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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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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NWRIC calls for levy relief to support waste sector

The National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) is calling on state governments to provide waste and landfill levy relief to the sector.

According to NWRIC CEO Rose Read, 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.”

Ms Read said waste and recycling companies are doing everything possible to ensure bins continue to be collected and waste and recycling safely processed during these extreme times.

“With the shutdown of some non-essential services over the next 24 hours Australia-wide, the waste and recycling industry will increase efforts to ensure it can maintain an essential service to the community,” she said.

According to Ms Read, NWRIC members and state affiliates have been actively adopting measures over the past few weeks to protect their staff and maintain services to local communities, businesses and the health sector.

Ms Read recognised that like all businesses, the waste and recycling sector was experiencing disruption.

“The NWRIC acknowledges the substantial support the Commonwealth and State governments have announced so far for businesses,” she said.

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NWRIC calls on COAG to set clear definitions and realistic timeframes

The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) is calling on ministers to set clear material definitions and realistic export timeframes at this Friday’s Council of Australian Government (COAG) meeting.

According to NWRIC CEO Rose Read, the Prime Minister and Premiers’ decisions on waste export bans will be key to determining Australia’s future capacity to capture and reuse the millions of tonnes of recycled materials currently being lost from the economy.

“The NWRIC supports COAG’s proposed export ban of waste plastics, paper, glass and tyres, and is calling on COAG to extend the ban to unprocessed cars, white goods, unprocessed e-waste and waste machine lubricant oils,” Ms Read said.

“However, COAG must not shut down legitimate overseas markets for secondary resources recovered from recycled materials such as clean paper and cardboard.”

Furthermore, Ms Read said COAG must address the real source of the waste export problem: the lack of recycled resources being used by the manufacturing, packaging and construction industries in Australia.

“This lack of reuse of recycled materials has significantly stymied industry investment and innovation in recycling capacity over the past 10 years,” she said.

“If Australian governments do not require the manufacturing, construction and packing sectors to dramatically ramp up recycled content in infrastructure, products and packaging, then it will not achieve its 80 per cent resource recovery target.”

The NWRIC is calling on COAG to agree and commit to:

— Clear definitions on what waste can’t be exported.

— Realistic timeframes that allow time to build new processing facilities and secondary resource markets to develop.

— Procuring recycled materials for government infrastructure and mandating recycled content in products and packaging through the Product Stewardship Act.

— Fast tracking development application and licensing processes for expanding and building new recycling and processing facilities.

— Joint investment from commonwealth and state governments with industry for new processing equipment and facilities.

— Strong enforcement of the ban, ensuring government agencies are adequately resourced to ensure compliance.

“If COAG gets this decision right and supports it with joint national and state investment, it will create the foundation necessary to move Australia to a country that values its waste as a resource, keeps these resources circulating in the economy, creating less waste and more jobs,” Ms Read said.

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Export ban exemptions

Despite the export ban commencing July 2020, the Federal Government could allow trade to continue under certain strict conditions. We speak to Trevor Evans, Assistant Waste Reduction and Environmental Management Minister.

In a speech to the first ever National Plastics Summit in Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to match industry investment in recycling infrastructure dollar for dollar. With Australia’s recycling facilities “under severe strain”, the Prime Minister said government would allocate further funding in the May budget.

“We are working with state and territory governments to identify and unlock the critical upgrades that will lead to a step-change in their recycling capacity. And [we] will invest with governments and with industry on a 1-to-1-to-1 basis,” he said, according to a pre-released speech given to media.

The announcement came just three months ahead of the first round of export bans – with glass waste set to be banned by July 2020 – and serves as a sign that government has listened to industry calls for market intervention.

Since late 2019, the Federal Government has been undertaking extensive industry consultation, as required by COAG Regulation Impact Guidelines. As per the export ban Regulation Impact Statement (RIS), the aim of consultation is to determine the relative costs and benefits of regulatory and non-regulatory options under consideration.

Under proposed regulatory options, the ban’s implementation could take two forms: federal legislation or export restrictions. While federal legislation is conceptually straightforward, option two is more complex, with exports operating under permit systems and accreditation or supply chain assurance.

