The leading report on waste management and recycling data in Australia, the National Waste Report 2020, shows that Australians are reducing their waste and increasing their recycling.
Typically, recycling education programs focus on putting the right items in the recycling bin because it’s good for the environment, but consider also, a recycling facility is a workplace.
This means that many dangerous items which end up in recycling bins need to be sorted by hand, so part of recycling is also enhancing the working conditions of recycling workers. Surprisingly, one of the more dangerous forms of contamination in yellow top bins is actually marked as recyclable – aerosol cans.
Across Australia, the waste and recycling industry would like all Local Governments and Shires to remove aerosol cans as ‘recyclable’ from their waste education programs. I will explain why.
The Australian waste management industry has experienced many tragic fires. Prominent examples include the SKM and Bradbury’s sites in metro Melbourne in 2019, which splashed across the front pages of The Age.
But beyond these headline tragedies, there have also been many other examples of fires damaging or destroying recycling facilities including material recovery facilities in Perth and Northern NSW. Waste fires can also occur in trucks and are a unique risk of recycling as the trucks are full of a highly flammable material – plastic and paper.
When a hot load (code for a fire risk) is detected in a waste truck, the normal procedure is to dump the material in the nearest safe location, typically by the side of the road, creating a huge clean up job.
After trucks, waste fires are clearly a risk to workers, and have the potential to destroy the recycling facilities upon which we all depend. But beyond these obvious damages, waste fires have more subtle effects including dramatically driving up insurance costs for all in the industry, health costs to residents around them and reputational damage to the industry including investors.
There are many possible approaches to mitigating fire. These include installing best-practice fire control systems and minimising the size of stockpiles. Given the huge risk posed by fire, industry continues to in invest in, and is committed to these changes.
Unfortunately, these mitigation efforts will be ineffective if the waste stream contains sources of ignition – or problem items which cause fires. There are many fire sources in the waste stream including lithium-ion batteries, flares and (mostly) spent lighters. All warrant attention, but here I would like to focus on one important ignition source: aerosol cans.
Aerosol cans contain flammable propellant gases – typically propane, and/or butane. When crushed in compactor trucks or by wheel loaders on tipping floors, these steel or aluminium cans can spark and cause a fireball.
The Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA), in partnership with the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of New South Wales (WCRA NSW), has collected extensive evidence including videos showing aerosol cans causing fires in waste trucks and facilities.
Unfortunately, while batteries and spent lighters clearly don’t belong in the recycling bin, and are marked that way, aerosol cans today are marked as recyclable, and many local governments still include them as recyclable in their waste education.
Instead, aerosol cans should be directed to hazardous household waste collection in a similar manner to other gas bottles, paints, solvents and other flammable items.
Proponents from the packaging industry have argued that if the can is completely emptied, it can be recycled. However, it is the experience of waste providers that this instruction is not followed with enough consistency to ensure the fire risk is prevented.
Packaging companies have an avenue to ensure their aerosol cans become recyclable – simply do not use a flammable propellant. Until this is the case, the risk of an aerosol causing a fire in a truck full of compacted paper and plastic or at a recycling facility far outweighs the value of the very small amount of metals recovered from the can.
In noting and accepting this argument, Sustainability Victoria has agreed to remove aerosol cans as recyclable from its statewide kerbside recycling education program. The risk posed by aerosol cans is also under consideration by other State agencies.
However, waste education is ultimately in the hands of Australia’s hard-working Local Governments and Shires, which directly face residents. It is for this reason we ask all Local Governments to assist by removing aerosol cans as recyclable in their waste education.
Alex Serpo is the executive officer at the Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA).
The Waste Contractors & Recyclers Association of NSW (WCRA) executive director, Tony Khoury tells Inside Waste what bought him into the WARR industry and what keeps him here.
What was your first role involving waste and resource recovery?
In the mid-1960s loading rubbish into the back of my older brother’s ute, after which he drove us to the Auburn tip. This long-closed landfill is now the site of the Japanese Gardens (and as was the common practice in those days, we drove around unrestrained in the back of the ute).
Also, throughout the 1960s, in our Lidcombe backyard, my Dad had one of the many thermal waste reduction plants (an old 44-gallon drum, that we would throw rubbish in and set on fire almost weekly).
My first paid job in the waste management industry was in 1991 with Pacific Waste Management, where the state manager David Moffett taught me about the importance of productivity. Lesson number one was a lecture on not driving past one tip to get to another. Later on in the week, I decided to apply my new found productivity learnings to the concept of ‘double-shifting the trucks’.I then had to survive a near death interrogation from an irate operations manager.
What’s the favourite part of your role at WCRA?
- I enjoy the scope in my role at WCRA that allows me the opportunity of working through issues to solve problems with a member or a group of members
- I also have a lot of variety in my role, but the opportunity of delivering training to the workers is often very rewarding
How has WCRA changed since you initially became involved?
- In 2003 a significant percentage of my time at WCRA was spent on industrial relations issues. That problem was solved by the modern award and employment relations reforms that were passed in 2010.
