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Why the National Waste Action Plan targets won’t be met

On current trends we have no chance of achieving the National Waste Action Plan targets of 80 per cent diversion from landfill (Figure 1), 50 per cent recovery of organics and a 10 per cent reduction in per capita waste generation, all by 2030.

How can I be so confident in those predictions? Because the data tells us so.

I have written various articles on the trajectory of waste generation in Australia and the speed of reform not keeping up. Recent articles in the The Age and Sydney Morning Herald showed that at a national level we were well behind, while articles in Inside Waste have reviewed the performance of NSW and QLD. None of these jurisdictions will achieve the above targets.

To their credit, one government agency reached out to better understand the modelling and how reliable it was in predicting the future.

Unfortunately, for all governments, the modelling is reliable even at predicting what the future up to 2030 holds for waste.

How is that?
MRA has looked at every indicator available for predicting waste flows in each jurisdiction, as have many other waste consultants so there’s nothing Earth shattering in that. Here is just a

taste of some of the indicators of waste generation rates:

  • Population growth.
  • Per capita consumption rates.
  • GDP (Gross Domestic Product) nationally and per state.
  • GSP (Gross State Product) ditto.
  • Engineering product and projects.
  • Project pipelines and announcements.
  • Reuse, circular economy, and reprocessing infrastructure build.
  • Historic trends.

What is clear from this analysis is that the best indicator of the future is the past.

To make predictions for each waste stream (MSW, C&I and C&D) the single best indicator is what it has been doing in the past 10 years. If we pitch that forward for 10 years, it gives a clear and reasonably reliable account of the future. This can then be adjusted if there are particular policy regimes coming into play (that are significant and structural). These may divert the natural trend line.

The best example of this is the compulsory collection of Commercial Food (COFO) in NSW by 2025. We can predict with great certainty where general C&I trends will be and then adjust for the introduction of COFO in 2025. The sooner the NSW Government releases the policy paper, the sooner we can make the necessary adjustments to the trend.

The other key point to make is that big increases in development, construction booms etc, tend to have a relatively small effect on trend growth. For example, the Victorian Big Build program is driving a temporary spike in C&D generation but to be significant it needs to be both bigger and longer lived than all other historical spikes to shift the trend line. Most spikes don’t fit this bill.

In other words, historic trend lines tend to already imbed past spikes and slumps. So, to shift the trend it needs to be both bigger and more prolonged to have an effect.

Almost none of the policy prescriptions currently offered up by Government meet the test for significant, structural and at-scale. So, there is little need to adjust the base predictions.

The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for all waste since 2007 has been around 2 per cent but closer to 2.6 per cent for the past five years. And, although recycling is growing at a faster rate (3.7 per cent in the past five years), the sheer volume of generated waste means that current improvements in recycling cannot bring about a reduction in waste to landfill (Figure 1). A paradigm shift is needed.

The only imminent policies that could shift the current trendline of waste to landfill are:

  • Mandated domestic FOGO in NSW by 2030 (too late to affect the 2030 target).
  • Mandated COFO in NSW by 2025 but we haven’t seen the policy paper to know the scale of the intervention. So, the jury is out.
  • EfW construction in WA (two plants) and proposals in Vic (probably too late to affect the 2030 target).
  • The QLD reductions in the landfill levy rebate to local councils may shift some towards FOGO (probably too late to affect the 2030 target given that the effective levy only increases by $10/yr and only for Local Government).
  • 100 per cent hypothecation of the levy in QLD to infrastructure. This, of all policies, might start the build of new kit in QLD.

That is about it.

Everything else that is proposed is either small scale or is not effective enough to shift the dial. Worth doing – yes of course, but not enough to shift the waste economy enough to achieve the targets.

For example:

  • The move to include wine and spirit glass in QLD CDS will recover more glass into the CDS. But most of that glass is already in the Yellow Recycling bin. So, it will have little effect on the rates of waste to landfill.
  • CPI increases in the levy (most states) has no effect on shifting the cost balance between landfill and recycling. To be effective, levies need to rise in real terms.
  • Circular economy initiatives tend to be local, single material stream focused and are not structural. I support the national CE steering group set up by Tanya Plibersek, but it needs to promote structural adjustment if it is going to shift the dial.
  • Other than the National Food Waste Plan, there are really no structural initiatives focused on the target of reducing per capita waste generation by 10 per cent. Just how do State/Federal Governments expect per capita waste generation to decrease? Taken with the rapid rise in immigration, total waste generation continues to rise inexorably.

Here is a test for all readers. Next time a State/Federal Government releases a waste/recycling/circular economy plan, read it for the specific actionable initiatives. Ignore the statements of intent. To disagree with statements of intent is to disagree with motherhood and apple pie. Look for the things that an investor could rely upon to make investments. Imagine it is your money they/you are investing. What is in the plan that you can rely upon, to invest? Would you?

If the answer is that you cannot find actionable initiatives or statements that you could rely upon to invest your own money, then that gives you a pretty good measure of the effectiveness of the plan.

So where does that leave us.

It leaves us with a handful of conclusions:

  • Current policy interventions are insufficient in terms of significance, structural or at-scale.
  • At a national scale, we are almost guaranteed to fail to achieve the targets.
  • At a state level, most states will fail to hit those three targets (80 per cent; 50 per cent and 10 per cent).
  • Only a couple of states will achieve some of them for specific waste streams (generally C&D recycling will hit its target of 80 per cent recovery by 2030). The rest will fail.

Sad and avoidable. We need political bravery and a whole-of-sector plan to lift our performance.

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