Innovations and reforms in urban waste and recycling

By Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group

Australia’s recycling sector is primed for continued growth. It must in order to keep up with waste generation, which is growing at a compound annual rate of 6.2%, that is 6x population growth and 2.5x economic growth. The market is there, and it is being serviced through a combination of regulatory intervention and technological innovation.

Regulators are creating the setting for improved recycling through two simple steps: introducing high landfill levies to make dumping waste in landfill expensive (and increasingly more expensive than recycling), and reinvesting part of the funds raised into recycling infrastructure. Those two measures are staggeringly effective in driving recycling.

EPA logo 2017Contrast NSW, the lead state in terms of levies and reinvestment, with Queensland, that lags behind. NSW has high levies at $135.70/t, which enables the state to invest $465.7m to the Waste Less, Recycle More program over its first four years. With recycling rates in 2012/13 of more than 55% for MSW, and more than 60% for C&I, NSW recycling rates are high. They are showing steadying improvement, increasing from around 50% and 55% respectively in 2010/11. Queensland has no levies, no real investment in recycling, and its recovery rates are among the worst in Australia (30% for MSW and 40% for C&I in 2014/15).

NSW has a vibrant and diverse waste economy, whereas Queensland relies more and more on landfill.

Regulators play a vital role in improving the economics for recycling. High landfill levies make it in everybody’s interest to reduce waste to landfill and therefore help plant the seed for investment in new technologies. This spawns innovation, both in waste processing technology, but also in technology to reduce and recycle materials before they become waste.

Technologies for the processing of waste are becoming increasingly mature. We are seeing more and more composting plants for source separated and mixed waste, coupled with anaerobic digestion plants generating biogas from clean organic waste. It is becoming increasingly common to sort C&I through “dirty MRFs”.

At the generation side, new weighing systems enable weight based charging for skip bins. This encourages business to recycle waste, and can lead to 30-40% reductions in waste generation.

The future for recycling is bright. Recycling is a key contributor to the green economy, creating jobs and local resilience. The future for recycling is helped by the improved economics fostered by high landfill levies and reinvestment into recycling infrastructure.

As always, I welcome your input on this, or any other topic on ‘The Tipping Point’.

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