A special MARKET PULSE report on waste: There’s a world of job opportunities from waste now that China’s (justifiably) refused to take our refuse. For every 10,000 tonnes of material recycled in Australia, 9.2 jobs are created. That’s a big jump on the 2.8 jobs if the material was exported. Here’s the case for approaching waste as a fabulous opportunity for growth.
In February last year China stopped importing many recyclables from overseas. It left Australia without an export market for its waste – as much as 1.25 million tonnes of material.
The ban was as an opportunity to rethink Australia’s approach to waste management, with many in the industry advocating for the transition to a more circular system where waste is collected, processed and then reused to make new products here in Australia.
But Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association chief executive officer Gayle Sloan told The Fifth Estate that a year on, there’s not enough happening to transition Australia away from a linear waste management approach.
She says there’s been “no paradigm shift” and that action is needed urgently from state and federal governments to reinvigorate the Australian resource recovery industry and create a local market for recyclables.
And although the urgency stems from the growing piles of recyclables that are creating fire hazards, Sloan says Australians are also missing out on jobs, innovation and economic opportunities by failing to instrument changes.
For every 10,000 tonnes of material recycled in Australia, 9.2 jobs are created. This is compared to 2.8 jobs if the material was exported, she told the ABC recently.
Although there’s been much interest in the recycling industry, Sloan says the benefits will be far more wide-reaching.
“There’s a complete shift around what happens – we are transitioning from a recycling economy to a circular economy,” she says.
“You start to create new jobs and industries.
“You think about industries like Airbnb and Uber, that’s part of the circular economy, that’s reducing waste, increasing efficiency. All this disruptive stuff comes out of circular thinking.”
What we need is more sharing and leasing, not owning
She expects to see more sharing and leasing in the future, especially items that are used infrequently. One example is the Brisbane Tool Library, a social enterprise that allows people to borrow hand and power tools, as well as camping gear and other items (sport equipment, kitchen/party appliances and Christmas decorations).
“Who uses their hammer 100 per cent of the time? And in this way we’re not drawing down on the environment.”
As well as the “blue collar” jobs created by the circular economy in remanufacturing and other administrative processes, there’s also “white collar” roles to be filled in design and principles.
“It’s also the redesign – how do we build a building so we can refurbish and reuse it? There are so many jobs in the supply chain if you think about the design and waste processing.
“Nothing should come to market without a clear end of life home.”
The circular economy will result in a variety of jobs, she says, including part time jobs for people who don’t want to work full time.
It will also unlock “handy skills that people have forgotten”, such as mending clothing.
The South Australian government has emerged as a leader in this space, releasing a report in 2017 that made it the first jurisdiction to try and quantify the benefits a circular economy would have on the state. The report found that by 2030, compared to a business as usual scenario, a more circular economy could result in an additional 25,700 full time jobs for the state.
The report also found that a transition could reduce SA’s greenhouse gas emissions by 27 per cent or 7.7 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030.
Innovation is a key ingredient in upcycling plastic waste
Plastic Forests managing director David Hodge is in the business of upcycling contaminated plastic films – a material he describes as the “basket case” of the plastic waste system.
He says different parts of the market have been affected in different ways by the tightening up of Chinese imports of recyclables.
The market for rigid plastic, such as PET, has fallen dramatically but there is “still enough of a market that it’s being pulled through” in places such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
But the market for soft plastic, according to Hodge, has “completely collapsed.”
“People were paying for it and now they are not.”
Hodge says there’s a sense that this could be a low cost “gold rush” product ripe for upcycling but unfortunately the “ugly duckling” of the waste world poses major problems for prospective up cyclers.
This is chiefly because unlike rigid plastics, multilayered films can’t go back into the system at food grade at this stage.
“We’re ages away from that because we still rely on mechanical recycling. Maybe in 10 years there will be chemical recycling… that’s beginning to happen now in a couple of pilot projects.”
Undeterred by these challenges, Hodge’s company has developed a dry-cleaning method for recycling contaminated food and agricultural plastic films, which it then remanufactures into a number of product lines.
Products include the Green Mongrel range of sheet products, garden edging and underground cable cover used for essential services such as underground electricity and gas lines.
Hodge believes more of this “outside the box thinking” is necessary to solve the challenges facing the waste industry.
Retailers calling for a boost in local manufacturing
Reusable coffee cup retailer frank green has teamed up with Australian Made on a campaign to encourage stainless steel manufacturing in Australia.
“Manufacturing in Australia creates jobs, supports economic development and promotes prosperity in our communities, all of which have a positive flow-on effect for all Australians,” chief executive officer of frank green Benjamin Young says.
Young says that there’s been minimal action from government action to grow the local manufacturing industry.
“I can invest in bringing innovative technology to Australia but manufacturing isn’t my game and it’s really the job of our government to create incentive for local manufacturers to adopt new manufacturing technologies.
“It’s ridiculous and prehistoric that we can’t manufacture stainless steel in Australia.”
Young is sceptical of the economics of recycling because the commodity price for many recyclable products doesn’t justify the sorting process.
“Reusing is really the only option”.
Government action needed urgently to turn the situation around
Gayle Sloan says the industry is not satisfied by the response to the waste crisis so far from state and federal governments, and is calling for funding injections to deal with the crisis, as a start.
Councils also say that a lack of funding combined with low recycling prices is stopping the construction of better infrastructure and the reinvigoration of the beleaguered recycling market.
“New South Wales urgently needs a big investment of funding from the waste levy to begin the process of growing a domestic recycling industry,” local government NSW president, Linda Scott, told The Guardian.
There has been some funding allocated by state governments. The NSW state government diverted $47 million to help industry respond to China’s new policy in March last year, and the Victorian government announced a $37 million package that includes using its own purchasing power to drive demand for recycled products.
State, territory and federal environment ministers in 2018 have agreed to develop an action plan to implement the 2018 National Waste Policy at their next meeting on Thursday.
Attitude is also part of the problem
Part of the problem, according to Sloan, is that some governments “don’t quite get us” (the waste management industry).
“They see us as an industry that needs to be regulated. But the more forward-thinking states see it as a market and an area for growth.”
“And you can’t regulate your way to success.”