MAV Opinion Editorial - Recycling crisis: State and National leadership and action urgently needed

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Last February, China’s ‘National Sword’ policy to restrict imports of some recyclables set off a chain reaction that exposed how vulnerable our recycling system is.

This crisis was decades in the making. It should have delivered an important wake-up call to governments. Unfortunately, 12 months on, we are in the midst of another recycling crisis.

This week SKM, Victoria’s largest recycler who receives more than half of the state’s kerbside recycling, has temporarily shut its three materials recovery facilities for safety reasons.

In the immediate short term, a small number of councils have been able to divert their recycling to other processing facilities. However, with limited reserve processing capacity at other facilities, landfilling is sadly the only option for many councils. Unsustainable levels of waste generation and market failure are the primary causes.

As downstream managers of waste and community sustainability advocates, councils are distraught and frustrated at the prospect of sending recyclable material to landfill. And communities deservedly feel let down.

This crisis runs much deeper than councils’ contractual arrangements. Around one third of the councils affected are already party to collaboratively procured contracts developed in partnership with Victorian Government agencies.

Despite this immediate crisis, households should not lose faith in recycling. We want communities to continue recycling but to also think carefully about consumption habits. As consumers, we have a tendency to view recycling as a panacea that can make any level of consumption sustainable. We need to keep the focus squarely on reducing the amount of material that needs to be recycled in the first place.

There is no quick or easy solution to the current crisis, but there are actions that can effect lasting beneficial change and avoid us lurching from one crisis to the next.

Local government is at the coal face of the crisis but it is the federal and state governments that have the levers to reform and strengthen our waste and resource recovery system. Significant change and investment are needed both upstream and downstream in the waste cycle.

To reduce the amount of waste generated we need to look upstream to designers and producers of goods and require them to minimise their waste and maximise use of recycled content.

The federal government has a key role to play. Mandatory product stewardship schemes should be introduced that require producers to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products. This approach would align with the polluter-pays principle and provides an important incentive for producers to change their ways.

A new report commissioned by the Australian Council of Recycling found that mandatory product stewardship schemes would add just a few dollars to the purchase price so electronic goods, tyres and mattresses can be recycled at the end of their life. Similar schemes operate effectively across Europe and America, Australia remains a laggard.

The federal government has the power to introduce mandatory schemes through the Product Stewardship Act which, fortuitously, is currently under review. The Act should be amended to contain clear and binding targets to drive action by industry.

We also urgently need an action plan for the newly adopted National Waste Policy that commits governments, industry and the community to firm targets and timeframes to fast-track our transition to a circular economy where waste avoidance is prioritised. The Policy as it stands is weak and offers little hope of meaningful reform.

At the state level, there are a range of critical actions the government could take to strengthen our system and help achieve lasting change. One action is the introduction of a container deposit scheme – Victoria is one of the last states without one.

We also need a statewide community waste education campaign to help individuals make waste-wise decisions, encourage consumers to put pressure on producers to reduce waste, and ensure recycling is not contaminated with non-recyclable products.

Infrastructure funding support to bolster the sorting and processing capability at Victoria’s materials recovery facilities is also essential. We have a need for more capacity now and this need will only grow as our population increases.

Equally, or possibly even more critical is investment in market development for new recycling industries and technologies that reduce our dependence on offshore reprocessing and create local demand for recycled content.

The State could set mandatory procurement targets for Australian recycled content by government agencies and in government contracts. The Government has such a massive infrastructure agenda, the market demand for recycled content would explode if there were conditions introduced for all project tenders. We’d welcome working with the State to develop procurement options for local government as well.

Councils are already 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.

Finally, we believe greater Victorian Government oversight of our recycling industry is needed to improve transparency and accountability in how they operate. SKM’s public silence in this latest crisis has been deafening.

While much of the focus remains on what councils can do to address the recycling crisis, it’s critical that we see national and state leadership and investment to deliver meaningful change. Businesses and individuals can also play their part.

Cr Mary Lalios
Municipal Association of Victoria

Published in the Sunday Age on 24 February 2019.