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.”