue to work together and update the community, operators and suppliers throughout this period of uncertainty.”

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Supporting business continuity: Mandalay Technologies

With the impact of COVID-19 being felt by waste businesses across the country, Mandalay Technologies provides advice on mitigating some of the social and economic risks through improved service delivery.

Read moreSupporting business continuity: Mandalay Technologies

Fed Govt’s $130B wage subsidy set to support six million workers

The Federal Government has announced a historic wage subsidy package in response to COVID-19, with over six million workers set to receive a flat payment of $1500 per fortnight through their employer, before tax.

According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the $130 billion package will provide a lifeline to businesses “feeling the first blows of the economic impact from the coronavirus.”

“This is about keeping the connection between the employer and the employee, and keeping people in their jobs even though the business they work for may go into hibernation and close down for six months,” he said.

“When the economy comes back, these businesses will be able to start again, and their workforce will be ready to go because they will remain attached to the business through our JobKeeper payment.”

The payment will be paid to employers, for up to six months, for each eligible employee that was on their books on 1 March 2020 and is retained or continues to be engaged by that employer.

The program will commence 30 March, with businesses set to see payments from the first week of May as monthly arrears from the Australian Taxation Office.

“Eligible employers will be those with annual turnover of less than $1 billion who self-assess a reduction in revenue of 30 per cent or more, since 1 March 2020 over a minimum one-month period,” Mr. Morrison said.

“Employers with an annual turnover of $1 billion or more would be required to demonstrate a reduction in revenue of 50 per cent or more to be eligible. Businesses subject to the Major Bank Levy will not be eligible.”

According to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Australia is going through one of the hardest economic times in its history.

“Businesses will close and people will lose their jobs. That is why we have doubled the welfare safety net. Australians know that their government has their back,” he said.

“This will keep Australian workers connected with their employer and provide hope and more certainty during these difficult and challenging times.”

The government will provide further updates on business cashflow support in coming days.

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Fed Govt urges continued recycling

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley is urging Australians to correctly sort their recycling, in an effort to support the waste management industry as it fulfils its role as “an essential environmental service.”

“With a national focus on hygiene, the role of waste and recycling companies and their workers servicing homes, hospitals, building sites and supermarkets underlines the Prime Minister’s declaration that everyone who has a job in this challenging economy is now an essential worker,” she said.

According to Ms Ley, waste companies are working with state and local governments to ensure services continue to meet the needs of all Australians in the wake of COVID-19.

“Help where you can by recycling and reducing waste. It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility,” she said.

Ms Ley’s statement follows earlier calls for industry support, with the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) calling on state governments to provide waste and landfill levy relief to the sector.

NWRIC CEO Rose Read said levy relief is an obvious and necessary measure that can be implemented quickly.

“Specifically, we are asking state governments to waiver landfill levy doubtful debts, put on hold all planned levy increases for at least six months and where appropriate consider waiving current waste and landfill levies for the next three months,” she said.

“We are also asking state and local governments to be more flexible on certain facility license conditions so that social distancing to protect staff can be maintained, and collection time curfews be lifted so that bins can continue to be collected.”

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NSW EPA recommends business continuity plans

As the COVID-19 situation unfolds, the NSW EPA has assured industry it will continue to fulfil its responsibilities as the state’s primary environmental regulator, while maintaining the health and safety of staff, communities and other partners.

According to an EPA statement, the authority has a business continuity plan in place, which is being reviewed regularly in light of the most up-to-date advice.

“That includes planning to allow staff to work remotely where appropriate so that we maintain our compliance, enforcement and pollution response activities as best we can to prevent environmental and community harm,” the statement reads.

“We will continue to require compliance with licence conditions and issue clean-up notices and prevention notices where necessary. The EPA may however, consider requests for exemptions on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the provisions of the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997.”

The EPA is strongly recommending waste and environmental management businesses implement their own continuity plans, if one is not already in place.

“That plan should take into account the updated advice being provided by NSW and Commonwealth health officials, including any sector-specific advice,” the statement reads.

“Now is also the right time to check you have everything in place to enact your pollution incident response management plan.”

A continuity plan will help businesses meet responsibilities for any environmental impacts from activities, as according to the EPA, licence conditions and other regulatory responsibilities remain in place.

“These include the priority responsibilities of maintaining and operating pollution control equipment, and storing, transporting and disposing of waste appropriately,” the statement reads.

Licensees in the waste industry should maintain good communications with clients and the EPA, the statement suggests, particularly around predicted service disruptions.

“Licensees must continue to notify the NSW EPA of pollution incidents and other regulatory or compliance issues or events,” it reads.

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Cleanaway forecast remains in line with FY20 earnings guidance

In a statement to the ASX in March, Cleanaway assured stakeholders it has not seen any material change in volumes across any of its operating segments to date.

Cleanaway’s current financial performance for FY20 remains in line with its internal forecasts and FY20 earnings guidance, it said. However, the impact of COVID-19 means Cleanaway considered it prudent to suspend its earning guidance.

