Last year’s Waste Expo Australia saw a record number of delegates converge on the Melbourne Exhibition Centre to examine new opportunities in a changing sector.
At last year’s Waste Expo Australia, Pete Shmigel, Australian Council of Recycling, opened his presentation with a question: when you think about the waste and resource recovery industry over the last 12 months, would you give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down?
Audience reactions were mixed, with one delegate calling the system a mess, and another applauding the sector’s ability to acknowledge its problems and move forward. For an industry in a state of flux, this lack of consensus should come as no surprise.
But Mr Shmigel was positive, highlighting rising construction and demolition (C&D) and commercial and industrial (C&I) recovery rates.
“What kind of animal would I use to describe recycling? I’d say a bear, and what’s a bear? It’s surprisingly fast, it grows really fast and it sleeps for about half the year,” Mr Shmigel said.
“Amazingly fast growth in C&D and C&I, and then we look at kerbside recycling and it’s asleep.”
A solution for kerbside’s slumber, Mr Shmigel said, is further funding and harmonisation across jurisdictions.
According to Mr Shmigel, the Australian Council of Recycling recently conducted an analysis across 110 councils in NSW, finding 3824 collection and recycling process variations.
“There’s an argument for standardising the types of packaging that goes in, and there’s an argument for standardising the types of systems councils themselves run,” Mr Shmigel said.
“If Canada can do it, why can’t Australia?”
Supporting a stronger kerbside system was the focus of multiple Waste Expo Australia presentations, with over 100 speakers and 120 exhibitors navigating opportunities in the changing market.
According to Event Director Cory McCarrick, 2019 saw record attendance, with early reports indicating a 33 per cent increase from 2018.
“We are thrilled with the large increase in visitation at last year’s Waste Expo Australia, with a number of people travelling from interstate for the event,” Mr McCarrick said.
“Waste Expo Australia has truly cemented itself as the must-attend event for the waste management and resource recovery sector.”
The two-day event was opened with a keynote from Victorian Energy Environment & Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, who outlined actions her department is taking to improve the state’s resource recovery system.
“Our country is facing some major challenges in the waste and resource recovery sector and that, of course, includes restrictions on the export of recyclable materials,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.
“It has also made us think differently about how we manage our waste domestically, and it’s been a bit of a wake-up call to many of us, because we know that we can do better.”
Ms D’Ambrosio highlighted the state’s forthcoming circular economy strategy and waste infrastructure investments, including a $500,000 grant to Advanced Circular Polymer for Australia’s largest plastics recycling plant.
“We are committed to strengthening and growing the waste and resource recovery sector as we transition to an economy with less waste and better reuse and recycling,” the minister said.
“My commitment to all of you as industry players is to be available and to listen and work with you as we manage the transition the community expects us to undertake.”
Policy drivers that would help Ms D’Ambrosio’s plan to strengthen the sector were then addressed by Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council. Ms Read highlighted the importance of market development, landfill levies, product stewardship, environmental regulation, product bans, standards and education.
In reference to product stewardship, Ms Read highlighted the success of the used oil recycling scheme, the National Television and Computer Recycling scheme and state-run container deposit schemes (CDS).
The topic of CDS was further discussed at the Victorian Waste Management Association’s (VWMA) post day one discussion dinner, with presentations from Peter Bruce, Whenceforth Consulting, and David Cocks, MRA Consulting.
Mr Bruce, who recently served as Exchange for Change CEO, presented state-by-state CDS comparisons. He specifically highlighted variations between who owns the collected material, how cashflow is managed and how different schemes designs facilitate convenience.
While attendees appeared largely in favour of a Victorian CDS, questions were raised over long-term efficacy, material recovery facility liability and kerbside glass collection as a CDS substitute.
Peter Murphy, Alex Fraser, also addressed the importance of glass separation.
On the C&D stage, Mr Murphy discussed innovative recycling approaches and the consequence of increased recycled content in pavements and roads.
Following the presentation, Mr Murphy faced a steady stream of questions, highlighting
an understanding of the central role sustainable infrastructure will play in the transition towards a circular economy.
George Hatzimanolis, Repurpose It, expressed similar sentiments, with a presentation on the company’s approach to C&D transformation via best practice technology.
“The principles of our business are based on the concept of industrial ecology, taking a product at the end of a lifecycle and converting it into a product that begins a new lifecycle,” he said.
Mr Hatzimanolis went on to discuss the importance of urban recycling facilities located close to generation points and Repurpose It’s C&D washing process.
The contrast between urban and rural capabilities and needs was further discussed in a session chaired by Mark Smith, VWMA.
With presentations from Matt Genever, Sustainability Victoria, Isabel Axio, Just Waste Consulting, and Joe Agostino, Yarra City Council, the discussion emphasised the multifaceted nature of resource recovery, with distinctions made between what is appropriate in city centres and what works in the regions.
Ms Axio explained how to adapt urban concepts to regional landscapes, and suggested challenges such as low populations and transport costs were enabling characteristics rather than barriers.
Mr Genever then broadened the scope, focusing on what Sustainability Victoria has learnt over the past seven years.
He specifically stressed the importance of closing the market development, sustainable procurement and new infrastructure loop.
Similar arguments were made at day two’s Towards a Circular Economy Partnership Panel, chaired by Toli Papadopoulos from Prime Creative Media.
During the panel, Sebastian Chapman, DELWP, highlighted the importance of data, and said while the department doesn’t fully understand the flow of material in the Victorian economy, it is working to improve.
Pushing the point, Cameron McKenzie, ASPIRE, referenced the axiom that data is more valuable than oil. Without data, he said, waste cannot be sustainably managed.
While each panellist presented different perspectives, the consensus was clear: for a circular economy to thrive, action needs to extend beyond waste to reuse, repair and sharing economies.
As the expo wrapped up its final day, delegates discussed waste-derived products, destructive distillation and optical sorting.
The extensive and varied nature of the Waste Expo Australia program was perhaps best expressed by Steven Sergi, South Australian EPA: if anyone still thinks waste management involves simply putting material in a hole, they’re behind the eight ball.