Exemptions to the ban could be considered, the RIS suggests, where continued export promotes circular economy principals, or materials have established industrial uses and end markets. Moreover, the RIS highlights materials originating from clean, well sorted steams, such as container deposit schemes or single source separation, as possible candidates for exemption.

While it could seem like a loophole to some, according to the RIS, allowing materials that meet certain standards to be exported reflects the variability of challenges facing each waste stream, as well as differences in infrastructure across states and territories.

According to Trevor Evans, Assistant Waste Reduction and Environmental Management Minister, material stream complexity, paired with an understanding of the challenges associated with broad policy decisions, has been a central focus of ban consultation.

“While we use the language of export bans, in essence, what we’re really interested in doing is allowing trade to continue if it meets certain strict criteria,” Trevor says.

“These aren’t clunky blanket bans; they are very targeted. The Federal Government is interested in the quality of material that might go offshore, and if certain quality conditions and eligibility criteria are met, operators may be granted permission via permits.”

While the exemption eligibility criteria is largely finalised, Trevor says discussion is still taking place around specific material definitions.

“The intention of government is to target these bans at mixed or contaminated streams, especially plastics. And that is actually quite a detailed conversation when it comes to individual polymer types, or different types of carboard, paper and pulp,” he says.

According to Trevor, under the restriction system, the Federal Government would have the ability to permit, audit and inspect all operators engaging in export. Once the ban is officially in force, he says policing responsibility will likely fall on the Federal Environment Department.

“Assuming the permitting process is indeed the model that’s followed, the exact drafting of the scheme would then be finalised inside parliament, and it’s likely that the Department of Environment could be in charge of that permitting process,” he says.

MATERIAL PRIORITIES

In January, the National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) called for a ban exemption for clean, high grade paper and cardboard.

Citing an export market worth more than $230 million annually, Rose Read, NWRIC CEO, said recycling services could fail without export capacity. Ms Read also noted that Australia does not currently have the capacity to locally remanufacture all the paper and cardboard it generates.

Ms Read’s comments reflect a common industry concern that material definitions are too broad, and that while banning some products, such as whole baled tyres, is appropriate, banning others, could be counterproductive.

When asked about these concerns, Trevor notes that significant refinements have been made to the definitions initially proposed at the November 2019 Meeting of Environment Ministers.

“The changes have been around paper and pulp, and really targeting the bans at where we believe the true issues and challenges lie, and not to get in the way of other export streams that are well sorted and pose no environmental threat,” he says.

At the next COAG meeting on 13 March, Trevor expects the government will announce final definition and timeframe decisions. He adds that details around how the government plans to co-invest in new facilities is also likely to be announced, a view already alluded to at the National Plastic Summit.

“There are very big challenges across some of these product streams, and one of the biggest is that in some areas, such as mixed paper and plastics, there aren’t many facilities or onshore capacity at the moment,” Trevor says.

“That’s the main reason the bans are staged in their implementation. The timeframes are tight mind you, but they’re deliberately tight because we want to bring the bans in as soon as we practically can.”

Responding to Sustainable Resource Use’s January Recycling Market Situation Summary Review, Trevor suggests that in some cases, Australia’s onshore reprocessing capacity will need to increase by “many multiples”.

The review, which suggests Australia may need a 400 per cent increase in plastic throughput to sustain domestic markets, highlights global markets for recyclable materials as volatile.

“One of the main motivations for the Federal Government being willing to co-invest and create better policy frameworks, is that we want to see a huge onshoring of recycling capacity,” Trevor says.

“We want to see that as soon as possible because of the great environmental and economic impacts and quite frankly, because it’s going to create jobs, especially in areas of Australia where we need them most, and that’s in regional cities and outer suburban areas.”

SHADOW BAN

Since the ban was announced, the appropriate level of government investment has been hotly debated. Multiple stakeholders, including Ms Read, have cautioned that in the absence of robust infrastructure investment, the regulatory measure is likely to fail.