Cleanaway Managing Director Vik Bansal said the company has not observed any decline in overall trading in any of its operating segments to date.

He said that however, as the COVID-19 situation evolves, Cleanaway expect the SME part of its C&I waste volumes to be impacted.

“At this stage, we expect the demand for other services, such as health, municipal collections and related post-collections services to remain strong,” Mr Bansal said.

“Cleanaway provides a range of essential services to a diverse customer base which includes municipal councils, government infrastructure, hospitals, resources, manufacturing, commercial and industrial customers.

“We are taking measures to help ensure the safety and welfare of our employees and customers and we remain confident in the resilience of our business.”

Following the collapse of SKM Recycling Group, Cleanaway Waste Management acquired the senior secured debt in the group for around $60 million, with the exception of its glass recovery services business. This includes the property, plant and equipment from a network of five recycling sites, comprising three materials recovery facilities (MRFs), a transfer station in Victoria and a MRF in Tasmania. SKM also has two sites in South Australia.

Cleanaway’s Footprint 2025 strategy went from strength to strength as Cleanaway in October announced a joint venture with Macquarie Capital’s Green Investment Group to develop a waste-to-energy (WtE) project in Western Sydney.

UN urges governments to recognise waste as an essential service

In the wake of COVID-19, the United Nations (UN) is urging global governments to recognise waste management, including medical, household and other hazardous waste, as an “urgent and essential public service.”

According to a UN statement, treating waste as an essential service has the potential to minimise the secondary impacts of COVID-19 on human health and the environment.

“During such an outbreak, many types of additional medical and hazardous waste are generated, including infected masks, gloves and other protective equipment, together with a higher volume of non-infected items of the same nature,” the statement reads.

“Unsound management of this waste could cause unforeseen “knock-on” effects on human health and the environment. The safe handling, and final disposal of this waste is therefore a vital element in an effective emergency response.”

Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretary Rolph Payet said all branches of society must work collectively to minimise the human and economic impacts of COVID-19.

“In tackling this enormous and unprecedented challenge, I urge decision-makers at every level: international, nationally, and at municipal, city and district levels, to make every effort to ensure that waste management, including that from medical and household sources, is given the attention – indeed priority – it requires in order to ensure the minimisation of impacts upon human health and the environment from these potentially hazardous waste streams,” Mr Payet said.

Effective management of biomedical and health-case waste requires appropriate identification, collection, separation, storage, transportation, treatment and disposal, according to the UN statement.

“The safe management of household waste is also likely to be critical during the COVID-19 emergency,” the statement reads.

“Medical waste such as contaminated masks, gloves, used or expired medicines, and other items can easily become mixed with domestic garbage, but should be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of separately.”

Furthermore, the UN statement suggests medical waste be separately stored from other household waste streams and collected by specialist municipality or waste management operators.

An essential history:  

After the Second World War, Australian Governments faced the challenge of returning Australian communities back to a normal way of life and period of economic growth.

According to Russell Kennedy Lawyers Principal Stefan Fiedler, Federal and state governments passed legislation to prevent the interruption or dislocation of services that would undermine economic growth, including electricity, gas, fuel, water, sewerage/trade waste and transport.

“In Victoria, the Essential Services Act 1948 (Vic) (repealed) was enacted granting power to the Minister to intervene to take carriage of service delivery and employ personnel in an emergency with return of all interventions to the Parliament. Other States passed similar powers albeit on an industry sector basis,” Mr Fiedler says

Under the Act, Mr Fiedler says services declared an essential service were either exclusively or substantially provided by the state government or state government controlled entities.

“At the time, and continuing today in Victoria, waste disposal remains a service provided by local government and private corporations,” he says.

“However, interruption and dislocation of waste services over the past two years – caused primarily by tightening international restrictions – has caused a shift in Victoria, with the state government moving to regulate waste management as an essential service under new legislation.”

The announcement, made by Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio on 26 February, is laid out in Recycling Victoria – A New Economy and provides wide and substantive structural change.

“Regulation of waste management as an essential service is likely to catalyse a further consolidation of the sector, with larger corporations more readily adapting to reformed regulatory framework,” Mr Fiedler says.

“The exception being regional centres where the larger corporations have not sought to provide a service.”

While the nature of emergencies has evolved overtime, with more recent events such as terrorism and bushfires being included, Mr Fiedler says the core objective remains: to prevent interruption or dislocation of services.

“Measures introduced by the Federal and state governments to date have not directly restricted the continued provision of waste services. In the event that these evolving measures may interrupt or restrict the provision of waste management services, then the states’ emergency powers may be used to issue specific directions,” Mr Fiedler says.

“If this were to occur it is anticipated that waste management services would increase, with a focus on handling and disposal to ensure destruction of any virus contaminated waste.”

What does this mean for the Australian sector? 

While Victorian Waste Management Association Executive Officer Mark Smith has welcomed the UN’s call, he suggests appropriate reflection is needed on the Australian context.

