It is estimated that Australia’s local governments collectively spend $3.5 billion on collecting, treating and disposing of municipal solid waste each year. While each local government is responsible for delivering waste management and recycling services, the capacity of each council to do this differs.
The Committee heard that 23 per cent of local governments (123 councils) across Australia do not provide kerbside collection for recycled materials. Differences in geographic areas, population, revenue, and access to waste management and recycling infrastructure all contribute to service disparity between local government areas.
This disparity is most evident in rural, remote and regional communities. Dispersed populations, lower revenue streams, longer distances to larger town centres and high transport costs usually mean that most municipal waste in these areas is sent to landfill rather than diverted.
The South Coast Sustainable Waste Alliance (SCSWA) provided some insight into the challenges faced by rural and regional councils:
active landfills approaching capacity;
high costs associated with ongoing leachate and emissions management of current and former landfill sites;
red tape and high costs associated with the search for and establishment of new landfill sites, which can take 5–10 years;
distance from conventional recycling facilities increasing the economic and carbon footprint of recycling;
smaller volumes of waste from regional population limits viability of current solutions;
large land area makes illegal waste dumping and disposal harder to identify and prosecute;
limitations of current sorting and collection processes sees some recyclable materials sent to landfill; and
susceptibility of coastline to marine debris and global waste deposited by ocean currents.
Transport costs, the need for local solutions, and access to information were identified as key issues within regional communities.
For many rural and regional communities, the high cost of transporting waste to processing and recycling facilities often prohibits recovery of these resources. For example, the SCSWA stated that ‘the financial and environmental cost of transporting resources from a regional centre currently limits diversion and recovery of some material types’.
The Local Government Association of South Australia (LGASA) made the same point by highlighting the regional landscape of the state:
A barrier to waste management, as identified by our regional membership, is that when the cost of transport is added to recyclables processing costs, it would often be cheaper to send recyclable materials to landfill. The barrier of distance that is required to achieve size and scale for recycling and resource recovery endeavors to be financially viable is often too great.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) highlighted the geographic distance and regional population sparsity as working ‘against solutions to Australia’s waste crisis. These issues were considered to be particular problems for outback NT, Queensland and Western Australia:
The cost of transporting recovered waste to markets or to reprocessing plants can be onerous. In Western Australia, where there are no reprocessing plants for paper and plastics, shipping recovered waste overseas represents a lower cost than haulage to plants in the eastern states. Low population means market forces work against the viability of regional reprocessing plants and technical upgrades to sorting infrastructure. However, most rural and regional areas have no kerbside recycling services, and all waste is landfilled.
Mr Ian Cowie, Director, Local Government Professionals Australia (LGPA) highlighted access issues to reprocessing and recycling facilities in Western Australia:
In considering national approaches and solutions to waste management, the Commonwealth government must be mindful of these variations between local governments and the different circumstances and capacities of local government. For instance, again, high transport costs prohibit rural and remote local governments, in many senses, from participating in the way metropolitan local governments can. Furthermore, even metropolitan areas in more isolated states, such mine in Western Australia, don't have easy access to local reprocessing and recycling facilities. Even on the east coast here, there are still some limitations to the facilities which are available, which is one of the reasons why we advocate for regional facilities to be developed to respond to local needs much more effectively.
Other states and territories face unique challenges in waste management and recycling. The Tasmanian Government highlighted the logistical challenges for its waste management and resource recovery industry given its geography as an island state, while suggesting this could provide opportunities. The ACT Government noted that it directly performs the waste management and resource recovery functions carried out in other jurisdictions by local governments serving as a regional hub for the ACT and surrounding areas. And the Northern Territory Government pointed out in its contribution to the National Waste Report 2018 the difficulties it faces in emergency waste management, particularly in managing the waste caused by extreme weather events such as cyclones and floods.
Box 6.1: Envorinex
Envorinex is a business based in George Town, Tasmania, that uses recycled polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polypropylene to manufacture a range of products including noise abatement fencing, matting and septic tanks. It collects waste from a number of sites in mainland Australia, including Victoria’s Oakleigh Centre for Intellectually Disabled Citizens. It is also a participant in the Vinyl Council of Australia’s PVC Recycling in Hospitals scheme.
Envorinex sells approximately 5 per cent of its products in Tasmania, 55 per cent to mainland Australia and 40 per cent overseas. Its septic tanks are in particular demand in some developing countries that lack adequate sanitation. The Commonwealth Government’s Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme has played an important role in the firm’s success by assisting it with freight costs. The Commonwealth also provided it with a grant of approximately $730,000 under the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages scheme to cover half the cost of expanding its recycling capacity to include soft plastics.
The Committee consistently heard that rural, regional and remote areas need local strategies and solutions to manage their waste. Submissions advocated for regional facilities to be developed to respond to local needs more effectively, or for shared facilities or hubs to be built to better support regional communities.
The rationale for local solutions and shared facilities is to not only minimise the transportation of waste, but to maximise the volume of waste for recovery. In other words, it is to create economies of scale. Rural and regional communities require a steady and sustainable volume of waste to make a local processing operation work effectively. As explained by Mr Cowie:
The real challenge in regional areas is to be able to get the volume to make a processing operation work effectively. But if the volume could be there then, yes, quite clearly you’d have the potential. I suppose that gets back to what we would talk about: there needs to be more investment in potential start-ups and businesses that can produce small-scale facilities that would cater for the smaller volumes in regional areas.
In its submission, the SCSWA called on local governments, industries and communities to explore ‘economically and environmentally viable local approaches’ and recommends that priority be given to research and incentives to develop local, scalable resource recovery and recycling solutions.
Similarly, the Local Government Association of Queensland noted that local communities should be supported by all tiers of government to manage their waste as close as practicable to its place of generation and continue to respect the principles of the waste hierarchy.
Access to information
Access to information was raised as an impediment to waste management and recycling in regional areas. The benefit of specialised knowledge and information is two-fold. First, smaller rural and regional towns require information so they can introduce better waste management processes and facilities in their communities. Second, smaller rural and regional towns require information as an avenue to promote themselves to industry and larger communities as part of a waste management solution. In short, they need to know how to get involved. As described by Cr Craig Davies, Mayor, Narromine Shire Council:
I guess a coordinated approach, certainly to allow the industry to understand the benefits that would accrue from having some of their waste processed in the isolated region that I've described to you previously. It's our lack of industry knowledge and knowing who to speak to in the industry that makes it difficult for us. We are small. A lot of the bigger players don't look on us terribly favourably, but we can offer them a lot.
The Committee agrees that smaller rural and regional council areas require the necessary information to upskill and promote waste and recycling operations.
Box 6.2: The Big Rivers Waste Management Working Group
Waste management in the Big Rivers region of the Northern Territory suffered from outdated landfilling methods, which were not adequately separating recyclable and hazardous materials. Roper Gulf Regional Council, Victoria Daly Regional Council and West Daly Regional Council, supported by the territory Department of Health and Katherine Town Council, responded by forming the Big Rivers Waste Management Working Group.
The Working Group evaluated how the three councils were managing waste then integrated and improved their operations, with a focus on sharing costs, particularly waste transport and processing costs. This combined effort has turned resource recovery into a viable industry in the area and provided employment for unskilled workers. The Working Group’s innovative approach has been recognised by numerous grants from the Commonwealth and Territory governments.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
In its submission, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) examined waste management and recycling in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. In particular, NACCHO drew the Committee’s attention to the need to improve waste management and recycling in these communities, and increase employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in waste and recycling industries. NACCHO argued that these improvements are not only needed to improve service delivery and economic opportunity but to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
NACCHO stated that ‘current provisions for regulating and managing waste in rural and regional communities are often insufficient in ensuring the health and wellbeing of residents’. The issue here is that when waste is not managed properly, the health problems for communities are significant.
Specific challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in managing waste include:
limited transportation options;
irregular waste collection services;
high costs of setting up and maintaining waste management systems;
limited waste infrastructure or access to markets for recyclables;
difficulties recruiting and retaining staff;
vast distances and poor road conditions between towns;
inability to afford the relocation or redesign of landfills to better protect the environment;
difficulties identifying custodians of the land and obtaining consent from land owners to develop landfill areas, and
limited waste data to better assess waste management and recycling infrastructure needs.
