I was lucky enough, at the end of August, to be part of the Women of Waste Leadership Breakfast in Brisbane where the very impressive and articulate Leeane Enoch, MP, Minister for Environment, spoke to the 95 passionate gathered WARRiors. Her speech was very moving with many takeaways for those in the room and on social media; however one thing the Minister said keeps going through my head this last week: "your story is one of the most important things you have.” It makes me think about our industry and wonder what our story is or should be.
I don’t think there has been a period in time like the last 18 months, where our essential industry has had so much media attention. Granted not all attention has been good, and sometimes it has resulted in re-action as opposed to the desired action.
WMAA has been particularly fortunate to have had exposure in both ABC Q&A and War on Waste, making us acutely aware of the public interest that exists in our industry and our story. So how do we garner this attention in a way that we need, to ensure that we get the action that we so desperately need from Government, other industries and the public more generally?
Well, we have all seen lots of media attention about China and the fact that Australia was exporting resources to the world’s largest manufacturer, who was re-manufacturing these resources into other products. There is nothing wrong with this, it just simply is not ideal, given the lost opportunity to create jobs in Australia with these resources. Quite rightly, we have focused in the short term on assisting MRFs and local councils to transition through this phase; what we also need to focus and get loud on is the entire narrative of the story - our need to buy and use recycled product in Australia; the value in the product that we collect and sort; and the remanufactured goods that we can and should be making from these goods in Australia.
There has also been a bit of a reality check as a result of China, in that it is not the role of MRFs to recycle/remanufacture, rather they collect and sort. What is vital (and in large part missing) is the demand locally for these sorted commodities for remanufacturing in Australia. Hence the reason product has been exported as China and others do see the value in this.
Increasingly, we are seeing MRFs turning into re-manufacturers, particularly with glass, given their determination not to send material to landfill. However, this brings with it a raft of other complications such as DAs, licensing, resource recovery exemptions (depending on State), market for end product and on it goes. Similar issues exist with organics collections, and both the acceptance and use of end product.
Whilst Government is genuine in wanting to meet diversion rates, China has demonstrated that a lot of States fail to understand our essential industry and the enormous benefit to, and the critical part we play in the story of our nation’s economy. For too long we have been seen by most as something that is simply regulated and enforced, and kept out of sight. We need a complete paradigm shift towards market development in order to do more than simply collect products in different bins, and towards recovering these resources and remanufacturing them into the valuable products that they are. The public wants us to, and thought that we were - and it was not for want of trying!
We also need to elevate the public debate and recognise how clever and interested the public are in us. Whilst it is awesome that plastic and items such as coffee cups, bags and straws can gain so much public interest, we need to elevate these conversations to ensure that the focus is on what is really at issue - the avoidance of single-use and the fact these single-use items are simply no more than waste
We need to start tackling really challenging issues like the benefits of some packaging in managing food waste. However, we need to also address issues such as avoiding unnecessary purchases of food (with up to $60 per week in food discarded by households) and how this is arguably better, particularly when we talk about cost of living pressure. We also need to stop pretending that if we make enough packaging of a type, industry will magically develop solutions to it (coffee pods anyone?).
The public recognises and supports our essential industry and is starting to move in the same direction as us; we now need government to do more than just pay lip service but move with us through legislation. We need the ability to have certainty over where we can build and be able to do it in a reasonable and certain timeframe. We need a standard national approach to proximity so that we can manage our waste and resources close to generation and have certainty of both supply and market.
WMAA, the national peak body for the waste management and resource recovery industry, has and will always push the best interest of this essential, $15.5 billion industry to government. With three elections (two State and one Federal) between now and May next year, it is time we took advantage of the attention we have and get both the recognition and understanding of our industry, the essential service that we provide and our story so that we can thrive.
As Leeane Enoch said: “Our story is one of the most important things we have. It is time for us to take control of our story, no longer be reactive, and ensure that it is a positive one.”
Chief Executive Officer
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