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MAV Opinion Editorial - Recycling crisis was a wake-up call

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When the recycling crisis hit in February it caught many off guard. Yet this crisis has arguably been decades in the making and delivered an important wake-up call.

Cr Mary Lalios We have a vulnerable recycling system. Over 90 per cent of Victoria’s kerbside recycling is processed by three recyclers who largely rely on overseas markets to support their business model. China’s ‘National Sword’ decision to restrict the importation of certain recyclable materials set off a chain reaction.

This crisis has shone a light on the lack of investment occurring within Australia to manage our waste and recycling in a sustainable way. We need to generate less waste, develop new local markets for recyclables, fund waste education and build a system for the future.

The solutions are complex but how we get there is clear: reduce, reuse, recycle.

For too long the focus of governments has been on providing recycling at the end of a product’s life. Yet first and foremost we need to avoid creating unnecessary waste. Households, businesses and all levels of government can REDUCE the waste we create.

Businesses and governments have a lead role to play, especially in relation to product design and manufacturing. If the Australian Government introduced mandatory product stewardship schemes – whereby waste management costs are built into product prices for all products that generate waste – it would influence designers and manufacturers to minimise waste.

As individuals, we can rethink our consumption choices by selecting items that don't contain unnecessary packaging, come in reusable containers or include recycled content. Almost half of all waste to landfill is food waste, which is dreadful when you think of the water and energy used to cultivate our produce, and the emissions that result from it rotting in landfill. We should only buy what we need.

The next most preferred option is to REUSE materials without further processing.

Using reusable shopping bags and coffee cups is an easy but positive habit to adopt. Bravo if you’ve made this change! Many household and industrial items can also be repaired, reused, sold or donated to charities. Supporting ‘reuse’ can be as simple as holding a garage sale or donating your old bike to a local scheme that repairs and reuses it.

While we want governments to focus more on policies that reduce our waste, how we RECYCLE can also be improved. For instance, a container deposit scheme should be introduced in Victoria.

Contamination of recycled content remains a pressing problem. Around 10 per cent of what’s placed in recycling bins cannot be recycled and belongs in the rubbish or green waste bin.

Adoption of a nationally consistent and easily-recognised labelling system would assist consumers to identify what can and can’t be recycled.  All packaging should be required to display the label, with penalties for non-compliance.

At the state level, the Victorian Government is sitting on $511 million in landfill levies it’s collected from the disposal of municipal and industrial waste to landfill. We then wonder why there’s a recycling crisis.

We need the State to invest in market development of new recycling industries and technologies that reduce our dependence on offshore reprocessing. These treatment and processing solutions should also be located regionally to respond to the problematic transport distances faced by rural and regional communities.

It’s also critical that we create demand for products containing recycled content. Councils are implementing some innovative solutions locally, such as projects that use recycled content in roads, footpaths and playgrounds. Schemes that turn food scraps into composting for municipal parks and gardens are also on the rise.

As one of the largest purchasers in Victoria, it’s essential for the state government to use its procurement practices to drive demand for products containing recycled contents. A Victoria-wide waste and recycling education campaign should also be prioritised.

While much of the focus this year has been on what councils can do to address the recycling crisis, it’s critical that federal and state governments boost their investment and leadership that can deliver meaningful change. Businesses and individuals can also play their part.

Together we need to reduce the amount of waste we generate, reuse valuable resources whenever we can, and strengthen and invest in our recycling system.

Cr Mary Lalios
MAV President

This Opinion Editorial was published on 6 October 2018 in Fairfax regional papers the Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser, Border Mail, Warrnambool Standard, and Wimmera Mail Times.