Governments make right noises on waste crisis, but much more action needed
Willow Aliento | 1 May 2018
Phasing out unsustainable packaging and using government purchasing power to increase market share of products containing recycled content are among initiatives agreed at last Friday’s meeting of environment ministers.
Environment groups and the recycling sector, however, have expressed mixed feelings about the meeting’s outcome, with many concerned that the proposals are too loose, too vague and non-binding.
The meeting involved all state, territory and federal environment ministers, as well as president of the Australian Local Government Association, David O’Loughlin, who is mayor of Prospect City Council in South Australia.
The major item on the agenda was navigating the impact of China’s restrictions on importing Australian waste.
Mr O’Loughlin told the meeting the critical issues went “well beyond short-term funding relief, as welcome as it has been from the Victorian and NSW governments.”
“What matters more is the creation of profitable uses and products for recycled materials, preferably onshore, if we are to lift the price points for plastics back to viable levels,” he said in a post-meeting report.
“As a key service provider in waste collection and recycling, councils are shouldering much of the financial impact as a consequence of China’s decision and this is unsustainable for many councils and their rate-paying residents.
“With many more councils likely to experience problems in the short and medium-to-long term as contracts are due for re-tendering, a solution must be found soon.”
All packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025
Making all packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 was an initiative that received broad support.
This was endorsed at the federal level, a move welcomed by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), which has been chosen to work with the federal government on achieving the 100 per cent target.
“The China issue presents a significant opportunity for Australia to shift to the next level in packaging resource recovery, recycling and end use,” APCO chief executive Brooke Donnelly said.
Ms Donnelly said the target was a “monumental call to action and one of the most ambitious and decisive environmental targets to be supported in Australia”.
“We will support more innovative packaging design, enhance consumer education, as well as bolster the re-use and the incorporation of recycled content within end markets.
“Across these initiatives, it’s essential that we take a consistent national approach – one that will promote domestic recycling and resource recovery to reduce the amount of waste going into landfill and deliver a smaller, cleaner waste stream in Australia.”
Other strategies agreed to by the meeting include:
- Reducing waste at source and making it easier for products to be recycled
- Developing targets for the use of recycled content in packaging
- striving for lower waste contamination levels through consumer education
- increasing domestic recycling capacity and capability
- increasing demand for products made from recycled materials, through government and industry procurement programs, and creating new markets. Specific product types mentioned included paper, construction materials and road materials.
In the official post-meeting communiqué, the ministers said they had agreed to work together to expand and develop Australia’s recycling industry, to not only take the waste that would have gone to China but also to grow domestic capabilities.
The ministers have also pledged to update the National Waste Strategy released in 2009 by the end of this year, incorporating circular economy principles into the refreshed approach.
Product waste was also discussed, with the ministers committing to fast-tracking the development of new product stewardship schemes for photovoltaic solar panels and batteries.
The ministers will reconvene for a teleconference in mid-June to discuss progress on recycling, and hold another meeting in late 2018 to further progress delivery on the commitments made last week.
Concern over waste-to-energy
While waste-to-energy was discussed, the preference expressed at the meeting was for a strategy of reduce, reuse and recycle materials before taking the step towards destruction or conversion.
However, following the meeting federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg said the government has asked the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Australian Renewable Energy Agency to prioritise waste-to-energy projects, building on about $200 million already invested in this area.
“Generating energy from waste that is unable to be recycled is common in other countries, particularly in Europe,” he said.
The Boomerang Alliance described the meeting as a “work in progress”, as ministers are yet to prove they have adequately responded to the opportunities created by the China situation, but said waste-to-energy shouldn’t be top of mind.
“Cementing and growing our recycling economy will take concrete plans to deliver targets and should certainly not involve incineration of waste,” Boomerang Alliance director Jeff Angel said.
“We need a solid commitment to a quantum leap, otherwise we will be dragged backwards and waste an enormous amount of resource while continuing to pollute the environment.”
Mr Angel said both state and Commonwealth ministers needed to embed higher resource recovery objectives in the economy.
“Incineration diverts valuable materials from genuine recycling – and uses mixed waste, which poses serious toxic pollution threats.
“There may be plans for new recycling industry, but by the time they eventuate as actual projects they will find the rush to incineration has locked up their resources.”
Waste management company SUEZ, meanwhile,endorsedthe interest in waste-to-energy.
“Energy from waste technology is the missing link in the waste management hierarchy and waste infrastructure in Australia,” its Australia & New Zealand chief executive Mark Venhoek said.
“After reduction, re-use and recycling, there is a crucial element: to recover the energetic value from waste.”
Right noises may not lead to right actions
The Australian Council of Recycling was quick to point out that the right noises being made does not mean right action will result.
“The right chords have been struck by ministers about investing in recycling’s future, but we did not hear two very important sounds: implementation details and dollars in the till,” ACOR chief executive Pete Shmigel said.
“The recycling industry welcomes commitments about ensuring recyclability of packaging products, buying recycled content products by governments, expanding domestic reprocessing capacity and developing a new national plan.
“However, today’s ministerial announcement lacks comprehensive targets for all measures, and consequences for underperformance, that make practice from theory.”
Mr Shmigel said that pro-recycling policy principles were welcome, and “pro-recycling positive action and investment is now to be expected”.
2025 target “mediocre”
He said the organisation “strongly questions” the timeframe given for shifts in packaging practices, however.
Packaging is getting “more complex each day and resulting in greater contamination and community cost each day that passes,” Mr Shmigel said.
“By 2025, millions of tonnes of potential contamination would have passed through the system without the producers of packaging taking greater responsibility for their decisions.
“Similar commitments were given in the 2009 National Waste Policy and, on current timeframes, it will be 16 years by the time they have been realised. That is truly mediocre.”
Voluntary approach to recycled-content material won’t cut it
Mr Angel said the voluntary approach for recycled content in products was “too weak”, pointing out that mandatory rules in Europehave shown themselves to be “the only assured way to establish a stable and growing market to justify the investment into new manufacturing”.
“If we can have an enforceable renewable energy target, then we can have a similar system for recycled content.”