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The future of the Australian waste and recycling industry

The future of the Australian waste and recycling industry
by Ellen Thornton at 07:43 in Circular Economy, Emerging, Environmental, Packaging

The Environment and communications references committee has made many recommendations to the Australian government concerning the waste and recycling industry. Following evidence and comments from the industry, proposals have been submitted relating to the establishment of a circular economy; prioritisation of the waste hierarchy; the phasing out of petroleum-based single-use plastics and many more.

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The committee recommends that the Australian Government prioritise waste reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy, and seek a commitment through the Meeting of Environment Ministers of all levels of government to the waste hierarchy. With the waste hierarchy, waste avoidance comes first, including actions to reduce the amount of waste generated by households, industry and government. The strategy focuses on consumer behaviour, with the aim of maximising efficiency and avoiding unnecessary use of virgin materials. Secondly, where avoiding or reducing waste is not possible, the re-use of products is the next priority. Hence, the use of energy and other resources is minimised through avoiding waste and recycling. Initiatives are available such as the re-sale of items and donation of items to charities.

The key challenges in Australia's recycling effort include the regulatory environment, changes in the international market for recyclable materials, a weak domestic market for recycled products, and a lack of investment in infrastructure. The Chinese Government's decision to restrict imports of 24 types of solid waste, along with stricter contamination standards, has become a key issue. Exportation of recycled waste to China had been a low-cost option which many countries relied on for managing their recycling. This has had an impact of kerbside recycling, where mixed plastics were exported to China, but now the level of contamination in kerbside recycling is higher than the new restrictions. There is currently a lack of alternative markets, alongside increased costs to reduce contamination and the lack of domestic markets, kerbside recycling is now facing significant difficulties. Evidence from submitters states the most effective way to transition away from an export-focused industry is to establish a circular economy.

In terms of product stewardship, the Australian Capital Territory Government commented that it ensures the price signals are made apparent to those parties that have the power to redesign their products or to import and sell different products, and that waste management and recycling costs are internalised in the product costs – such that consumers see appropriate prices at the time of purchase. Mr Andrew Tytherliegh, Executive Officer, Victorian Waste Management Association, commented that ‘it comes back to a personal responsibility. We've talked about adding the cost of disposal to the cost of the product when people buy it and getting people to understand that, ultimately, they are responsible for the end use of that product, and it comes at a cost. Too much in Australia we socialise the cost of disposal. However, some submitters stated that there had been little support provided by the Australian Government for product stewardship schemes since their establishment. It was noted that there has been little or no action to address waste issues at a national level since the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme was established. Furthermore, submitters called for schemes for other products including mattresses; hand-held batteries; whitegoods and air conditioners; and household and commercial furniture.

The longest running container deposit scheme (CDS) in Australia is in place in South Australia. Other jurisdictions with CDS in place, or where schemes are being developed are New south Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Submitters highlighted the positive impacts of CDS, such as improvement of the quality of both eligible materials and what remains in the kerbside system. In addition, the provision of handling fees can encourage operators and community groups to participate in the waste management industry and develop markets for collected material.

Many submitters also argued that the National Waste Policy remains a sound policy document for establishing a federal approach to waste and recycling management in Australia. Furthermore, submitters stated that Australian policy development in the area of waste and recycling has been disconnected from the ‘practical realities of what's actually happening in our society and economy with regard to production and consumption'. In particular, it was argued that there is a ‘lag' between policy and practice which results in ‘suboptimal outcomes' for waste and recycling. Most people who have given evidence agree with the federal government taking up a stronger role. It has been endorsed by everyone in the waste industry as a good platform, it just requires energy and enthusiasm at the federal level.

Overall, 18 recommendations were made to the Government:

  1. Prioritisation of a circular economy in which materials are used, collected, recovered, and reused, including within Australia.

  2. The Government should show leadership through the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the National Waste Policy.

  3. Prioritisation of waste reduction and recycling above energy-to-waste, and seek a commitment through the Meeting of Environment Ministers of all levels of government to the waste hierarchy.

  4. The Australian and state and territory governments agree to a phase out of petroleum-based single-use plastic by 2023. The scope of this commitment would require careful consideration and should be developed through the Meeting of Environment Ministers.

  5. The Australian Government should establish a Plastics Co-Operative Research Centre (CRC) to lead Australia's research effort into reducing plastic waste, cleaning up our oceans and finding end markets for recovered plastic.

  6. The Australian Government should commit to implementing the recommendation of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia, particularly in light of the need to improve plastic resource recovery.

  7. The Government should work with state and territory and local governments to assist recyclers to increase the diversion of material from landfill; improve the quality of materials recovered through collection programs; improve the sorting of materials at recycling facilities; and assist manufacturers to increase the amount of recycled material used in production.

  8. The Government should set mandatory targets for all government departments in relation to the recycled content of materials bought directly or provided by private procurement policies to ensure strong domestic markets for recycled material.

  9. ​The Government should implement the 65 agreed improvements to the National Waste Report, and the data collection and analysis practices, as established by Blue Environment's Improving national waste data and reporting report. Furthermore, the committee recommends that the National Waste Report be published at least biannually.

  10. The Government support state and territory, and local governments in ensuring effective education programs are available to assist the public in understanding how best to undertake recycling.​

  11. The Government should implement a national container deposit scheme.

  12. The product stewardship schemes established under the Product Stewardship Act 2011 should be mandatory schemes.

  13. The mandatory product stewardship schemes established for tyres, mattresses, e-waste, and photovoltaic panels.

  14. The Government should extend producer responsibility under product stewardship schemes to ensure better environmental and social outcomes through improved design.

  15. The Product Stewardship Advisory Committee should be re-established, and they should be tasked with recommending products for listing under the Product Stewardship Act.​​

  16. The Government should assist state and territory governments to ensure that landfill levies in proximate jurisdictions are such that there is a no incentive to transport waste for levy avoidance purposes.

  17. The Government should support state and territory governments fully hypothecating landfill levies towards measures that reduce the creation of consumption and waste, and that increase the recycling of waste materials.

  18. ​The Government should work with state and territory governments to ensure the implementation to ensure the implementation of harmonised, best-practice landfill standards.​

Submitters have made clear they want expansion of product stewardship schemes to cover more products and to reflect the actual costs of end-of-life processing. Furthermore, they want a national container deposit scheme to iron out differentiation between territories. Establishment of the circular economy and use of the waste hierarchy is a top priority for addressing issues in the waste and recycling industry. Overall, there is a clear call for the government to take the lead on these actions through mandatory targets, schemes and national policies. If you are interested in reading more articles and blog like this, please sign up to our free monthly digest. If you have any questions about the waste and recycling industry in Australia, please contact us to speak to one of our consultants.​

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