Trevor’s Labor counterpart, Shadow Assistant Environment Minister Josh Wilson, shares similar sentiments, telling Waste Management Review that the Federal Government is not doing enough to deal with the reality Australia faces. It should be noted that Josh spoke to Waste Management Review prior to Mr Morrison’s plastic summit announcement.

“All the government has done so far is essentially put out a timetable, and it’s not clear at all how we’re going to meet that timetable,” he says.

“If you take mixed plastics, which we are supposed to stop exporting by the middle of next year, it’s very hard to see how that can be achieved when the level of plastic recycling and reprocessing is lower in Australia now than it was in 2005.”

In regard to infrastructure investment, Josh describes the Federal Government’s current approach as “hands off, help yourself.” The Australian Recycling Investment Fund, he adds, is insufficient, with new policy measures and resources needed to ensure the ban’s success.

“The Australian Recycling Investment Fund is not new or additional money, it’s $100 million dollars earmarked in the Clean Energy Finance envelope,” Josh says.

“The money was already being applied for recycling projects, and its loan funds, not direct funds. So, the idea that it’s direct funding that will change and improve the situation for infrastructure investment just isn’t true.”

When asked to respond to the Shadow Minister’s comments, Trevor notes that as part of the Federal Government’s plan to tackle plastic waste and halve food waste by 2030, the Recycling Investment Fund addresses broader issues than those of the ban.

The fund is designed to finance eligible large-scale commercial and industrial projects, typically requiring $10 million or more of Clean Energy Finance Corporation debt or equity capital. As opposed to general infrastructure investment, the Australian Recycling Investment Fund is focused on emerging technology.

“The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has existed for many years. Part of the reason why we’ve given them responsibility for administering the Recycling Investment Fund is their proven track record of making very sound business investment decisions in new facilities and new technologies,” Trevor says.

He adds that he expects the Australian Recycling Investment Fund to be entirely spent. Another concern for Josh is Australia’s tyranny of distance, and whether investment decisions will consider the needs of the entire country.

“I have portfolio responsibility for Australia as a whole in the waste space, but I am a Western Australian,” he says.

“If there’s additional reprocessing capacity located in the eastern states, what happens to a jurisdiction like Western Australia that would face the transport costs of taking our mixed plastics and other recyclables to those centres?”

Trevor explains that all the states and territories have been invited to approach the Federal Government with ideas and solutions.

“As you’d expect, each of the states are in a different position in terms of what their present offerings are. And each of them has natural views about the direction they’d like to take industry,” he says.

“We’ve received a lot of those proposals already and are going through the process of seeing where we can co-invest. But we’re also mindful that we need to have a national solution and will go through a common sense checking process to make sure there isn’t any duplications, or indeed any gaps.”

You can read the full article in the May edition of Waste Management Review. 

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NWRIC calls for paper and cardboard export ban exemption

The National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) is calling on the Council of Australia Governments (COAG) to ensure clean, high grade paper and cardboard are exempt from waste export bans.

According to NWRIC CEO Rose Read, while industry supports banning waste glass, whole baled tyres, mixed plastic and mixed paper exports, the NWRIC does not support banning clean paper and cardboard exports.

“Australia currently exports close to 1.1 million tonnes of clean, high grade paper and cardboard every year, approximately one third of the material we use. This export market is estimated to be worth more than $230 million,” Ms Read said.

“Without the capacity to export clean paper and cardboard, recycling services could fail, including household kerbside collections.”

Ms Read added that Australia does not currently have the capacity to locally remanufacture all the paper and cardboard it generates.

“Australia’s domestic paper mills that process recycled paper are in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. These mills do not currently have sufficient capacity to take all of the recycled paper and cardboard generated on the east coast. Let alone that generated in SA, NT and WA, who rely on overseas markets,” she said.

“Recycled paper is only purchased by a small number of reprocessors, limiting competition.”

The NWRIC is inviting COAG to work with the waste and resource recovery industry to develop national scrap specifications for metals, plastics, paper, cardboard, e-waste and other recycled materials.

