It will take more than local councils banning plastic bags to fix the national waste crisis, says Gabrielle Upton. Should the federal government implement a new waste management policy?
The first law of thermodynamics is that matter cannot be created or destroyed, but simply changed from one form to another. As a modern, developed economy we have historically ignored this law at our peril.
An inconvenient truth is that the waste we create doesn’t disappear when it hits our bins. Burying it in landfill for future generations to deal with is irresponsible. We need to “own” our waste, not avert our gaze. The good news is that we are also waking up to the fact that waste can be a resource — and business and government are finally grappling with the opportunities that it provides.
The big challenge is to permanently change the way we think about, and deal with, waste. The stage was set at a historic United Nations summit in 2015 when world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Building a “circular economy” — where we first reduce our waste, then reuse and recycle materials — supports these goals and is the way to go.
It’s not easy, but putting waste into landfill must be the last resort.
Businesses in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector have a role to play in reducing their own waste and there are good examples of this in action. Property manager and investor Dexus has a 2020 target of 80 per cent diversion from landfill for its office de-fit projects.
There are growing market opportunities for businesses with innovative waste management approaches. BlueScope sells its slag by-product to be used as construction fill and road base. L’Oréal Australia has teamed up with TerraCycle on their used beauty products, offering a free recycling program to consumers. Boards not only see waste management as a risk management strategy, but also a strategic point of difference that consumers will reward.
Local councils also have a major role to play as the arm of government taking care of household waste. China will no longer take our contaminated waste, so what goes into recycling bins matters more than ever. Communities have shown they’re willing to change the way they do things when it makes sense. They need clearer, more standardised guidance on what household waste goes into what bins. For example, a dirty pizza box put into a yellow bin could mean that the bin’s contents go to landfill instead of recycling. This is a bad — and avoidable — outcome.
Government policy settings can make a challenge become a tangible opportunity — whether it’s a national waste levy so waste will be dealt with closer to its source, or simple things such as a standard recycling lexicon or encouraging more product stewardship programs. When governments plan new suburbs, waste infrastructure must be included in the same manner power and water utilities and transport infrastructure always are.
Not only can governments set policy, they can lead by acting. A real example was the NSW decision to tackle the largest part of the litter stream — drink containers — by introducing the container deposit scheme (CDS) in December 2017. It has changed industry, local government and household practices with a nation-leading high-tech scheme that produces high-quality recyclable glass, aluminium and plastic. Eligible drink container litter volume has dropped by 44 per cent since November 2017.
The community has embraced the scheme as they do when it’s a good idea. Businesses such as CDS network operator TOMRA Cleanaway have found export markets for the recyclable product and new jobs have been created. There may even be potential new business opportunities, including pelletising the plastic and converting it back into petroleum products. Community organisations such as schools and charities have jumped at a new way to raise money by collecting the drink containers and redeeming the deposits while being environmentally responsible at the same time.
National leadership matters
A newly elected federal government looking to flesh out its policy agenda must take quick action on a national waste strategy. There are encouraging signs from the new Morrison government. It has appointed its first assistant minister for waste reduction (Trevor Evans) and the Liberal election platform included $100m for an Australian Recycling Investment Fund.
Although not large sums of money, government investment should only ever leverage industry, research and community collaboration. The Coalition has pledged to increase recycled product in road base and an online marketplace to match buyers and sellers of waste. The skeleton is sound, but it must be fleshed out. What about a national waste levy, a national container deposit scheme and targets for government purchasing of recycled products? With national leadership, the abundant opportunities for waste are ours for the taking.
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