By Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group
Did you know we now have national targets for reducing waste to landfill? The National Waste Action Plan was agreed by Federal, State and Local governments in 2019 with the following targets:
- Ban on export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres
- Reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030
- 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams following the waste hierarchy by 2030
- Significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry
- Phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025
- Halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill for disposal by 2030
- Make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions
What does that mean?
1: Ban on export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres
If we ban exports then we need to grow domestic recycling by over 1.2 million tonnes per year plus additional downstream reprocessing to generate a product for sale or export. That is, we need to develop more than 20 new processing facilities:
- Plastic – 10 x plastic wash flake and pelletise plants for 300,000t (currently exported)
- Fibre – 2 x 500,000t paper mills (to make newsprint or cardboard boxes) for domestic use or export, or wetlap plants to make export grade fibre (total 1.1 MT currently exported)
- Tyres – 1 x 300,000t tyre processing capacity (300,000t currently exported).
- Glass – 1 x 50,000t glass to sand processing plants (Only 25kt is currently exported; But if we intend to stop stockpiling and landfilling glass then we need another 7 x 50,000t glass sand plants on top of this).
This is a big ask. All bans were to commence in the second half of 2020 however the Federal Government has now pushed back the plastic and fibre export bans by a couple of years. Nevertheless, the task is still enormous (and impossible in the absence of price or regulatory incentives).
In the absence of this infrastructure, the export bans will simply make the problems worse.
On the positive side building this infrastructure will stimulate over $2b in investment and create over 1000 new, permanent, direct jobs (not including the additional glass to sand jobs that are needed in regional Australia) and many more construction jobs.
2: Reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10% per person by 2030
Efforts to reduce waste generation have been limited and largely tokenistic. Waste generation per person has grown inexorably with economic growth.
Fixing food waste generation would be the best place to start and to their credit the Federal and State Governments have a Food Waste action plan. That means reducing food waste along the supply chain and where food is truly residual then diverting it into composting, animal feed and Anaerobic Digestion to extract its imbedded value.
There has been almost no attention given to Design for Reuse and Repair so that packaging and other materials don’t end up in the waste stream in the first place. This must be part of the Government’s Circular Economy program and will require mandated responsibility for producers of products to plan for their end of life recovery. Australia has no such mechanisms in place.
3: 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams following the waste hierarchy by 2030
We languish at 56% national recycling rates. So growing recycling to 80% nationally in only 10 years is another big ask. Good on Government for setting the targets. Now they need to create the market incentives for companies and councils to invest to get it done. How to get there is well known.
- Divert organics from landfill into composting and other uses (organics represent 50% of all waste to landfill in Australia);
- Increase landfill levies and other market mechanisms to create a commercial incentive for recycling;
- Ban particular waste streams from landfill;
- Extend Producer Responsibility to ensure they design for end of life recycling and help to pay for it;
- Integrate waste to energy to capture the residual value from residual (non-recyclable) waste;
- Mandate takeback and procurement policies to ensure there is a market for recovered materials.
What is missing are the pricing and regulatory signals to allow these to happen.
If we could achieve these 6 actions and the 80% recovery rate we would easily create another 10,000 jobs and stimulate over $5b in private sector investment. It would reduce Australia’s emissions by up to 50MT CO2-e or 10% of total emissions by recovering the embodied energy of materials, avoiding the need to extract and use virgin materials and creating energy from biogenic streams rather than coal.
4: Significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry
With over 1.2MT of recyclables being banned from export (#1 above) this will be critical to putting a floor under recycling (otherwise this material will be landfilled). Governments need specific and mandated recycled content rules for all government projects.
5: Phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025
That means a national ban on single use plastics but not just straws and balloons. Millions of non-recyclable takeaway containers and food packaging items are used annually. These could be replaced with compostable alternatives. There are also cigarette butts, and the like. A ban needs to be expansive in its coverage to have anything but a tokenistic effect on plastic waste generation and litter.
6: Halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill for disposal by 2030
Probably the most important single action from a climate change perspective. Organics (food, garden, timber, pallets etc) in landfill generate 2.7% of Australia’s direct greenhouse gas emissions (11MT CO2‑e). (As distinct from the 50MT mentioned above for embodied energy and biogenic fuel).
Organics also represent almost 10MT or 50% of all waste to landfill. So achieving an 80% diversion target is made easy if we focus on organics.
Put another way, if we want to reduce waste to landfill and achieve a more circular economy, then we need to start with organics.
The simplest mechanism is to ban unprocessed organics to landfill. Much of Europe did this 20 years ago and have grown a massive composting and agricultural reuse sector on the back of it.
7: Make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions
A national waste database has been in reports and strategies for 30 years. We tend to overcomplicate it by trying to drill too deep. Let’s just start with national and state data on the main streams but in a timely fashion. That is what investors need now. Progressively expand the detail over time. But we need to start and stick to an agreed timely method.
Governments should be congratulated for the National Waste Action Plan 2019.
It strikes the right chords. But industry, waste generators and local government need the right market signals and regulations to drive the investment.
These have always been the key barriers to success. If we don’t see the market reform then the Action Plan will be another failed dream.
Governments need to establish a Market Reform Process coordinated across the States and facilitated by MEM (the Meeting of Environment Ministers). It needs to have a top down remit – to reform policy and the regulatory settings to drive resource recovery. Otherwise the Targets set out above, will again be well intended waffle.
As always, we welcome your feedback on this, or any other topic on ‘The Tipping Point’.
This article has been published by the following media outlets: