Australians generate 2.7 tonnes of waste, each, per year. Approximately, 40 per cent of this waste ends up in landfill.
Changes to Australia’s waste management and recycling landscape have combined to create new opportunities for industries to innovate with waste. A national ban on many waste exports, the global shift to a circular economy and the redefining of waste as a resource has highlighted the potential of industry to do more with what people discard as rubbish.
On 17 October 2019, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, asked the Committee to examine innovative solutions to waste management and recycling in Australia, including the opportunities presented by waste and current impediments to innovation.
Much of the evidence presented to the Committee related to current impediments to innovation. It emphasized the policy and systemic settings needed to better support innovation, and in particular, to upscale and commercialise resource recovery facilities and operations.
The Committee has made 24 recommendations designed to remove these impediments and improve resource recovery.
The Committee’s inquiry progressed as a series of Commonwealth policies, strategies, and investment funds to support Australia’s waste management and resource recovery industries were developed. These include the:
National Waste Policy Action Plan;
$100 million Australian Recycling Investment Fund;
National Plastics Summit;
Response strategy to implement the waste export bans;
Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines;
$190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund;
Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill; and
$20 million Product Stewardship Investment Fund.
These Commonwealth initiatives are part of a broader $1 billion transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling industries. The Committee supports these reforms.
To better manage waste there is a need to better manage what happens to products before they become waste – that is, before a product is thrown out.
This path commences well before deciding in which bin to discard rubbish. It starts from when a product is manufactured. It refers to rethinking all of the resources and materials that are used to make a product, including the components, parts and packaging. It starts with transitioning to a circular economy.
The aim of a circular economy is to essentially ‘design out waste’. Under this model, once consumers have finished using a product, the product should be repairable, broken down into parts which can either be reused or recycled; or captured, composted or converted into energy. Only that which remains, if anything, is landfilled.
If manufacture and waste is reconsidered in this way, innovation will lead to new opportunities that will create jobs, grow the economy, protect the environment and improve health and wellbeing.
Impediments to innovation
The Committee heard that technology and solutions are not really the missing link in developing Australia’s waste management and recycling industries, particularly as there are already technological solutions available domestically and overseas. Rather, what is needed is a national framework within which regulation, incentive-based actions, taxes and levies, and long-term policy certainty are key features.
The Commonwealth Government has a crucial role in developing this framework, most importantly in leading and coordinating national approaches, and removing the impediments to innovation. Key areas identified for reform include:
Markets and end users of recycled products;
These key areas are similar to those characteristic of top-performing countries such as Germany, South Korea, Slovenia and Austria when it comes to waste management and recycling.
Product stewardship schemes are necessary to drive change and shift the responsibility for waste to manufacturers, importers and producers. Markets for — and end users of — recycled products are fundamental to strengthening the value of waste. Accessible funding and greater investment in infrastructure will not only diversify onshore operations and markets but allow recycled products to be exported overseas. Available information and investment in research and development will drive innovation and inform policy and investment decisions. While community awareness and education will help reset social norms regarding how we avoid, manage and dispose of waste.
Notwithstanding that state and territory and local governments are primarily responsible for waste management and resource recovery in Australia, the Commonwealth has an important leadership and coordination role. Essentially, it must bring together and harmonise eight different jurisdictions to create a more seamless waste management and resource recovery industry as well as a competitive domestic and international market for recycled products.
The Committee has made a series of recommendations to address the impediments to innovation and to facilitate greater consistency in resource recovery policy and legislation. The Committee has recommended that consideration be given to the inclusion of additional waste streams under the Product Stewardship Act 2011, better alignment of existing funding and investment programs with industry needs, and a national assessment of waste management and resource recovery infrastructure capacity.
Waste to energy
Waste-to-energy (WtE) technology refers to a range of technologies that convert waste that would otherwise go to landfill into energy sources such as electricity, heat and fuel. Compared to other countries, WtE is relatively new in Australia and predominantly comprises small-scale bioenergy plants that generate energy from organic waste.
Waste-to-energy technology is a contentious area of waste management and resource recovery although the Committee heard that many of these concerns primarily relate to thermal processes that incinerate waste. Specifically, debate surrounds the environmental friendliness of these technologies and whether they undermine other waste management and recycling strategies by burning waste that could be recycled, reused or recovered in other ways.
Advocates who support this technology however consider it to be the missing link in Australia’s waste management hierarchy and called on the Committee to consider a national policy to provide clarity, certainty, and regulatory consistency for WtE stakeholders. The Committee supports this position. It has recommended the development of a specific WtE policy, as well as the development of a national methane-to-power program for landfill sites in cities and larger regional centres.