“These would give the waste management and recycling sector clarity and certainty on what can be exported, and manufacturers confidence in the recovered material being supplied,” Ms Read said.

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Victoria’s Parliamentary Inquiry – five critical actions

The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry has made 45 recommendations to advance Victoria’s waste management and resource recovery system. NWRIC CEO Rose Read outlines which of these recommendations are critical to setting the state on the pathway to a circular economy.

For the past four years Victoria’s waste and recycling system has been beset with a number of setbacks. From fires at material recycling facilities, illegal tyre and construction waste stockpiles to hazardous chemicals illegally buried or gone up in flames. The factors driving these setbacks are many. From criminal activity and substandard business practices, to unevenly policed regulations and China shutting its doors to poorly sorted materials.

In response to these challenges the Victorian Parliament’s Environment and Planning Committee initiated an inquiry into waste management, receiving more than 90 submissions and presentations.

The result, over 45 sweeping recommendations touching on many elements of waste and resource recovery; from chemical and hazardous waste management, landfill levies, waste to energy infrastructure needs to organics recovery, product stewardship, household waste, kerbside services and community education.

The challenge now for the Victorian government is to determine which recommendations are mission critical. From a waste and recycling service provider perspective, the NWRIC is calling on the Victorian government to progress the following actions first.

Grow domestic markets

Create stronger market pull for recovered plastics, organics, paper, glass and tyres by requiring greater use of recovered materials in products, packaging and construction as well as compost to soils. This should be approached from three different angles.

Firstly, introduce recycled content requirements for state and local government procurement and an obligation for agencies to publicly report on compliance with these requirements. As well as support manufacturers to streamline the testing and standards development processes for products containing recycled materials, especially products purchased by government.

Secondly, require a minimum recycled content level in new packaging produced in Victoria and work with manufacturers to reduce their use of virgin plastics.

Thirdly, advocate for the Commonwealth Government to introduce import requirements for products to have packaging that contains recycled materials.

Improve source separation

Making it easier for the community and businesses to source separate by ensuring all local councils are compliant with Standards Australia policy on bin lid colours within 12 months, and improving the capacity of multi-unit developments to collect, sort and recycle household waste.

Introducing a container deposit scheme to supplement improved municipal kerbside recycling services is critical. As is rolling out a consistent FOGO collection scheme state-wide. Where appropriate, also consider adopting a fourth glass bin or removing glass from the yellow bin and provide drop off points.

Increasing funding of state-wide recycling education is essential, as is supporting the widespread adoption of the Australasian Recycling Label in Victoria.

Advocating to the Commonwealth Government for both a national battery and solar PV system product stewardship schemes urgently to remove dangerous and flammable items form the current collection systems.

Integrate local and state planning

Embed waste and recycling infrastructure plans into local and state planning regulations and plans. Planning for waste and recycling facilities has been a national challenge, and Victoria is no different.

Even though Victoria has a SWRRIP and Regional WRRIPs in place, a leading recycling facility owned by Alex Fraser Group in Clarinda is facing eviction. This facility processes close to one million tonnes, representing approximately 10 per cent of Victoria’s recycling capacity.

This example illustrates the disconnect between waste and recycling infrastructure planning and local and state planning regulations and plans. Without strategically located dedicated sites for waste and recycling facilities, appropriate buffer zones, security of tenure industry cannot provide efficient and competitive resource recovery and waste management services to the community and businesses.

Expedite energy recovery

Implement energy recovery technologies in Victoria, to complement existing landfills and to better manage those materials that cannot be recycled.

While we all want to recover and recycle as much as possible there are some products and materials that are not suitable for recycling. Well-developed energy recovery facilities that meet all environmental and health outcomes have a role to play in optimising the recovery of embodied energy from those non-recyclable materials as well as dealing with contaminated biosolids currently being stockpiled in Victoria.

