When one man’s ‘waste’ is a resource

NSWEPA_WasteDefinitionA recent case in the NSW Land and Environment Court has highlighted the discord between NSW’s planning laws and the environmental protection laws, which could impact the way that waste and recycling processers are approved and regulated.

After much advocacy by the waste and recycling sectors, the Government in 2007 introduced the State Environmental Planning Policy (Infrastructure) (the Infrastructure SEPP). The Infrastructure SEPP provides that:

‘Development for the purpose of a waste or resource recovery facility may be carried out by any person with consent in a prescribed zone.

The General Industry zone (IN1) is such a zone.

Surprisingly, the Infrastructure SEPP defines all of the following: “waste or resource management facilities”; “resource recovery facility”; “waste disposal facility”; “waste or resource management facility” and “waste or resource transfer station”; but it does not define “waste”.

The case in question was between Glass Recovery Services, a glass beneficiation facility and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. The conflict stems from the reprocessing of glass; specifically whether glass is a “waste” for the purpose of reprocessing at a ‘waste or recourse recovery facility’. (In this case this would require development consent, in comparison to a ‘second-hand good’ used for manufacturing, which would not.)

The Department of Planning and Infrastructure argued glass reprocessing is the processing of ‘waste’ at a ‘waste or resource recovery facility’.

When deciding the issue, Justice Nicola Pain looked for the definition of “waste” and here lies the discord; there is no unified regulatory definition of waste. It is different or non-existent depending upon where you look.

The Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000 NSW Sch 3 defines waste as any:

… solid, gaseous or liquid or a combination of any solids, gases or liquids that is discarded or is refuse… A substance is not precluded from being a waste… merely because it can be reprocessed, re-used or recycled or because it is sold or intended for sale [emphasis added].

However, this regulation and therefore definition, only applies to ‘designated developments’. (The glass beneficiation application was classified as ‘state significant development’.)

The Infrastructure SEPP and the Environmental Planning and Assessment Ac1979 NSW (EP&A Act), do not define “waste” at all.

To add further confusion, the Infrastructure SEPP defines a resource recovery facility as a ‘facility for the recovery of resources from waste… but not including re-manufacture of material [emphasis added].

With these issues in mind, the Court sought a definition from the common usage via a dictionary, relevant case law, and a definition in the Protection of the Environment Operation Act 1997 NSW (POEO Act), which defines waste as ‘any (thing) discarded, rejected, unwanted, surplus…’,. This definition is one that most people from the waste sector are familiar with.

Justice Pain found that “waste” is discarded or unwanted, surplus or abandoned; but in a relevant case (the Carter Holt case), that a former owner needs to have abandoned the material, for it to conform to a common sense meaning of waste. In the case of Carter Holt recycled paper had not been abandoned and was therefore not “waste”. It was as J Pain stated a “second-hand good”.

Using this definition, the Court found that the glass in question should not be classified as ‘waste’. The Material Recycling Facility (MRF) process ensures that the glass has undergone a transformation from waste to ‘second-hand good’, (of which there is also no formal definition).

To put it another way, the MRF deals with waste, but once the glass is sorted (no matter how contaminated) it becomes ‘second-hand’ glass and is no longer ‘waste’. (I have concerns that the issue of contamination was not better dealt with in the hearing or judgement. For example, What amount of contamination renders ‘second-hand goods’ back into waste, if at all?)

The impact of the case is that ‘waste’ is not consistently defined in either planning or environmental protection laws. Further, we have the entry of a new concept of “second-hand goods” into the recycling and waste approvals space.

Think glass, plastic, steel, paper and cardboard, aluminium, timber, pallets, tyres, electronics etc. At some point along the supply chain they can presumably swap from “waste” to second-hand goods with reference to the EP&A Act and this Court decision (but presumably not the environment protection acts e.g. POEO).

This difference will of course lead to confusion in respect of Planning consent applications and enforcement under the POEO Act. Of course a simple remedy is for the Department of Planning to amend the EP&A Act to reference the same definitions as exist in the POEO Act.

But this case highlights a more strategic issue. When does waste cease to be waste and become “second-hand material”. The organics industry for one has been arguing for years that once food/green waste is processed through a composting/pasteurisation process, it ceases to be waste; similarly the electronics, timber and paper industries (to name a few).

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the whole approach to defining waste in NSW, to take better account of the transformational effect of recycling and reprocessing, to converting materials from waste to recovered goods, or to borrow the phrase “second-hand goods”. That of course, needs to be balanced against the requirement to protect the environment from waste potentially masquerading as ‘second-hand goods’.

Whichever way government decides to go, this case highlights the need for a strategic approach to waste infrastructure development and particularly proper alignment of priorities between the Department of Planning and the EPA.

By Kiera Crosariol and Mike Ritchie



2 thoughts on “When one man’s ‘waste’ is a resource

  1. Absolutely correct comment! At some stage waste ceases to be waste (if it is processed and assumes a (market) value). The current NSW POEO Act assumes that once something is waste (and everything can become waste), it never ceases to be waste. That assumption contradicts common sense and will therefore be “defeated” through “real live”. People in ivory towers might think differently, but they will be responsible for the consequences of not thinking through what they are trying to regulate. The two quoted decisions are just the beginning.

  2. Both comments are right on the money. The Act and the POEO (Waste) Regulation (as well as “approvals/exemptions” and other “legal instruments” issued pursuant to them) are framed to facilitate the legal prosecution of the small minority who unlawfully dump or aggregate waste without the intent to reprocess it, or those who process it in an environmentally unacceptable manner. It should be possible to achieve this worthy goal of environmentally acceptable materials recovery without making life difficult for the great majority who operate in the industry in a fit and proper manner.

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