Trash of the Na­tion

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 - by Alex McKin­non

In 2017, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced “Na­tional Sword”, a pol­icy re­strict­ing the kinds of re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als the coun­try will ac­cept from over­seas. West­ern na­tions long used to treat­ing the de­vel­op­ing world as a dump­ing ground were caught off guard. In Aus­tralia and else­where, do­mes­tic re­cy­cling in­dus­tries had been al­lowed to run down in favour of ship­ping waste cheaply to China. Now that op­tion was off the ta­ble, and govern­ments were forced to con­front grow­ing piles of trash they had no idea what to do with. The thought that the bins might not get picked up has sent me­dia out­lets into over­drive. Head­lines warn of the im­pend­ing col­lapse of kerb­side re­cy­cling. In March this year, con­trac­tor Wheelie Waste sus­pended col­lec­tion of house­hold bins in two cen­tral Vic­to­rian coun­cil shires, prompt­ing the state gov­ern­ment to re­lease a $13 mil­lion tem­po­rary fund­ing boost to keep garbage trucks rolling. A week later, a fed­eral Se­nate in­quiry hear­ing into the waste and re­cy­cling in­dus­try heard that New South Wales was “four to eight weeks be­hind” Vic­to­ria’s cri­sis point. The NSW state gov­ern­ment an­nounced its own $47 mil­lion re­lief pack­age soon after. Ever-grow­ing moun­tains of waste and over­flow­ing coun­cil bins make vivid im­ages, but they’re only one symp­tom of a des­per­ate sec­tor ham­strung by al­most a decade of pol­icy in­ac­tion and dys­func­tion. The Na­tional Waste Pol­icy, agreed upon by state, fed­eral and ter­ri­tory govern­ments in 2009, has lan­guished for years, de­void of fund­ing or at­ten­tion. In­stead, states and ter­ri­to­ries have gone it alone, re­sult­ing in a be­wil­der­ing patch­work of reg­u­la­tions, poli­cies and pro­grams that cre­ate as many prob­lems as they try to solve. The waste and re­cy­cling in­dus­try has long warned that Aus­tralia’s ad hoc ap­proach to waste man­age­ment would back­fire. Waste col­lec­tion and re­cy­cling is typ­i­cally seen as a state is­sue, or one that comes un­der the lo­cal-gov­ern­ment mantra of “roads, rates and rub­bish”. But with­out the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­vid­ing heft and di­rec­tion, even pop­u­lar and well-known waste re­duc­tion poli­cies can wilt due to op­po­si­tion from vested in­ter­ests, or sim­ply come un­stuck. In Fe­bru­ary, NSW

premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian was forced to ad­mit that the state’s Re­turn and Earn con­tainer-re­fund scheme, of­fer­ing 10-cent re­funds for re­turned drink con­tain­ers, has en­coun­tered “ma­jor teething prob­lems”, mainly due to a lack of col­lec­tion points across the state. The botched roll­out prompted the Queens­land gov­ern­ment to push back its own con­tainer-re­fund scheme from July to Novem­ber, to bet­ter learn from New South Wales’s mis­takes. West­ern Aus­tralia’s planned con­tain­errefund scheme, which starts next year, is fac­ing stiff op­po­si­tion from brew­ers, who have warned that the price of beer may go up by $5 a car­ton. Even if all three schemes even­tu­ally pan out, they will sim­ply cre­ate another lu­di­crous in­con­sis­tency rem­i­nis­cent of pre-Fed­er­a­tion rail gauges. Peo­ple will be able to re­deem soft-drink cans and beer bot­tles in Al­bury, but not across the Mur­ray River in Wodonga. When Vic­to­ria’s pledge to ban sin­gle-use plas­tic bags is rat­i­fied, the bags will be off lim­its in Wodonga, but not in Al­bury. The lack of a con­sis­tent na­tional ap­proach has seen Aus­tralia de­velop the bad habit of ship­ping its trash to the near­est place that will take it with­out ask­ing too many ques­tions, of­ten re­ly­ing on un­scrupu­lous op­er­a­tors to do the dirty work. Where re­cy­clables such as card­board and glass bot­tles were shipped to China for pro­cess­ing, re­pur­pos­ing and sell­ing on as new prod­ucts or raw ma­te­ri­als, in re­cent years non-re­deemable waste (in­clud­ing plas­tic, con­crete and haz­ardous ma­te­rial) has made its way to Queens­land. The for­mer Lib­eral Na­tional Party gov­ern­ment’s slash­ing of red and green tape has turned the Sun­shine State into a de facto na­tional tip. It’s a phe­nom­e­non most vis­i­ble in the south-eastern city of Ip­swich, where a grey mar­ket in in­ter­state garbage dump­ing has thrived since the LNP scrapped a $35-per­tonne waste levy in 2012. The eco­nomics of driv­ing a truck­load of trash from Syd­ney to Ip­swich and dump­ing it for free, rather than pay­ing the $138-per-tonne levy New South Wales im­poses on city waste, en­cour­aged legally murky op­er­a­tors to cart more than 900,000 tonnes of Syd­ney’s trash up the Pa­cific High­way in the 2016– 17 fi­nan­cial year. Be­sides turn­ing the old coalmines on Ip­swich’s out­skirts into gi­ant land­fills, the trucks making the jour­ney north have fur­ther con­gested traf­fic on the Pa­cific High­way and caused sev­eral se­ri­ous ac­ci­dents. Queens­land premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk has promised to bring back the levy, but the prob­lem ex­tends be­yond gen­er­alised land­fill. Robert Kel­man, ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Aus­tralian Tyre Re­cy­clers As­so­ci­a­tion, told the fed­eral Se­nate in­quiry that Queens­land’s lack of reg­u­la­tion en­cour­ages rogue op­er­a­tors to buy old in­dus­trial sites, fill them with up to a mil­lion used tyres, and “get their cousin to set them alight one night”. In Kel­man’s words, “Queens­land is our bas­ket case.” If Queens­land does get its act to­gether, the black mar­ket will sim­ply move on to the next ju­ris­dic­tion with a light touch, ei­ther do­mes­ti­cally or over­seas. The in­quiry heard anec­dotes of med­i­cal waste be­ing trucked from West­ern Aus­tralia to Vic­to­ria, and of fire crews in the Vic­to­rian town of Stawell be­ing dis­patched to guard