Reform landfill levies

Adjust the Municipal and Industrial Landfill Levy (MILL) and increase share of funds invested back into the sector. Any financial incentive to transport materials from or to other jurisdiction’s landfills should be removed. The NWRIC White Paper on State Waste and Landfill Levies highlighted how interstate price differentials in levies has created a levy avoidance industry where potentially recyclable materials are ending up in landfill or illegal stockpiles.

The whitepaper also highlighted the lack of transparency, accountability and investment of levy funds back into the sector. As illustrated in Victoria where in excess of $500 million is sitting in the Sustainability Fund and the majority of expenditure from this fund has been on climate change activities rather than waste management and recycling initiatives.

The reporting of how the MILL funds are invested is also overly complex with little assessment of the effectiveness of investment on waste and recycling outcomes.

The NWRIC, looks forward to seeing how the soon to be released Victorian Circular Economy Policy and government budgets incorporate and fund the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry and the outcomes from the Infrastructure and Landfill Levy reviews. If we are not reusing materials in products, packaging or construction or compost on soils we are not recycling let alone going circular.

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What happened to MWOO?

One year on from the NSW EPA’s ban on mixed waste organic material, Waste Management Review speaks with key industry stakeholders about resource recovery exemptions.

When the NSW EPA banned the restricted use of mixed waste organic material (MWOO) in October 2018, industry reaction was swift.

The ban’s 24-hour notice period was deemed particularly controversial, with council planning and tender processes instantly altered.

The EPA’s apparent lack of transparency was also criticised, with claims industry had little access to the EPA’s internal research, or knowledge of the decision-making process.

While a Technical Advisory Committee Report was prepared in April 2018, it was withheld from the public for five months. Then Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said withholding the report illustrated poor judgement on the EPA’s behalf.

The report’s eventual release did little to alleviate industry’s concerns. Speaking with Waste Management Review in October, an industry stakeholder, who wished to remain anonymous, said the report lacks reference to data that supports its baseline scientific assertions.

“While the report makes reference to multiple studies, those studies aren’t cited and industry hasn’t been granted access to the EPA’s research,” the stakeholder said.

Additionally, the stakeholder said industry engagement in the lead up to the decision was poor, with no formal consultation period or submissions process.     

The decision was also deemed controversial due to the NSW Government consistently advising that the state had a shortage of alternative waste treatment facilities (AWT).

In a joint letter to Ms Upton, the Waste Management Association of Australia, the Australian Organics Recycling Industry Association, Waste Contractors Association of NSW, Australian Council of Recycling and the Australian Organics Recycling Association said several existing long-term AWT contracts had been compromised by the decision.

RED BIN REPORT

MWOO, which predominantly consists of household waste organics and has traditionally been used as compost, was banned for use on agricultural land, plantation forests and in mining rehabilitation. It is worth noting the ban excludes land application of compost derived from source separated FOGO.

According to a 2006 NSW Environment and Conservation Department Report, titled Recycled Organics in Mine Site Rehabilitation and authored by Georgina Kelly, MWOO improves soil structure, moisture retention and soil aeration. The report also asserts that MWOO is a rich nutrient source that facilitates rapid micro flora and fauna regrowth.

On agricultural land the material serves a similar function, acting as a soil amendment, topsoil substitute and fertiliser.

Despite two decades of widespread use, the EPA’s Technical Advisory Committee Report argued that MWOO had limited agricultural or soil benefits.

“It is clear the current use of MWOO on broadacre agricultural land, with application rates restricted to 10 tonnes per hectare, could not be classified as beneficial reuse in terms of improved crop production or beneficial effects on soil chemical or physical quality,” the report reads.

“Higher and/or repeat application rates are needed for the material to have any significant effects on crop growth and quality and on soil chemical and physical quality.”

The report also suggests that higher MWOO application rates run the risk of greater soil contamination by metals, persistent organic chemicals and physical contaminants.

The report lists one site visit, conducted 22 September 2017, where visible waste streams including nappies, plastic and clothing were found in high proportions – the specific site and/or operator is not named.

According to the anonymous stakeholder, further research should have been conducted, including more site visits and sustained onsite testing.

