Coffs Waste Conference: Industry has changed for the good

The pace of change of the industry is one thing Greg Freeman has noticed in the 28 years since he started the Coffs Waste Conference. Back in the day, topics of discussion included rubbish bins, trucks, weighing systems and collection services. The past decade has seen a shift to larger, more encompassing issues such as the circular economy, mandated government diversion/recycling targets, landfill levies, product stewardship and organics.

Freeman said the pace of change has been “overwhelming” over the past three decades. He puts it down to an engaged community, which has grown with the industry. He said 25 years ago, most people saw the waste industry and the people who worked in it as a group that were there to get rid of rubbish and not much else. In other words, “just get on with it and don’t bother us”.

“I go year to year, and I look at the types of abstracts we get into the conference,” he said. “These reflect the type of things that are happening out there. And there’s definitely been an incremental shift with some things, but there’s been a massive shift with others.”

Such as?

“Designing out problematic waste streams at the design stage. That has really only emerged in the past five years or so,” he said. “It is one of those important but difficult things to achieve. It’s like waste avoidance; it’s in that category. It’s the same with the circular economy. Ten years ago, it was hardly talked about at all. It emerged five years ago and now it’s the main game.”

Then there are the work opportunities that now exist that we’re not around 10-15 years ago. Not long ago, waste was the main purview of councils. And while they still have a huge say in how it is collected, there is now a lot of private enterprise within the industry. 

“Thirty years ago, waste disposal was conducted by councils and a few big companies – there were only a couple of companies who did most things, but a lot of councils did a lot of things themselves, which they then passed on to companies,” he said. “Now you have more industries involved. As soon as you look at the concept of circular economy, you’ve got people who are investigating things such as recycling coffee cups and changing the whole way we look at something like that.”

He believes a lot of people are showing interest in having a career in the waste/resource recovery industry because there are emerging parts of the industry that didn’t exist a few decades ago. 

“One of the biggest challenges we face right now is this tension between consumption and minimisation,” Freeman said. “It’s very hard to fight against the packaging industry. The punter wants to put their stuff in the yellow bin, and they want to put their stuff in the green bin. But if they can’t go to the supermarket and buy stuff with minimal packaging, they’re always pushing it uphill. The biggest battle is consumption versus avoidance, and it’s connected to lifestyle.

“This is why I find the social science aspects of waste management so interesting, because we all know what the solution is. We all know the community needs to be more engaged. We all know we need to take personal responsibility. We all know that, but because our lives are so busy and embedded with our daily stuff, we still have not adjusted our lifestyle.”

Is education the answer? Partly, said Freeman, but it’s as societal mindset that needs to change and that is no easy
task. Why? 

“You’re pushing against a society that is distracted by other things,” Freeman said. “They’re distracted by their family life. They’re distracted by their working life. The amount of time people put into change their behaviours is minimal, so their convenience wins out. And that’s the problem.”

Similar to product stewardship – those who think it should be mandatory vs those who think it should be voluntary – Freeman believes when it comes to changing behaviours you need both a bit of carrot and some stick. He said there is also a need to up the ante in terms of the amount of infrastructure that is available.

“The carrot is certainly to try and incentivise households to minimise waste,” he said. “Packaging comes into that, and we also need to try and understand people better in their day-to-day lives. It’s an ongoing process it.”

He said the stick aspect comes in the form of penalties.

“That’s an ongoing process,” he said. “You don’t want to go too hard with households because you don’t want to scare them off. But you still want to provide disincentives, and pricing and economics are the best ways for councils to do that. It’s important that councils understand economics and apply it to households to put that subtle pressure
on them.”

And infrastructure? He harks back to the 1970s when Freeman worked at Canterbury Council in Sydney, and the Metropolitan Waste Disposal Authority ran Sydney’s landfills. He believes that provided a lot of opportunities for privately owned companies to step in and take charge. Was that a good thing?

“The Metropolitan Waste Disposal Authority took over running a lot of council landfills,” he said. “Then they progressively closed them down due to environmental concerns, but they never really had a plan B. Private enterprise largely run the show, which has put Sydney in a position where the 30-plus councils in the city really haven’t got personalised infrastructure. They’re at the mercy of the market. And in some ways that has been very difficult to achieve good infrastructure.”

Which is why education and infrastructure continue to be two of the big topics on the agenda at the Coffs Harbour Waste Conference. Technology is also going to be a highlight this year.

“This topic has been an emerging one in the past three years,” Freeman said. “We have a heap of stuff on infrastructure with a lot of abstracts on that combined with technology. 

“We’re getting a lot more interest from other states on FOGO and organics. It used to be only New South Wales that did FOGO, now it’s starting to spread and we’re getting more universities involved.”

He said the circular economy will also be a dominant theme because it covers off on so many different aspects of the industry, as well as extended producer responsibility.

As for the event itself, at the time of writing, it’s almost sold out in terms of exhibitors and sponsors. It is anticipated the conference will attract more than 650 delegates and approximately 150 speakers. 

Send this to a friend