- In 2008, then NSW Premier Morris Iemma increased the waste levy of $40 by $10 per tonne pa plus CPI. The current waste levy is now $146 per tonne, an increase of 365 per cent over 14 years. Today much of my time is spent on waste management and EPA issues.
Describe some of the achievements that you are most proud?
- I take a lot of satisfaction from the wonderful support that I receive from our WCRA members, sponsors and the executive. This has allowed us to build the membership and our relevance. The fact that we own our own premises makes it much easier to hold meetings and conduct training sessions.
- The negotiations that resulted in one national modern award (the Waste Management Award 2020). This award covers employment obligations for the employers and the workers in our industry. At the time we encountered fierce attacks from both Victoria and Queensland.
- The Australian Standard for mobile garbage bins, where I chaired the development of the standard in the mid-2000’s. It is now well accepted across the country that we use yellow lids for co-mingled recycling, red lids for general waste and green lids for green waste.
- I also take a lot of pride from my negotiations with Sydney Water that occurred around seven years ago, when WCRA argued long and hard and achieved a back-dated CPI increase for all grease trap waste processing. At the time, this resulted in over $1.2 million in refunds to waste processing facilities.
- In the early 1990s as the general manager of Clinical Waste Australia (now Cleanaway Daniels), I was involved in overseeing the upgrade of the incinerator with the installation of an air quality control and scrubbing system. Without this upgrade, the facility would have been shut down by the NSW EPA. To this day, the incinerator remains operational and the only clinical waste incineration facility in NSW.
My strangest moment at WCRA
- Around the 2007-2008 years Transpacific Industries (TPI) which owned Cleanaway prior to 2008 was acquiring a lot of waste business operations across the country. At the time, I was approached by one of TPI’s senior executives for a copy of WCRA’s membership list. When I refused, he indicated that TPI would just have to buy the Association. On contacting our president at the time Jim Perry for advice, he told me “to show him the door” (or words to that effect).
At the recent Australian Institute of Packaging Virtual Conference, Detmold Group general manager Tom Lunn presented on the role of fibre-based packaging in the circular economy. He said that because of the small size of the Australian market, a major issue is difficulty in finding the scale necessary for changes.
Access Recycling’s proposal to upgrade its scrap metal operation in Fyshwick has been approved by the ACT Planning Authority.
Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and other investors have put $25 million behind Loop, a packaging reuse model that launched last year.
The Ocean Cleanup and Konecranes have chosen MHE-Demag to design, manufacture and service the Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor to extract plastic from rivers before entering the ocean.
I know it’s been some months since my last report but, in my defence, my schedule has been terrifyingly full. There’s not been a free moment, as I try to keep pace with these Aussies who are working their hearts out to beat those exports bans.
It’s been exhausting watching the progress as more grants are handed out, a Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence is established and I’m sure you may have heard that the country’s first ever recycling legislation has been making its way through the Parliament.
As well as all of this long overdue activity, I’ve noticed that one of the curious strategies of the WARR industry (that’s how they style themselves down here) is to conference themselves towards them (the export bans that is). I know it’s strange, but it seems to be the way that they like to do things. As the saying goes, one conference is too many and 100 isn’t enough.
Not that I’m saying the waste industry has 100 conferences a year, it just seems like that… LOL.
It appeared to start just after lockdown in March when the face-to-face Waste Conference 2020 held at Coffs Harbour, a semi tropical beachside resort that the locals love to throng to every year, was cancelled.
Before you could say FOGO, this event metamorphised into what is now known as a ‘virtual event’.
If there was anything I needed to know about the waste industry, you bet I was able to find it there. And you know how I struggle with zoom, I never seemed to be off the darn thing.
By all accounts it was a huge success with nearly 3000 faces zooming in during the six-week program. There were eight premium sessions featured and more than 35 speakers. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the cut.
Meanwhile, over in the Packaging camp, not to be outdone with this extravaganza of information, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation launched a series of Weekly Community Webinars. At the same time.
So, you ask why was there two industry events running simultaneously? Well, the answer may seem obvious, they speak to very different audiences, but lying beneath that politically correct mask, I have sensed a distinct frisson of energy between the packaging and waste industries.
Call it emotional intelligence or the like, but I would even go as far to say that they don’t like each other.
Nothing on the scale of the divide between Make America Great Again and the Democrats of course but, packaging and waste seem to make strange bedfellows. One seems to hold the other responsible for the whole waste crisis, while the other moves at a glacial rate of change while watching the world become immersed in plastic.
I digress, and I can tell you that my education continued. In October, the Australian Institute of Packaging started zooming out its annual conference to be quickly followed in November by the 2020 Australasian Waste and Recycling Expo.
You are right, it did make my head spin.
Veolia Australia and New Zealand CEO Richard Kirkman arrived from the UK business in the second half of 2020 following what the company has described as “a difficult year with devastating bushfires in Australia and then the global pandemic.”
A Memorandum of Understanding has been entered into by Citywide to explore participation in a state-of-the-art Energy from Waste (EfW) facility in Victoria. This follows the signing of an agreement with the project’s participants.