Is Education Wasted on C&I?

Every waste conference has a stream for waste education. But in the fastest growing generator – commercial and Industrial (C&I) – does it produce any results?

By results I refer to real reductions in waste to landfill measured in hundreds of thousands of tonnes – the scale on which other initiatives such as landfill pricing, infrastructure and recycling services are measured.

I can’t tell you the number of education presentations I have sat through at conferences, only to have the presenter say; ‘over the first year of the program we diverted 90 tonnes from landfill.’

C&I generation rates are growing at between 4.5% and 7% per year – meaning waste generation is doubling every ten to twenty years. We are losing the fight.

Australia landfills over 22 million tonnes per year of which 7 million tonnes is C&I. Measuring success must be in terms of national percentage reductions to landfill. We simply won’t get there in 90 tonne increments.

Putting some public place recycling bins in a food court with signage is great – but trying to argue that it is making any material difference to C&I waste to landfill ignores the underlying evidence.

C&I education schemes can be both well intentioned and often well targeted, but rarely do they reflect the scale of the resource recovery task and can misdirect resources. More importantly they misdirects political energy and allow pollies to send out press releases without actually doing much at all.

But before I get howled down in protest, I am not saying education is a waste of time – it does matter and it does make a difference. In the domestic sector education is important in reducing contamination and encourages waste separation. Long term education campaigns have been the hallmark of success in the domestic recycling sector.

However, education in the commercial sector needs be aligned with much more interventionist pricing, infrastructure and regulatory signals (if we care about achieving our waste targets. If we don’t care about the targets, then ignore this article).

Where education dollars are spent pushing against commercial reality then they will be either ineffectual or will measure success in tiny increments.

If we are going to get C&I waste under control we need big initiatives; new infrastructure, significant price signals for market investment, price signals that benefit infrastructure operators and real incentives for generators to separate their waste.

Source separation is the most cost effective form of recycling. Where we can’t achieve source separation we need big bits of kit to sort the C&I waste. Dirty MRF’s by another name. These are big challenges.

In Australia only fibre (in the form of cardboard and paper) and metals are currently economically viable to recycle. All the rest are subsidised by the generator through a gate fee or higher disposal fee. In the C&I sector this includes food, organics, timber, pallets, plastic bottles, plastic film, polystyrene, glass, earth materials, mattresses, fluoro tubes, clothes, carpets, other textiles, mobile phones, TV’s, computers, e-waste and much more. It is not for lack of knowledge that these materials are still landfilled. It is for lack of incentives to recycle them.

There are over 500 full-time C&I waste and recycling salespeople in Australia. They are out there every day talking to waste generators, businesses, manufacturers. That is a massive education force. But in spite of all the education and training offered by the major waste and recycling companies (often for free), waste generators, by and large, have not and are not going to, change unless it is in their interest to change.

At the end of the day most business owners say; ‘Is it cheaper to recycle? If it is, I’ll do it. If not come back to me when it is cheaper than what I currently do (landfill).’

That is also not to say there are no exceptions to the rule. There are a few (usually big corporates) who have taken on environmental targets including waste reduction targets. Good on them. But this action is not necessarily driven by education and it is not enough to turn the tide.

In short, education is currently doing little to simulate growth in C+I recycling. This problem is about providing real incentives and systems.

Take the Construction and Demolition (C&D) sector as a counterpoint. There has been virtually no education in that sector yet it is achieving recycling rates of 73% in NSW (versus recycling rates of 36% for C&I). Why? The reasons are simple. C&D is heavy and is sensitive to landfill pricing (and the landfill levy), C&D is more homogenous than C&I (concrete, steel, timber, rubble and so on) and there are known and stable markets for the recycled products.

Governments love education. It is low intervention and low risk. Where it aligns with policy and price settings it can deliver real improvements. But I would argue, it is also ineffectual in the C&I sector if it runs counter to price signals or infrastructure and services availability.

If it is not cheaper to recycle, if services are not cost effective or the labour costs of recycling outweigh the benefits, rational companies will continue to landfill.

Educated or not.

The C&I sector is the most price sensitive and economically driven waste generator. If we want real results we need real incentives.

Mike Ritchie (B.Sc. Hons. M.Sc. MBA) is the Director of Mike Ritchie and Associates Consultants. He was National Vice President of WMAA, past President of WMAA NSW, Chair of the Carbon Division of WMAA and Chair of the AWT Working Group. He was a GM at SITA and WSN, an adviser to the Lord Mayor of Brisbane and a Director Liverpool city council.