As Tony Khoury steps down from his role as Executive Director of the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of New South Wales, he reflects on more than 30 years in the industry.
Australia’s waste and recycling industry has a way of enmeshing those who work in it. Once you’re in the industry, generally you are here to stay.
Tony Khoury is testament to that. When the Fellow Certified Practicing Accountant took up the role of Financial Controller for Pacific Waste Management in New South Wales in 1991, it began a more than three-decade long commitment to the industry.
He moved on to Clinical Waste Australia where he was tasked with raising the required capital to upgrade the emissions system so that air quality met the then new Environment Protection Agency environment standards.
Today, the plant operated by Cleanaway Daniels Silverwater – Medical Waste Services, is still in operation and is the last of the medial waste incinerators in New South Wales.
“It wasn’t as complicated or challenging back then,” Tony says. “The waste and recycling sector is a much more sophisticated and complex industry in 2023 than it was in the early ’90s.
“Thirty years ago, you’d provide a driver with a run sheet, he’d pick up the waste and drop it off. Today there are more laws, regulations, policies, procedures, and restrictions.”
The now Executive Director of the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association (WCRA) of New South Wales, Tony has helped shape the association and turn it into a successful business entity, supported by its members and sponsors, and respected by stakeholders, including across all levels of government.
WCRA members own, operate, or control an estimated 90 per cent of the available commercial waste and recycling collection vehicles used in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
Tony’s acutely aware of the many and varied challenges faced by business operators – he references demands for better customer service, cost control, higher productivity, workplace health and safety issues, skills and labour shortages, the challenges posed by the introduction of new laws and regulations, insurance issues, and the urban sprawl, to name a few.
A staunch advocate of the industry, he’s shared his knowledge, providing training opportunities for workers including delivery of nationally accredited TAFE material across the waste management sector.
There’s been many successes along the journey.
Tony describes as “wonderful”, watching the evolution of occupational health and safety laws and national heavy vehicle regulations into national systems, laws and regulations, and his involvement in the introduction of the federal Waste Management Award 2010 (now 2020) that governs payment and conditions to all waste and recycling workers.
“It was a big job,” he says. “In developing the Award, WCRA was the only waste employer body consistently involved in the Fair Work Commission (FWC).
“Now that it is in place, this Award has removed aggressive behaviour from the wage negotiation process with the FWC handing down an annual increase on 1 July of each year. We also have the Fair Work Ombudsman providing advice when workers and employers require support.”
Tony says one of the biggest challenges has been a lack of waste and recycling infrastructure across New South Wales and a disconnect between government expectations and business.
He says Sydney needs more disposal solutions in the metropolitan area. The current network of transfer stations funnels putrescible waste to the Woodlawn Eco Precinct near Goulburn and Lucas Heights for disposal.
“If there’s a breakdown in the system, or an oversupply as happens during wet weather or from bushfires, the whole system goes into stress,” Tony says.
“We require disposal solutions within the Sydney metropolitan area. Transfer stations are great, but that’s all they are, transfer facilities, not end-disposal points.”
He says a combination of factors have added to the challenges – population growth, a “throw-away society” where everything has an expiration date, an abundance of packaging materials and the closure of waste facilities over the years.
The answer, Tony says, is energy-from-waste (EfW), but state regulations have forced the withdrawal of several projects.
“Unless things change, it is highly likely that within a decade, Sydney will experience a significant waste disposal problem. I don’t know of any other way of disposing of waste residues other than landfill or energy-from-waste.
“We can minimise the amount of waste we generate, and we can recycle more (via bins with yellow and green lids), but when it comes to the contents of the bin with the red lid, I don’t know how else we can get rid of this waste residue.”
The only live application for EfW in New South Wales is one by Veolia for a facility at Woodlawn. Tony believes it’s important for this application to be approved, not only for the waste industry, but to provide a reference point for regulators of what is possible and what good quality EfW infrastructure should look like in the state.
But even if Woodlawn is approved, there will still be an element of time involved to construct the facility.
“For the business sector to invest there needs to be certainty that regulations will not change, along with an opportunity for an adequate rate of return on investment,” Tony says. “Many waste and recycling projects take 15 to 20 years for capital to be depreciated and for the organisation to obtain a payback on the investment.
“With the right regulatory settings, industry will develop the confidence to raise the required capital to invest in further processing solutions for New South Wales.”
The state’s waste levy is another area that needs addressing. Tony says increases in the levy have led to waste being transported from New South Wales to Queensland.
“At the height of the issue, 1.8 million tonnes of waste a year was leaving New South Wales to go to South-East Queensland for no reason other than to avoid payment of the levy,” he says.
“The waste levy was designed to encourage resource recovery and diversion from landfill and should not be used by transporters to subsidise the cost of long-distance transport. While it can be argued that it is an economic decision to avoid paying the levy, in reality there are very significant road safety and environmental issues involved.”
In Tony’s 33 years in the industry, the New South Wales waste levy has increased from $2 per tonne in 1991 to the current level of $163.20.
In terms of unfinished business, Tony believes there should be strong consideration given to harmonise waste management laws into a federal system.
“Having six states and two territories with their own waste management laws is a bit archaic,” he says, while adding that “550 councils across the country making different decisions on waste and recycling is also far from ideal”.
Tony plans to finish up with the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association NSW late in 2023 and is hoping to pursue a board opportunity.
In January 2017, he completed a formal program and passed the required exams admitting him to the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He has held a number of board positions including Sydney Catholic Cemeteries where he chaired the Audit & Risk Committee and currently with DOOLEYS Lidcombe Catholic Club where he chairs the Sports Council.
As well as being an FCPA, Tony is a Fellow Member of the Institute of Corporate Governance, a Fellow Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, holds a Bachelor of Business Degree, a Diploma in Corporate Management and has a Certificate IV in Training & Assessment TAE40110.
He describes his time with WCRA as the best years in his working career.
“In my travels around the world, nobody does containerisation, transport and collection of waste better than the Australian waste and recycling industry,” he says.
“All aspects of the system are consistent, workers are very well trained, the equipment used is at a very high standard, productivity is generally high and work health and safety standards are the highest I’ve seen.
“As transporters we are number one in my opinion, and we should all be very proud of that.”
To view the activities of WCRA, visit: www.wcra.com.au