mas­sive piles of tyres dur­ing sum­mer to prevent waste fires. Many of the 56 mil­lion used tyres Aus­tralia pro­duces in a year are baled for ex­port to coun­tries with lax en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards, po­ten­tially spread­ing dis­eases around the globe due to the ideal breed­ing en­vi­ron­ment tyres pro­vide for mos­qui­toes. The Aus­tralian Na­tional Waste Report 2016, pre­pared for the De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy, shows Aus­tralians have a gen­uine de­sire for a re­spon­si­ble and sus­tain­able waste and re­cy­cling sys­tem. Peo­ple are re­cy­cling more and wast­ing less. We gen­er­ated the equiv­a­lent of 565 kilo­grams of waste per capita in 2014– 15, down from 620 kilo­grams in 2006–07. And the high re­cov­ery rate of house­hold pa­per and card­board waste shows Aus­tralians are fairly dili­gent if re­cy­cling is made easy, clear and manda­tory. Ed­u­ca­tional cam­paigns like those run by the ABC’s War on Waste have helped clear up con­fu­sion about what can and can­not be re­cy­cled, and have prompted peo­ple to ac­tion. But the report’s fine print ex­poses the in­ad­e­quacy of re­ly­ing on in­di­vid­ual con­sumers to do the heavy lift­ing of re­cy­cling them­selves. With­out gov­ern­ment pol­icy to guide be­hav­iour, good ma­te­rial is wasted as mis­con­cep­tions, un­cer­tainty and lazi­ness take over. The catch-all na­ture of the house­hold bin that goes to the kerb means peo­ple typ­i­cally mix or­ganic waste with other types of garbage, making it more dif­fi­cult for pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties to sal­vage use­ful ma­te­ri­als. While many of us obe­di­ently put empty jars and bot­tles into yel­low re­cy­cling bins, the waste-sort­ing process of­ten breaks these into un­us­able pieces, con­tam­i­nat­ing other po­ten­tial re­cy­clables, and pos­ing a health and safety hazard to work­ers. As a re­sult, mu­nic­i­pal kerb­side col­lec­tion is the least en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly method of waste dis­posal, with only 51 per cent of coun­cil-col­lected garbage be­ing put to use. The lack of a uni­form do­mes­tic ap­proach also cre­ates huge dis­par­i­ties in how well dif­fer­ent states and ter­ri­to­ries man­age house­hold garbage. South Aus­tralia re­cov­ers al­most three quar­ters of its mu­nic­i­pal waste, while Tas­ma­nia re­cov­ers less than 40 per cent. That lack of con­sis­tency also helps ex­plain why Aus­tralia lags so far be­hind com­pa­ra­ble na­tions. Aus­tri­ans pro­duce roughly the same amount of house­hold waste per capita, but re­cover 94 per cent of it. Ger­mans, Swedes, Danes and Lux­em­bourg­ers pro­duce far more, but re­cover be­tween 87 and 100 per cent. Like any other sec­tor, the re­cy­cling in­dus­try needs cer­tainty: a re­li­able stream of raw ma­te­rial, a guar­an­teed mar­ket buyer at the other end, and a clear le­gal frame­work en­sur­ing ev­ery­one plays by the same rules. In­stead, hon­est op­er­a­tors that vol­un­tar­ily com­ply with in­dus­try codes are con­stantly un­der­cut by ri­vals. Aus­tralian pro­duc­ers are un­der no obli­ga­tion to buy do­mes­ti­cally re­cy­cled prod­ucts such as glass bot­tles or tyre crumbs. Chances to grow the lo­cal in­dus­try and dis­pose of do­mes­tic waste re­spon­si­bly go beg­ging. Dur­ing the Se­nate in­quiry, in­dus­try lead­ers de­liv­ered a with­er­ing as­sess­ment of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to give the do­mes­tic re­cy­cling sec­tor a chance. Waste Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia CEO Gayle Sloan told the in­quiry that “a lack of clear vi­sion and co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the Com­mon­wealth and the states” has pre­vented the growth of the do­mes­tic waste man­age­ment in­dus­try, and that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment “needs to start step­ping up to the plate”. Jeff An­gel, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group To­tal En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre, told the in­quiry that en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be more proac­tive about re­cy­cling “doesn’t par­tic­u­larly help if it’s an ad hoc vol­un­tary ex­er­cise, be­cause you just don’t get the suf­fi­cient scale of a new col­lec­tion sys­tem”. Rather than buying into talk of a cri­sis, the waste in­dus­try has largely re­sponded to China’s Na­tional Sword pol­icy as an op­por­tu­nity to progress to­wards a “cir­cu­lar econ­omy” – one in which we ab­sorb the by-prod­ucts of our con­sump­tion habits, rather than dis­card them. Per­haps the on­go­ing im­pact of China’s de­ci­sion will force state and fed­eral pol­i­cy­mak­ers to sup­port such ef­forts. In more ways than one, it may be time to clean up our own mess.

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