After a terrific week in Melbourne at the highly successful Australian Landfill and Transfer Stations Conference (June 20-22) where over 300 people from around Australia gathered to talk about lots and lots of important stuff, it left me thinking of the opportunity that exists to better understand and integrate the hierarchy, as well as truly leverage the respective roles every part of the hierarchy plays.  I sometimes feel in the calls for ‘zero’ waste and creating a ‘circular economy’ we lose sight of the fact that whilst that is desirable, it is not instantly achievable, and we do need all the hierarchy working together to make these ambitions a success.  Particularly if we are genuine about emissions management!

Quite rightly Australia must maximise resources and recover as many 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, in pursuit of these goals in some ways, I feel like we have lost sight of the integral role that the steps on the lower end of the hierarchy play in supporting this essential system and creating the conditions for recovery to occur.   

Australia is home to a number of highly engineered, best practice facilities across Australia, led by fantastic people committed to safely managing the 28 million tonnes of material that society still discards.  We all know that this is far too much material by the way (particularly given the current cost of living crises), but to date we are not seeing the necessary behavior change campaigns that focus on consumption choices, nor funding/ 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 some strong shifts in legislation, policy and funding approaches.

As a sector we absolutely do want to recover material, be it through composting, recycling, anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis- really there are a myriad of technologies that we use well in Australia that can keep material circulating and in the productive economy when designed well.  Designed well means right materials but also not including hazardous substances like PFAS or other POPs for example.  Having well built, strategically placed 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 great opportunities for everything from tip shops, repair cafes, community recycling centers 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, that is a time when they can no longer be safely recovered, and we will either need to capture energy from them or we will need to safely dispose and manage them.  There are also other instances, like during times of natural disaster, that disposal/ energy recovery really is the only available alternative.  So, we need to do this well! 

The reality is that in Australia we do, do this well, there are many passionate engineers, operators, suppliers, consultants that are doing a brilliant job.  They are doing a lot to maximize the amount of gas captured, methane mitigated, leachate managed and air space optimized.

It was great to have so many regulators and government policy people in the room in Melbourne, to actually discuss this ‘system’ and the role that all levels play when working together in a ‘systems-based approach to material management’.  To hit 80% resource recovery, we really do need facilities across the entire hierarchy coming on stream 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 1 million tonnes over the last two (2) reporting years, whereas we need over 10 million additional tonnes recovered over the next seven (7) years (excluding Ash recovery).  This is at the same time as some states are running out of air space in metro areas and others states actually do not know what their current capacity (or WARR infrastructure is), let alone what is required to deliver 80% resource recovery.

What is clear though is that the system is inexorably linked, to make this work at its optimum however we need good sensible consistent regulation- including landfill levy, (across Australia and within the system) that levels the playing field and drives recovery.  We also require best practice management and consistent policy- we are after all one country.   

Nowhere is this more obvious than when we look at the management of carbon and methane.  At present the landfill sector is doing the heavy lifting in mitigating and managing both carbon and methane.  The vast majority of current policies do not talk to each other and regrettably do appear to drive material towards landfill as opposed to providing clear incentives for resource recovery when we know that using secondary raw materials uses less energy and creates less emissions.   

There is a real 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 as it’s not an exaggeration to say that our planet (and our kids) are counting on us to get this right!