NACCHO made three recommendations which focus on identifying and implementing waste management and recycling strategies that: 1) protect the environment and health and wellbeing of residents; 2) protect peoples’ access to land, water and traditional food sources, and 3) create enterprise and jobs opportunities in waste management, recycling and related industries.
Specific solutions identified for improving waste management recycling in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities include:
community education and awareness of the need to avoid and reduce waste, including food waste;
accessing grants programs for reducing and reusing waste;
circulating best-practice guidance materials for handling and disposing of various wastes;
identifying emerging and ongoing waste management issues requiring multi-faceted solutions;
increasing coordination of localised waste arrangements to prevent litter and illegal dumping;
improving transportation of hazardous wastes out of communities (including reducing costs);
expanding the container deposit scheme and plastic bag bans;
funding regional councils to work together and share recycling infrastructure;
assessing landfill sites and prioritising the management of those that are an environment and health risk;
identifying and pursuing innovative technologies and systems (recycling, clean energy, etc.);
funding research and data management into meeting targets in waste reduction; and
conducting regulatory reviews and providing progress reports on waste reduction.
The use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Health Workers and Officers were identified as vital in educating residents in rural and remote communities about best practice in waste management.
Professor Veena Sahajwalla shared with the Committee innovative work by the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre) which has specific applicability to rural and regional communities.
The SMaRT Centre has been researching innovative technologies – referred to as micro-recycling science – to reform waste streams into value added materials and products. In particular, its Microfactorie technology can be used to reform waste into materials for reuse and manufacturing.
Microfactories are described as a ‘series of small machines and devices that use patented technology to perform one or more functions in the reforming of waste products into new and usable resources. They can be installed in an area as small as 50–100 square metres, and can be set up wherever waste is stockpiled, such as a building site or alongside regional waste disposal sites, to process waste at the source’.
According to Professor Sahajwalla this innovative science and technology will ‘profoundly disrupt today’s centralised, vertically integrated model of production’. As a model which embraces local solutions to local waste problems, this innovation can help to overcome problems associated with distance and transport, volumes of waste, and economies of scale in regional areas.
Promoted as the ‘the future of global manufacturing’, a key advantage of Microfactorie technology is that it is ‘small-scale’, ‘decentralised’ and will ‘enable communities to produce many of the products, materials and resources they need locally by using resources largely derived from waste’.
Professor Sahajwalla explained that Microfactories are about designing solutions for communities that are ‘fit for purpose’ and connected to ‘manufacturing a value added product’:
When someone in a regional town wants to look at, for instance, recycling solar panels — or it could be recycling glass or tyres — the question always comes up from communities, especially when you're talking about smaller volumes, of how you actually enable recycling and transformation of waste into value-added products but do it at a scale that makes sense for that region. Microfactories are really all about understanding the requirements of scale; they are able to deliver solutions that work on that scale and that are fit for purpose. The keyword here is: what is the purpose?
To this end, Professor Sahajwalla stated that Microfactories will not only help to address waste and recovery issues in particular communities, they will link recycling and manufacturing to help create new economic opportunities in rural and regional areas including employment.
The SMaRT Centre’s technology has already contributed to ‘millions of tyres’ being diverted from landfill and partially replacing coke in electric arc furnace steelmaking. Other materials such as discarded textiles, paper and glass are being reformed into floor tiles, ceiling tiles, or sound-absorbing wall tiles, and discarded e-waste such as laptops and smart phones is being converted into materials for use in metals and industrial grade ceramics, and plastic filaments for 3D printing.
Microfactories present important export opportunities for Australians. Not only in exporting the technology itself but the products that results. Professor Sahajwalla told the Committee that the crucial part of the manufacturing process is making it cost competitive:
With localised manufacturing in Australia, if we can produce enough to meet our own needs, we won't have to import it. When we get to the point where we are producing more than enough, the export opportunities in this global market are massive, so there's absolutely no question that, for all of these types of products we're talking about, there's an opportunity to produce something that is going to be cost competitive, which is always an important part of our thinking. That's been part of our journey as we work with our industry partners — to work our way through enabling an operator to become cost competitive.
While this technology presents enormous opportunities for rural and regional communities, a potential impediment for smaller communities may be access to investment and funding. Specifically, the difficulty of local communities to find funding to match that offered by the Commonwealth Government under its recently announced Recycling Modernisation Fund to set up a Microfactorie. As Professor Sahajwalla explained:
If industries have to put some funding into it, how does a small community go about doing that?
