Mike Ritchie speaks to IPWA on how the waste sector can realise its full economic potential

MRA’s Mike Ritchie is scheduled to discuss the NSW Waste Infrastructure Plan, Waste Governance, Organic Waste and other issues during the International Public Works Conference (IPWC), Vibrant Futures Solid Foundations to be held on 25-29 August at Hobart, Tasmania. The following interview was published on Tuesday 27 July 2019 by the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA).

IPWC 2019 Keynote Q&A – Mike Ritchie, Managing Director, MRA Consulting Group.

Ahead of the IPWEA International Public Works Conference in August, keynote speaker Mike Ritchie outlines the present state of waste processing, and the action needed to unite all levels of government on targets to give the waste stream its appropriate economic potential.

inspire: What recent waste innovation has been most important?
Ritchie
: Weight-based billing (WBB) is revolutionising the way the industry measures client waste generation and loads, especially for small and medium operators. It is the equivalent of ‘smart metering’ for electricity sales and drives waste reduction and improved recycling by sending a direct price signal to waste generators.

inspire: Which waste reduction targets are easiest to meet? Which are the hardest? 
Ritchie:
Construction and demolition waste targets have good markets and simple streams, of concrete, steel, cardboard, masonry, and so on. Municipal solid waste and mixed commercial and industrial waste are challenging. Their economics are more difficult, as the diversion percentage – resulting from processing and sorting – is far lower and therefore the cost equation is less advantageous.

inspire: What are the obstacles to aligning all government tiers on waste?
Ritchie:
Firstly, coordination by the Federal Government that engages with industry and local government is essential. Governments need to hypothecate more of the levies to resource recovery and recycling for a period until the critical infrastructure and services are developed. Landfill levies raise over $1.3 billion per year nationally. While expenditure on non-waste activities such as schools, roads and hospitals is understood, it is imperative that higher priority is given to resource recovery for now, until the services gap is closed. Otherwise, the industry will be forced to landfill recyclables and we will continue to fail the sustainability test.

inspire: Which country has the best market dynamics for waste management?
Ritchie:
The UK has a range of options for sustainable waste management, including recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion and the use of thermal treatment facilities to recover energy from waste. Overall, they are on-track to meet EU targets: to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020; to recycle or recover at least 60% of packaging waste and to decrease tonnage sent to landfill by more than 35% of the 1995 baseline by 2020. The UK uses a combination of regulation, taxation, grants and community education to achieve its policy targets. Waste diversion targets are mandatory and are accompanied by strict financial penalties for failure to achieve. These are absent in Australia.

inspire: What’s the next milestone for the waste sector?
Ritchie:
Implementation of the National Waste Policy with mandatory targets and coordinated approaches to policy setting, including levies, extended producer responsibility, regulation, hypothecation and procurement. Current arrangements cannot achieve the individual state waste targets.

inspire: What is most misunderstood about waste and recycling?
Ritchie:
Its price/cost/value – or lack of it. In other words, the economic cost curve of recycling. Almost all recycling is subsidised by someone. Very few products recycle themselves, except for metal and fibre. The rest require a subsidy to be recycled that is competitive with the cost of landfill. Some minor streams, such as plastic bags, require very high per-tonne subsidies to achieve recycling. Often an outright ban is a more efficient and cost-effective solution than recycling. This is true of most single-use plastic for example. The cheapest solution is almost always landfill, except for metal and fibre. Consequently, all recycling comes at a cost. Very few politicians realise this basic fact. To achieve recycling targets therefore requires an imposition of costs on the generator or producer. That requires political courage and commitment.

inspire: What keeps you inspired about the work you do?
Ritchie:
Building a more sustainable economy. The recycling/waste sector has an enormous contribution to make towards building a more circular economy and to massively reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This interview was originally posted on ipwea.org on 27 July 2019.

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