Almost 12 months after a crisis within Australia’s recycling sector came to light, local councils and businesses are still looking for answers from government at state and federal levels.
In January 2018, China’s ban on the importation of 24 types of recyclable materials sent Australia’s waste management industry, which indirectly employs around 50,000 people, into a tailspin.
Initially 619,000 tonnes of the 67 million tonnes of waste generated in Australia per year was expected to be affected.
That figure has since been revised, doubling to 1.3 million tonnes of recyclable waste.
But while political momentum appears to have built up, the complexity of ongoing negotiations between states, territories and the Commonwealth, have hampered attempts to resolve Australia’s recycling problem.
Calls for government leadership
Chief executive of the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA), Gayle Sloan, said she has not be satisfied with the response from State and Federal Governments.
“We came out of the dark in a big way, away from being out of sight and out of mind, to the forefront of a lot of people’s consciousness,” she said.
“But the reality is operators continue to be under significant pressure… governments still haven’t really caught up with what needs to happen.”
While State, Territory and Federal Environment Ministers agreed to aspects of the 2018 National Waste Policy in December, they did not commit to any funding targets for the waste management industry.
“We haven’t been able to grow onshore markets as quickly as we needed so when you do have market failure you need government to step in and work with industry — and that’s just not happening in enough places, at enough scale,” Ms Sloan said.
“What we’re actually exporting are commodities, it’s not waste so it’s actually [a] sorted commodity that comes out of material recovery facilities that have a value.”
“What we should be doing is not exporting those to overseas countries but utilising them in Australia because we know we create jobs — 9.2 jobs for every 10,000 tonnes recycled in Australia, compared to 2.8 for export.”
Lack of harmony hampering business investment
The states and territories have different recycling regulations and standards, which are legislated by their respective governments and managed by local councils.
Ms Sloan said the current arrangements made efforts to promote better use of recyclable materials with national and multinational companies difficult.
“They say to you, ‘Why would we do a state-by-state approach? Why would we have a different approach? We want to do one national program’.”
“That’s where the Commonwealth Government is key… in standardising these approaches to give those involved with the waste and resources recovery industry directly, but also indirectly, certainty as to how to operate.”
One of the strategies outlined in the 2018 National Waste Policy is to “implement a common approach towards waste policy and regulation, particularly in relation to national opportunities to support development of markets for recycling”.
“What’s got to really be clear is to have signals from government that there’s certainty and long-term certainty around your investment so you can invest in energy from waste, you can invest in plastics recycling, because someone is going to take the energy you make or the plastics you make and buy it back,” Ms Sloan said.
“You can’t build these multi-million-dollar facilities without certainty that you’ve got a market.
“What we’ve got is a clear surplus of supply of waste material, which is a resource, and not sufficient purchasing back of that recycled content.”
Not much has changed for local councils
Oliver Moles, director of sustainable development at Moyne Shire Council in Victoria’s south west, was one of the first people in local government to speak publicly about the emerging crisis in January 2018.
“It was a tumultuous year with various crises emerging at different times,” he said.
“Initially when the crisis occurred, much of the information that we were sourcing was through the media as opposed to the government.”
Mr Moles said he was not sure how much of the council’s recyclable material had been exported, stockpiled, reprocessed, or dumped in landfill.
The 2018 National Waste Policy stated that information “on where Australia’s waste comes from and where it goes” needs improvement with such data being “critical to business investment” and influencing consumer behaviour.
Mr Moles said while short-term funding measures have somewhat helped, councils needed reassurance that the direction and stability of the recycling industry was safe.
“At the moment I’m not hearing enough about that to make me confident,” he said.
“Residents were very interested in the issue and were asking me and others, councillors and so on, about our waste practices and the end points of our waste.”
“That’s really important that there’s are a continuing information flow to us so we can predict what’s ahead of us and adjust our budgets and adjust our relationships to our contractors and explain those things to our community.”
Funding for recycling reboot on agenda
Recycling dominated two major meetings of State, Territory and Federal Environment Ministers in 2018, with the parties agreeing to develop an action plan to implement the 2018 National Waste Policy at their next meeting.
The policy encompasses the principles of a circular economy which, according to the WMAA, would need a $150 million investment from State and Federal Governments to develop better methods to process and re-use more recyclable materials domestically, rather than exporting it overseas.
Other principles agreed to in the policy include aims to process recyclable resources as close as is possible to where they are created, harmonise different waste regulations, and expand government procurement of recycled materials.
The policy notes that a hypothetical 5 per cent improvement in the efficient use of materials could “benefit Australia’s GDP by as much as $24 billion”.
Federal Minister for Environment, Melissa Price, is on leave but her office has been contacted for comment.
Environment Ministers are expected to meet again in the first half of 2019.