He adds that this reflection needs to balance a wide range of factors, but must put the private sector front and centre as part of the conversation.

Unlike other essential services, the waste industry is made up of many small and medium businesses and handful of very large multinationals, Mr Smith says

“Jurisdictional differences between the states will see variations on the definitions of essential service in a waste management context. But all those conversations should happen with the waste industry at the table with government. Since we are all in agreement about our important role in managing Covid-19, and in the wake of the UN alert, the industry should see prioritisation awarded for things such as PPE,” he says.

“Another part of this conversation relates to minimum servicing standards, and this became a challenge for Victoria in the wake of National Sword impacts and later interruptions from SKM’s closure. What we saw then was ripples caused by shortfalls of the true cost of collection, processing and disposal versus what was in a contract.

“We will need to discuss what type of support or assurance are available to the industry should we start to see ripples surfacing. Initial feedback from our members is they are via bad debtors.”

Mr Smith says the challenge that exists right now is an elephant in the room, which should be discussed with industry to build confidence.

“We are a service industry and we deliver services across the country. Touching every part of the economy and every household. In coming weeks and months we are going to see changes which will impact the ability of some of businesses and organisations to pay their outgoings including their waste collection costs. No one wants to turn down a job or not run a collection. But as we see decreased cash flow around the economy, who is going to foot the bill when the expectation is continue to run services?”  Mr Smith says.

“When thinking about support for the industry, it’s really important that decision markers get this right. They need to start thinking about the entire waste and recycling network. By network what I’m talking about is tracing a line behind every kerbside bin, and it includes drivers, administration staff, back end office, compliance teams, transfer stations, MRFs, landfills, the list goes on. We need to consider the whole network in policy making and decision making, and when needed support or relief funding, as the different parts of the network work together to deliver waste management services for the country.

“If this isn’t afforded to the sector we may see some of these ripples create bigger impacts than they needed to because we ignored those early warnings.”

Mr Smith says Australia could see key assets or services affected if cash flow is impacted and invoices aren’t paid, “which will have knock on impacts that no one has a clear understanding or grasp of: we don’t need to turn the history pages back that far to see examples of it.”

Traditionally managed at a local generation and disposal level, Mr Smith says growing communities, industry change, logistical improvement and lifting environmental standards and community expectations have transformed waste into an economy of scale.

“What we have now is an integrated network that includes tens of thousands of collection vehicles, thousands of sites managing consolidation, sorting, processing and reprocessing, hundreds of landfills that play a diminishing but critical role supporting that network, and export markets that increasingly pose a challenge for Australia amid the incoming COAG ban,” he says.

According to Mr Smith, this network, paired with supply chain and logistics efficiencies, means that for certain material streams, Australia is single point dependent.

“These sites pose significant risks to the rest of the network if they are ever interrupted or stopped. This was evidence by SKM’s repeated closures throughout 2017-18,” he says.

Waste as an essential service in Victoria: 

Following a 2019 Essential Services Commission review, the Victorian Government signalled its intent to recognised waste as an essential service in its newly released Recycle Victoria Strategy – formally the Circular Economy Policy.

“In my opinion, the move to elevate the vital role our members and the broader industry plays in every Victorian household, dwelling and business was a reaction to the impotent position the state government found itself in on the back of China Sword, and the subsequent knock on affect it had across the industry,” Mr Smith says.

According to Mr Smith, Victoria has seen sustained deficiencies in its governance arrangements around waste and resource recovery over several years, which relate more to bureaucracy than industry itself, as highlighted by recent VAGO reports.

“Where things have fallen down, I believe, relates to the early detection and management of internal and external threats to the network, government intervention during times of crisis, and the ability and oversight of government to understand how the sector actually works and connects with the economy: primarily around material flow, high risk materials, illegal activities and market concentration,” he says.

However, Mr Smith adds that the drivers behind why Recycle Victoria proposed waste management as an essential service are very different to the challenges Australia currently faces in the wake of COVID-19

“Initially, state and Federal Governments side stepped important questions raised in the wake of National Sword by thinking waste was an issue between local councils and business. However, this line of thinking oversimplifies the far bigger and more important question, which I believe will be answered through the Recycle Victoria work,” he says.

“However its really important to highlight that the waste and recycling sector in Victoria is made up over 1200 organisations and what essential looks like is contextualised by what’s important to the government.

“The expectation of our members and the VWMA would be that government invite industry along to shape that context and create a shared understanding of what essential service might mean for our sector, as opposed to proposing government’s understanding of how the sector works. It’s important to deal with the current crisis first however, and important structural changes aren’t rushed through to tick a box.”

Highlighting how the waste sector touches every Australian home, dwelling and business, Mr Smith says not acknowledging waste as an essential service shows a lack of understanding of the role the sector plays in Australian society.

“Let’s be clear, essential services for our sector will need to be a two way street. Yes businesses and the sector will need to modify, change and adapt and we will. But government and the community need to do the same and the best outcome here will be when we all know our part and try out best to stick to it.”

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