Integrated, systems-based approach required for zero waste

Australia must maximise the life span of resources and recover as much as possible for as long as possible, for many good reasons (including job creation, carbon mitigation and when we finally grasp that recycled/ secondary raw material really is as good as virgin – planet protection).  However, I cannot help but feel that in the calls for ‘zero’ waste and creating a ‘circular economy’, we sometimes lose sight and knowledge of the essential role that our industry and facilities play in making this happen; particularly when one considers that while a ‘zero waste’, resource efficient society is desirable, it is not instantly achievable – and query if it is at all when we consider impact of natural disasters for example.  

Australia is, to its credit, the home to a number of highly engineered, best practice facilities, led by fantastic people committed to safely managing the 76 million tonnes of ‘waste’ material generated and the 28 million tonnes of material that society still discards. By the way, we all know that this is far too much material (particularly given the current cost of living crises), but to date we are not seeing the necessary behaviour change campaigns that focus on consumption choices, nor funding and investment for re-use systems or policies that strongly drive (as opposed to meekly state) the use of recycled materials. The reality is that we are unlikely to see a great shift in the volume disposed without strong shifts in education, legislation, policy and funding approaches.

As a sector, we absolutely do want to recover material, be it through composting, recycling, anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis – there are a myriad of technologies that we deploy in Australia that can keep material circulating when designed well. Designed well means the right material that are free of hazardous substances like PFAS or other POPs. Having well built, strategically placed infrastructure including transfer stations, offers the ability to collect and aggregate materials to develop economically viable facilities at scale that can service multiple materials and streams. They also offer opportunities for the re-use sector to participate, including everything from tip shops, repair cafes, community recycling centres and collection points for source-separated materials under diverse product stewardship schemes.

However, even when designed correctly and supported by strong systems, at some stage these products and materials will reach their respective end of life. This is a time when they can no longer be safely recovered, and we will either need to capture energy from them, or safely dispose and manage them. So, we need to do these facilities well, too. In Australia, while possibly not sexy, we do this well, with many passionate engineers, operators, suppliers, consultants that are doing a brilliant job. They are doing a lot to maximise the amount of gas captured, methane mitigated, leachate managed and air space optimised.

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However, to hit 80 per cent resource recovery, we need facilities across the hierarchy coming on stream across Australia at a far faster rate than we have ever seen.  According to national waste report data there would appear to have been an increase in recovery of only one million tonnes over the last two reporting years, whereas we need over 10 million additional tonnes recovered over the
next seven years (excluding ash recovery). With population growth and consumption behaviours, the material keeps coming while some states are running out of air space in metro areas and others do not know what their current capacity (or WARR infrastructure is), let alone what is required to deliver 80 per cent resource recovery. 

What is clear, is that the system, and the facilities, are inexorably linked – if material cannot be avoided, or recovered, it will be disposed. To maximise material lifecycle, mitigate carbon and reduce reliance on virgin material, we need to make the system work at its optimum. To do this we need strong, sensible consistent policy and regulation that responds to (ideally individual) material streams, starting with avoidance, mitigation and resource recovery strategies. To maximise resource recovery, we also need consistent application of landfill levy both across Australia and within the system – note: this is not the same as having the same levy rate in every state – and dare I say we also need proximity principle applied.   

An example of what this system could look like is organics. We need to move over three million tonnes out of landfill over the next seven years to meet national targets. However, we need first and foremost to avoid/reduce the amount of food loss in production right through to the home, workplace and business. We genuinely need to buy better and waste less (this applies to all materials streams).  Infrastructure needs to be built for the remaining residual amount, and it may not all go to compost due to challenges with packaging, contamination and markets. We need to consider all hierarchy facilities in managing organics, including energy and even landfill – particularly when one considers current gas capture rates at landfills, which will change once organics are removed. Landfills are not being stated to justify sending material there, but rather to recognise the linkages and considerations that need to be undertaken in developing policy. The WARR sector is an interrelated and complex system that we need to understand, to drive the outcomes needed.  

The lack of linkages and need for greater understanding across the entire hierarchy is no more obvious than in the management of carbon and methane policies. At present, the landfill sector is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in mitigating and managing both these areas. Most current policies do not talk to each other and regrettably do not provide clear incentives for resource recovery as well as being overly complex, when we know that using secondary raw materials uses less energy and creates less emissions. There is an opportunity here for government and the sector to work together and get both policies and regulation in line to drive greater resources recovered, gas captured, carbon mitigated, jobs created, and investment delivered. However, to do this we really need an understanding of the entire system and to stop the ad hoc changes that have unintended consequences, when a myopic policy approach is taken.  

Let’s hope that with more conversations across the entire system, we can get there in all WARR policy areas, as it’s not an exaggeration to say that our planet (and our kids) is counting on us to get this right!

Gayle Sloan, Chief Executive Officer, WMRR 

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