Rural and regional Australia
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.
Rural and regional Australia offers significant opportunities to better manage and process Australia’s waste. Regional Australia’s willingness to attract, invest and establish local industries, as well as their geographic assets 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 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. The Committee recommends that where possible, consideration be given to the introduction of mobile waste management services to help collect, transport and process waste in these areas.
Textile waste is a large and rapidly growing problem, having the lowest recovery rate of all waste types. The Committee’s examination of textile waste focused on three key areas: consumer waste and turnover of goods, opportunities to recycle and reuse products, and current impediments. Clothing, in particular, ‘fast-fashion’ was cited as particularly problematic creating pressure on landfill and donated clothing associations.
There was strong support for the introduction of a national textile policy that includes standards, targets and uniformity across states and territories to reduce the volume of textile waste disposed in landfill. Some stakeholders submitted their own 10 year road maps for addressing textile waste.
Expanding the re-use of textiles through textile collection bins and online systems as well as expanding the recycling of textiles through technology and manufacture were highlighted as two avenues to increase the recovery rates.
The Committee has made the following recommendations in this area including an assessment of the flow of textile waste in Australia to better understand this issue, the introduction of a national textile waste policy, and reconsidering the accessibility and location of clothing recycling bins in local government areas. Measures to minimise the costs associated with disposing of illegally dumped or unsuitable goods are also recommended.
The Committee examined a broad range of waste types including food and garden waste, medical waste, solar panels, wind turbines and mining waste. The selection of waste types emphasised the breadth of opportunity that exists for resource recovery across various sectors and products, as well as waste management challenges in these areas. For example:
To better manage waste in waterways and oceans, the Committee heard that there is a need to prevent waste – particularly single use plastics and litter – from entering waterways in the first place. This can be achieved by reducing our use of plastic, improving rubbish disposal, and ensuring that manufacturers and producers are responsible for the waste arising from their products. The Committee was encouraged by the many programs and initiatives introduced by local and state governments to address this issue.
Evidence suggests that as much as 50 per cent of household waste is food and garden waste. This presents a number of problems for local councils and communities. Food and organic waste takes up space in landfills, produces harmful methane gas, and is a missed opportunity to recover a valuable resource for energy, livestock feed and compost. The Committee recommends that options be explored to process this waste as compost or fertiliser for agriculture.
Australian healthcare produces around 130,000 tonnes of waste per year. The difficulty of recycling medical waste in hospitals is compounded by a number of issues including the absence of a clear, generally agreed definition of clinical waste, lack of recycling infrastructure set up to manage waste, limited staff training and knowledge of this area, and a heavy reliance on single-use plastic items. The Committee sees significant potential for greater resource recovery in the medical sector which would benefit from the wider roll out of existing initiatives, national coordination of efforts, sustainable procurement policies, and improved education and training of staff. The Committee recommends further examination of these issues.
Solar panels are set to become one of Australia’s largest electronic waste streams in coming years, with around a quarter of Australian households having installed solar panels. The growth of solar panels in Australia was described as ‘sustained and significant’. The Committee heard that Australia does not have a systemic sustainable process for managing end-of-life solar panels, although the core components of solar panels – glass, plastic and metal – can be recycled. Currently, end of life solar panels may end up in landfill, be stockpiled or recycled. The Committee has recommended that solar panels be included under the Product Stewardship Act 2011.
As the current of wind turbines reach their end of life, consideration should be given to how these pieces of infrastructure can be managed more sustainably. Evidence received by the Committee stated that the biggest issue with the management of wind turbines is the blades, given the composite materials used to make them. The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with state and territories explore options to manage decommissioned wind turbines.
The Committee examined two former mining sites – the Mount Morgan Mine in Queensland and the Woodsreef Mine in New South Wales – as case studies of managing and removing harmful or toxic waste. This is an important area requiring further examination. It is essential that hazardous waste is limited and contained to the site where it was created and poses no risk to surrounding communities, waterways or the environment. It is the Committee’s view that opportunities to reuse old mining sites through backfilling or re-mining be explored.
Half of the submissions received by the Committee included a broad range of suggestions for improving domestic recycling, diverting waste from landfill, and changing the content of products. The submissions overwhelmingly called for a ban on single use plastics and stressed the need for alternatives to materials, products and practices that are harmful to the environment.
There is much reform already underway in the waste management and resource recovery sector and more work is still to come. Underpinning all this effort is a willingness for change – whether at the consumer, community, commercial or government level – that is fundamental to reducing our waste and managing these resources more effectively. To help drive this change, the Committee has recommended the development of a national public education and awareness campaign that emphasises avoiding waste, the impact of waste, and how it can be better managed.