Tokenistic recycling projects – worth the awards they win?

By Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group

Our waste problems are urgent. Waste is pouring out of the economy at 6.3% compound average growth rate. Waste volumes double every 12 years.

Most Australian States and Territories have set recycling targets for 2020/21.

For MSW the diversion target is generally 65-70% (except in the ACT where it’s 85%). For C&I the target is higher still, typically ranging from 70-80% (again, except for the ACT where it’s 85%). And the highest targets are reserved for C&D, with most state targets ranging from 75-85%.

These are big numbers, and there is a long way to go to reach them. Particularly for MSW, where the latest data shows that diversion rates need to increase by about 50% to achieve the targets.

There is work to be done

styrofoam cupsThe work we need to do is important and structural. It is perhaps unexciting. It’s work that is unlikely to capture the public’s imagination in the same way as single use battery, coffee cups, CD’s or light bulbs, might.

Some say that the schemes that get people’s attention, that win environment awards, are worth every cent because they attract media attention and money. They attract political capital. They connect people to waste problems.

The problem of course is that money and political capital are not unlimited. Connecting people to waste problems is fine but it doesn’t build infrastructure or set realistic market prices. What you spend on one project is not available to another. Can we really afford puff projects?

Hitting the targets

The next few years must see the States and Territories being very focused on the structural changes required to achieve these diversion targets.

First, we need to get the infrastructure in place. That involves ensuring the economic signals for investment are right (gate fees, levies, grants). That the true cost of landfilling is reflected in gate fees by local government (including post closure and externalities).

It involves FOGO (food organics and garden organics) bins being rolled out to all households across Australia, and the organics composted for use, including in agriculture.

It requires greater efforts in commercial and construction recovery in areas that are currently uneconomic.

It involves infrastructure planning, reserving buffers and it necessitates throwing the book at illegal dumpers.

Simultaneously, we need cultural and economic change to make the decoupling of economic growth from waste generation a reality not just a dream. This is big and hard. It requires regulations to build product externalities into their pricing. It requires legal frameworks to make the circular economy a reality not just a vision.

This is unsexy work. We almost certainly will not achieve the targets through splashy niche recycling, but instead through large scale change working across the economy. We need to get better at recognising this important work. Most importantly we need to recognise the work of the bureaucrats who create the legal and policy framework for real structural change.

When was the last time you saw a State Government policy officer awarded a prize for a new policy or regulation? What about the regulator who chased the cowboys (who destroy businesses) out of town?

We need to recognise the gains of structural change and acknowledge the architects of those reforms. Sexy? Perhaps not. Important? Absolutely.

So to all those groups and associations working in waste, please bring on “The award for boring but really important waste reforms…”

For further information, please contact MRA at As always, we welcome your feedback on this, or any other topic on ‘The Tipping Point’.

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