In laboratory and glasshouse experiments referenced by the report, the effect of MWOO, and specifically ground glass, was examined on earthworm avoidance, rhizobium nodulation and clover and carrot growth.

Ground glass is commonly found in MWOO as processing employs grinding to meet physical contaminant limits.

While no adverse effects were observed for earthworm behaviour, rhizobium nodulation and clover growth, glass particles were seen to adhere to the surface of carrot tubers, at an application rate equivalent to 25 tonnes per hectare.

“While this application rate is above current 10 tonnes per hectare agricultural guidelines, if regulations were to change (to allow the beneficial effects of MWOO to be realised) it is possible that more MWOO would be applied, making this a real concern,” the report reads.

“The fact that glass is permissible in MWOO used on agricultural land requires that this issue be either further considered experimentally, or the risk avoided by more effective glass removal.”

The stakeholder questioned the carrot experiment’s inclusion in the report, given MWOO was already banned around crop harvesting. They also raised concerns over the anonymity of the technical advisory committee, and said industry had a right to know who was consulted on the decision.

When asked what the EPA could do to ease industry concerns, the stakeholder said that at a minimum, the EPA should revoke the material’s ban in mining rehabilitation.

They added that the EPA’s ability to change regulatory standards with a stroke of a pen had caused significant hesitation around private sector investments.

“If I had money to invest in resource recovery, I wouldn’t be spending it in NSW,” the stakeholder said.   

On 16 October, the NSW EPA opened public consultation on the future use of MWOO and a proposed $6.5 million AWT transition package.

In an associated position statement, the EPA reiterated its original MWOO position and stated further research had been undertaken to assess future controls.

Consultation closes 28 November.

RESOURCE RECOVERY EXEMPTIONS

The use of MWOO has been restricted since 2010, including processing and distribution regulations and limits on its use for urban and domestic purposes. Specifically, EPA regulations restrict the material’s use near crops harvested below the soil surface.

Within those restrictions however was a Resource Recovery Exemption Order allowed MWOO in some land applications under specific conditions, based on its then status as beneficial or fit-for-purpose.

In a statement released at the time, then EPA Acting Chair Anissa Levy said the MWOO exemption was made on the basis that the material provided a beneficial reuse solution for waste. The revocation was made in 2018 because the material no longer met those requirements, she said.

Resource Recovery Exemption Orders are made under clauses 91 and 92 of the 2014 Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulation Act.

According to Ross Fox, accredited specialist in planning and environmental law and Principal Lawyer Fishburn Watson O’Brien, the act was constructed to ensure orders and exemptions can be made, changed and revoked easily. He says while this has benefits, namely the ability to act swiftly in the face of environmental hazards, it also lends itself to overreach.

“What is arguably one of the act’s strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses. It’s not clear why there is no specific testing process set out in the act, but it’s certainly a matter of concern for my clients and the industry generally,” Ross says.

He adds that there is no transparent framework for the revocation process when an order or exemption involves the waste industry.

“The sector is also concerned that decisions can be made without public access to the information the EPA has, and without the opportunity to raise concerns,” he says.

While the legislative framework for Resource Recovery Orders and Exemptions hasn’t changed significantly over the past 10 years, Ross says current conversation around the issue are a sign of a maturing waste industry.

He adds that while in some cases there may be cause to revoke or amend exemptions, the EPA should be required to establish, and in some cases publicise, their argument for revocation.

“Those who are operating pursuant to an order are entitled to a fair process, and a clear path to be followed by all parties to minimise the impact of that revocation to the extent that it’s possible.”

Mirroring the view of the anonymous stakeholder, Ross suggests the ease in which Resource Recovery Exemptions can be revoked has created a high degree of risk for investors.

“Operators are thinking: why should I invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a piece of equipment that can produce material up to today’s specifications, when Resource Recovery Exemption legislation allows those specifications to be changed tomorrow?” he says.

“If the degree of risk is too great then it will discourage investment in resource recovery, which will have a negative impact on NSW meeting its resource recovery targets.”

FLOW ON EFFECTS

Christopher Malan, ELB Equipment Managing Director, says the MWOO ban has had a negative effect on organic diversion rates, and increased the amount of material sent to landfill.

