Australia’s “war on waste” took a sinister turn earlier this year when India confirmed that it will follow in China’s footsteps and place a ban on waste imports.
Meanwhile, the Australian public’s concern over its own high garbage volumes, low resource recovery rates and linear (make-use-dispose) economy is growing. All of this overlaid by a looming national carbon neutrality deadline.
The rationale for a circular economy may be clear. But to what extent does current waste-to-energy policy, regulation and infrastructure support this model?
Ahead of the National Waste to Energy Conference we spoke with Director of Resource Recovery at Sustainability Victoria, Matt Genever, to learn what more needs to be done to divert waste from landfills.
Australia has some ambitious resource recovery targets. How achievable are these?
In my view, there are three key areas for any jurisdiction that is shooting for a recovery target of 80% or greater.
Firstly, targeting organic waste is essential. The new National Food Waste Baseline completed by Arcadis recently shows that Australia sends around 3.2 million tonnes of food waste to landfill every year.
The national household food waste recovery rate is less than 8% so there are some real gains to be made here through roll out of FOGO (food and garden organics) services and improved food waste processing.
Secondly, we need to tackle mixed commercial and industrial (C&I) waste. Separate collections for C&I cardboard are common, but in many cases all other waste goes into mixed front lift skips.
I recently toured the Cleanaway ResourceCo PEF (process engineered fuel) plant in Wetherill Park and that’s a great example of how we can capture some more value from mixed commercial waste.
If we can get all organics out of commercial waste collections that makes these types of facilities even more attractive and hopefully we’ll see more popping up across the country.
Finally, pretty much all international countries that have a better than 80% recovery rate are using waste to energy to extract value from the residual waste.
If we can improve organics recovery, extract value from the C&I stream and process genuine residual waste for energy I think that would see Australian jurisdictions compete with the best recovery rates in the world.
What more is there left to do?
Heaps. The reform of the recycling sector is only just beginning. From a circular economy perspective there are whole industries that will need to transform.
We’ve seen the MRF sector really struggling over the past 12 months and unless we can effectively commoditise the outputs of MRFs into high value products, we’re likely to see more and more stockpiling and risks to the community.
At Sustainability Victoria, we’ve been focusing a lot of our work on market development and government procurement and there is still a power of work to be done in establishing local markets for recycled products and government procurement is the key to having impact at scale.
The regulatory landscape will continue to evolve and I’m really excited about the new Environment Protection Act in Victoria which is comes into effect on 1 July 2020.
This will give EPA Victoria more powers to act much earlier to ensure that risks are managed before they get to unmanageable scale.
Of course on top of this is a need for year on year investment in infrastructure to improve recovery and to build a strong secondary manufacturing market in Australia.
What barriers do you anticipate could stand in the way of these targets?
I think it’s important to note that everyone has played a role in the issues facing the recycling sector at the moment.
Using generalities, households haven’t done enough to manage contamination; industry hasn’t been able to manage recycling volumes effectively; local government contracts haven’t given the right line of sight to ensure material collected is actually being recycled; state government needs to invest more of the levies that are collected; and the Commonwealth Government continues to lag in the product stewardship space.
So, if we’re all accountable, then the solution must involve all parts of the chain and goes back to this idea of the recycling system as being a “shared responsibility”.
For me that’s the real challenge. There isn’t just one improvement or one intervention that will improve our recovery rates or facilitate a transition to a circular economy.
Instead it’s lots of changes that need to happen across the whole value chain, from investment and regulations to household behaviours and industry practices.
How does Australia fare in relation to its global peers?
It’s a hard question to answer because there are so many moving parts in this system and broad differences between each state and territory.
We’re laggards in some ways, particularly our reliance on landfills and uptake of things like product stewardship schemes. But in other ways were doing extremely well.
I think the key point is that we have amazing foundations. The top waste and resource recovery businesses in Australia are strong, diversified companies that focus on health and safety and best practice and that’s a great start.
We’re a country that has a wealth of experience in building infrastructure, we have engaged communities, strong regulators and a genuine affinity with the idea of recycling at household and business level. But we can sometimes be a bit slow to react.
Australia is on the cusp of a quantum shift and if industry, government and the community pitch in I have no doubt we’ll have a recycling sector that competes with the best countries in the world.
What are some of the untapped opportunities in terms of resource recovery?
Organics (particularly food), mixed C&I waste and recovering value from the residual waste we currently send to landfill are huge opportunities.
I would also add that the link between recycling and manufacturing is a huge untapped opportunity.
Our manufacturing sector has declined over recent decades but there are a raft of opportunities in re-manufacturing and the use of recovered commodities in advanced manufacturing, particularly polymer based products like plastics.
Matt Genever is Director of Resource Recovery at Sustainability Victoria and is due to present at the National Waste to Energy Conference – 18-19 June 2019, Sydney.