… how do we enable and support the deployment of microfactories? But the investment in purchasing and setting up the modular systems which make a microfactorie is going to be the next step. I absolutely applaud the Recycling Modernisation Fund that has been announced recently. I guess time will tell how regions are going to pick up on that type of investment from the federal government to enable us to take Australian science and deliver waste recycling solutions so we can deliver these benefits to our communities.
In a written submission, the SMaRT Centre made six policy recommendations to promote ‘recovery, re-use, recycling and reformation of products by industry and their end customers’. Four of these recommendations relate specifically to Microfactorie:
invest in the Microfactorie model within local regions by including a subsidy scheme to incentivise and support uptake by third parties or local governments. A fund similar to the Building Better Regional Fund targeted to improve waste management by local councils could be considered.
support the establishment of a Microfactorie pilot plant to:
accelerate partnerships with industry to drive investment and scaling of the model;
facilitate ongoing research and development; and
support international engagement in world-class Australian technologies.
invest directly in initiatives such as UNSW’s SMaRT Centre to support industry-linked research activities between commercial partners and universities, and innovative responses to waste management issues.
promote the Microfactorie model to provide an important conduit for partnership development with industry and government stakeholders. Government could fund a ‘tech-voucher’ system to enable businesses to prototype and test their product ideas at UNSW’s SMaRT Microfactorie.
The SMaRT Centre recommended that local councils be encouraged to address the whole life-cycle of waste by supporting partnerships with manufacturing companies, and that all levels of government should legislate the greater use of ‘green materials’ in construction, product packaging, and government procurement.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment shared with the Committee some preliminary work supported by the Commonwealth to help establish waste management and resource recovery facilities in rural and regional communities, specifically in Northern Australia and Queensland.
These projects, which are in their early stages, complement measures outlined in the National Waste Policy Action Plan and the Response Strategy. These include:
report on opportunities to promote regional collection and recycling of soft plastics through expansion of the Regional Model for Soft Plastics;
develop shared infrastructure and collection processes for packaging waste in remote and regional areas through the Remote and Regional Waste Collection Partnership;
explore opportunities to leverage existing regional development programs to support better waste management and resource recovery; and
increase access to resource recovery and waste management infrastructure for regional, remote and Indigenous communities in every state and territory.
It is the Committee’s view that rural and regional Australia offers significant opportunities to better manage and process Australia’s waste. This is due to regional Australia’s willingness to attract, invest and establish local industries, and the assets of regional Australia that lend themselves to this type of industry, particularly compared to the often more populated, congested and land limited cities.
The Committee recognises that the location of waste management and resource recovery facilities is primarily a matter for state and territory and local governments. However, in order to maximise the opportunities offered by rural and regional communities, the Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government prioritise its coordination and leadership in this area in two key areas. First, in assessing the potential of rural and regional towns to manage and process waste. This assessment should consider key attributes of a location such as the regional landscape, existing transport routes, local infrastructure and amenities, and potential markets for recovered waste. Second, in assisting with investment in the necessary infrastructure to support a local industry.
The Committee also recognises the difficulty of rural, regional and Indigenous communities in accessing resource recovery services, particularly for agricultural waste, and for disposing of vehicles and machinery in a sustainable way. Where possible, the Committee recommends that consideration be given to the introduction of mobile waste management services to help collect, transport and process waste in these areas.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government facilitate and coordinate a national assessment of the capacity and potential of rural, regional and remote communities to establish a local waste management and resource recovery industry or serve as a regional hub. This assessment should include an examination of the attributes of communities, including but not limited to, the regional landscape, existing transport routes, local infrastructure, current amenities and services, and markets for recovered waste.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government examine measures for rural, regional and remote communities to access adequate funding to invest in local waste management and resource recovery infrastructure and solutions.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government, in consultation with state and territory and local governments, establish a mobile waste management and recycling program for rural, regional, remote and Indigenous communities designed to:
Collect waste directly from properties, farms and Indigenous communities and transport this waste for processing and resource recovery in larger regional or town centres.
Collect abandoned vehicles from properties and roads for crushing and resource recovery in larger regional or town centres.