“In addition to the direct effects felt by NSW recyclers engaged in mixed waste organics recycling, processors from other states have expressed displeasure over the likelihood of similar measures in their state or territory,” Christopher says.

“This has created uncertainty in the segment and slowed investment in the sector.”

Christopher says that while ELB is committed to organics recycling, the MWOO issue far exceeds the capabilities of efficient processing.

“Given the breadth of the issue caused by the removal of the exemption relates to the source of the waste rather than the recycling methodology or output product, there is little that we have been able to offer from a technical perspective to assist the industry,” he says.

Despite this, Christopher is optimistic and says the NSW Government, EPA and local councils should work together to address the problem.

“All parties can agree that recyclable resources, such as organics, should not be going to landfill,” he says.

“It is our hope that a review of organic waste handling assists in eliminating organic waste sent to landfill.”

Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO, says the MWOO ban has closed markets for five operating mechanical biological treatment facilities in NSW.

“Collectively, these facilities produce in excess of 150,000 tonnes of mixed waste derived organics per year. So far, the NSW EPA has provided landfill levy exemptions for these facilities,” she adds.

Furthermore, Rose says the MWOO ban has created uncertainty and confusion within both the processing industry and users of processed organics.

“It is critical that clear specifications are urgently agreed upon by regulators, processors and the final end users of the material on what is acceptable for the agriculture, forestry and site rehabilitation markets,” she says.

“These specifications should be based on best available science. Without this clarity, industry cannot develop infrastructure and technology to meet the user’s needs, and the state government will not be able to meet its recycling targets.”

According to Rose, industry is asking for an amended Mixed Waste Resource Recovery Order to be reinstated, that clearly defines outputs and applications.

“To deliver on these outputs, industry will need financial assistance to upgrade these facilities to deliver the required resource recovery outcomes,” Rose says.

“Industry will also need to transition these assets in the medium to long term, so they can continue to provide the desired resource recovery outcomes and market specifications for NSW.”

Rose says industry is also requesting that the NSW EPA insert a formal process within its waste regulations that ensures current and future Resource Recovery Orders and Exemptions cannot be amended or revoked without timely consultation and a detailed assessment with all relevant stakeholders.

Charlie Emery, Australian Organics Recycling Association Director and NSW Chair, urged similar action in a submission to the NSW Environment Minister, addressing the state’s proposed 20-year waste and resource recovery strategy.

In the submission, Charlie called for the creation and enforcement of consistent regulatory standards for organics processing.

“Waste cannot always be a waste. At some point after beneficial processing it must become a resource,” the submission reads.

This article was published in the November 2019 issue of Waste Management Review. 

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NWRIC raises concerns over export ban viability

The National Waste Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) has raised concern’s over COAG’s proposed export ban, suggesting the regulatory measure will fail if not supported by markets for recovered plastics and paper.

NWRIC CEO Rose Read said the Meeting of Environment Minister’s (MEM) announcement is in urgent need of adjustment to ensure the timelines are realistic.

“Its intent is noteworthy, however its achievability is seriously constrained unless markets and infrastructure are established in parallel,” Ms Read said.

“Perverse impacts from the ban must be avoided as Australia seeks to address its waste and recycling challenges.”

According to Ms Read, NWRIC members are keen to work with all agencies and the packaging and manufacturing industry to support developing markets and regulatory shifts. 

“However, we are very concerned that the regulatory focus is being crudely placed at the end-of-pipe and not at the source of the issue i.e. brands and producers,” Ms Read added. 

“The proposed export bans have the potential to address Australia’s packaging waste and recycling challenges, but only if supported by appropriately targeted product stewardship regulation and effective government procurement policies that create new home markets for used packaging.” 

Ms Read said it was also unrealistic to enforce export bans for plastics by July 2021 and paper by June 2022, when the packaging industry and manufacturers are only working to achieve 30 per cent recycled content and 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. 

