CEO Report: Inside Waste April - May 2023 Issue

Bad planning leads to ongoing crises

“We need a plan that pre-empts crises rather than repeatedly running into them”. Wise words from Minette Batter, President of the National Farmers Union, in her 2022 speech to their annual conference about the state of farming. The sentiments apply equally to our sector; how many ‘crises’ do we need to finally get it? Since 2019, we have faced crisis after crisis, from China’s National Sword policy to bushfires and floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw government spring to action, however have we really achieved anything of note?

Out of the China National Sword ashes rose the National Waste Action Plan phoenix. But like the mythical phoenix, its success remains fictitious. Instead, we have an incoherent document with inadequately planned actions, such as the waste export bans (a sound idea in theory but problematic in reality). Four years on, the National Waste Data Report reveals we have a massive infrastructure shortfall, 14 million tonnes to be exact. Throw in our abysmal 1.8% improvement in resource recovery over the last four years and we that’s 17% below where we need to be, miles off hitting the 2030 targets.

Add in other important 2030 goals, like the pledge to protect 30% of land in line with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as achieve 43% carbon mitigation, and you realise the common denominator to push Australia closer to these targets is our WARR sector. If we reduce the reliance on virgin materials and use our sector’s secondary raw materials, we can significantly reduce emissions and energy. Recycling glass alone reduces as much as 87% carbon and 82% energy.

Despite our sector being critical to the success of Australia in achieving these targets –we still have not seen the necessary paradigm shift. Instead, we’re in a constant state of market failure at real risk of becoming a dumping ground for low value materials, with our essential sector continuing to be at the receiving end of cost and risk transfers from the rest of the supply chain.

We are on the cusp of another crisis, and instead of running towards it, we need our governments to turn their attention to developing a new economic model that recognises the shared responsibility of material management and importantly, the value of materials our industry produces, while correcting the balance, so that resource recovery is more cost effective than landfilling. Even if we do all of these, there’s one more missing piece that we need or nothing else will matter and we will never meet our 2030 targets – markets.

Market intervention by the government is not unheard of (export bans anyone?). But what has so far been ignored is that we operate in a global market, we are a significant importer, and we have, over the years, lost much of our domestic manufacturing base. Export bans can only work if we have local markets for the materials we now need to process here. If all these crises we’ve been through and the most recent war in Ukraine have taught us anything, it’s that we desperately need to build our resilience. So, in the immortalised (but slightly bastardised) words of Jerry Maguire - show me the market!

Today, we have 78 millions tonnes of potential secondary raw materials – yes, we’re ace collectors – but without brave policy built on a genuine understanding of the supply chain and markets, what we will end up with are fields of broken dreams (housing materials with no place to go) where we’ve built it, but no one has come.

So, what is this impending crisis I’m forewarning about? Soft plastics- not just because of the material but how we respond to the issue! The lay of the land is this. According to APCO, there are approximately 449,000 tonnes of soft plastics in the packaging to consumer space. This is a low value material generally comprising of multiple polymers. APCO’s 2020 Roadmap states that “developing a circular economy for soft plastics is hampered by the material’s diversity, complexity, single-use nature, and low market value. Phasing out or redesigning problematic formats is an important part of the solution while kerbside collection of soft plastics can cause significant processing problems at MRFs. Further. research is required to determine the most effective and efficient way to collect, including expanded drop-off systems, additional collections must be implemented in conjunction with an end-market demand solution.

Why then are we being asked to place these bags in kerb when the answer is product design and market demand? In the absence of these, what we get is simply more stockpiles.

It comes down to a system shift away from collection, rapidly towards genuine producer responsibility and market development. We need to urgently allocate the appropriate roles to the appropriate players – development of markets and product design must be enforced on packagers (who else wants and uses this material?). We need a mandated EPR scheme which puts the onus on manufacturers to fund the lifecycle of packaging as well as take their materials back as inputs in manufacturing. There will be loud noises and distractions such as “traceability” but we need to focus on the solution – levers that will enable this shift, be it mandatory targets and/or a tax on virgin-use (or both!).

Before we put this in the too hard basket – “we can’t dictate what we import” - let me point to the only mandated product stewardship system we have, oil. What might be a little-known fact is that this scheme deals with imports and is in fact managed (in part) by the Australian Tax Office. We could expand the definition in this Act to include oil used to make plastics. This could be a very simple vehicle to manage and fund a genuine EPR scheme for soft plastics and potentially all types of packaging. Starting here, and adding compliance with design standards as part of eco modulation of levy may finally result in standards being complied with.

Soft plastics may be a small stream in the grand scheme of our 78 million tonnes but it is a microcosm of the market and system failures we have. If we don’t start pulling the right levers and create the real economic funding models, we will never build that 14 million tonnes of infrastructure or mitigate that carbon. In late 2022, Environment Ministers committed to going circular and revisiting the National Waste Plan, which means we may have one last opportunity to get this right. It is crucial that we do so, given we are so far behind, that we need to now move at six (6) times our current speed.