“Currently, there is no regulation requiring manufacturers or the packaging industry to achieve these targets or penalties if they don’t.  This is far from being equitable,” Ms Read said.

Despite concerns, Ms Read said NWRIC welcomes the environment ministers commitment to further test the proposed export ban timetable with industry and local government prior to finalisation in early 2020.

“The NWRIC is calling on the federal environment minister to bring together a round table of industry leaders from the manufacturing, packaging, waste and resource recovery sectors, to commit to both minimum recycled content levels in plastic and paper packaging and scaling up reprocessing capacity within mutually agreed and realistic timeframes,” Ms Read said.

“If the environment ministers do not prioritise minimum recycled content levels in plastic and paper packaging, there will be no markets for recovered plastic and paper, stockpiles will grow increasing fire risk, resources will be sent to landfill, people may lose their jobs and currently viable businesses will cease.”

To read further industry responses to the export ban timeline click here.

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Matt Kean addresses industry at AWRE

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean says local councils have been shut out of the waste and resource recovery conversation for too long, due to a “cosy” relationship between government and industry.

Addressing delegates at the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council’s (NWRIC) Australasian Waste & Recycling Expo industry breakfast, Mr Kean said his department intends to bring councils and the wider community back to the decision making table.

“Policy has been developed for too long by government working with industry, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but costs keep rising for communities and local councils. Lets not forget that waste is over a third of peoples council rates,” Mr Kean said.

“Rate-capping caps the amount of council rates on every single item on the bill except for waste, so there’s been no incentive for industry to delivered cheaper, better outcomes for the community, and that’s something I would like to see change.”

Mr Kean added that after speaking with local councils, it was clear to him that they agree.

“We need to have them as part of the conversation, and we need them at the table to talk to industry and develop policy that is going to deliver waste management services in the cheapest most environmentally sound way possible,” Mr Kean said.

“We need everyone effected by this industry to be part of the conversation, and that’s what I’m looking to do differently to my predecessors.”

At the event, chaired by NWRIC CEO Rose Read, Mr Kean also addressed the Council of Australian Government’s recent proposal to ban international waste exports.

According to Mr Kean, NSW is working closely with other governments to develop a ban timeline, which he anticipates will be tabled next month, following the November Meeting of Environment Ministers.

“We need to face the fact that the export of waste undermined the confidence of consumers who expected that when they were told they were recycling waste it was actually being recycled, the same goes for MWOO, I just want to point that out as well,” Mr Kean said.

“That’s why I was proud to sign up to a timetable to ban export waste. It’s a step towards rebuilding consumer confidence and delivering improvement in our waste management practices, including recycling.”

When asked by Ms Read why NSW’s waste levy revenue was not being reinvested in industry, Mr Kean said he had concerns over how levy revenue is currently spent.

Mr Kean added that he doesn’t believe scattering the levy delivers good environmental outcomes and said his department will review levies and targets in the 20 year waste strategy.

Ms Read also asked Mr Kean whether the state government was open to establishing a trust account to report on where levy funds are spent.

The Environment Minister replied that he wouldn’t make policy commitments on the fly, and said his government is committed to establishing policy in a considered and comprehensive manner.

Additionally, Mr Kean said his department would work to deliver greater policy and funding transparency.

Referencing NSW’s forthcoming 20 year waste strategy, Mr Kean called the policy a “huge body of work,” and reiterated the importance of working with local government to deliver positive outcomes.

“When I became the minister earlier this year, the 20 year waste strategy was flagged and it was underway, but I asked the department to put a hold on that strategy because I believe it needs to be more comprehensive,” Mr Kean said.

“I’ve reset the agenda in terms of what I want the strategy to achieve, and that agenda will be developed in consultation with industry, with local government and the community. We hope there will be a discussion paper early next year.”

Mr Kean said he hopes to deliver a strategy that provides industry certainty and enables investment before the end of 2020.

“It cant just work for Sydney, its got to work for the regions as well,” Mr Kean said.

“Major reform is on the table, so I’ve asked my department to engage in frank conversations with community groups, local councils and industry about how we can better deliver outcomes.”

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