Recycling crisis is a chance to start again and get it right
This opinion piece was provided to and published in The Age on May 23, 2019
Michel Masson, Infrastructure Victoria CEO
Recycling going to landfill; stockpiling of cardboard and chemicals; deadly warehouse fires – the state of waste in Victoria is fast approaching a tipping point.
Two years ago, few people gave waste management a second thought. Now, barely a day passes without news of a further challenge in the sector.
The catalyst for the current crisis was a shift in global policy. China’s refusal to continue to act as the world’s rubbish bin has left some Victorian councils with little choice but to send recycling to local landfill.
Adding to these woes has been an increase in stockpiling of cardboard and chemicals by unscrupulous operators, creating unnecessary risks to community safety and the natural environment.
Clearly, this can’t continue.
The Andrews government has recognised the significant waste challenge facing Victoria, has taken action to address the crisis and has now asked Infrastructure Victoria to provide advice on what else we can do to sustainably tackle it.
It’s a critical piece of work, and an urgent one too because we know Victoria’s waste issue is only going to grow.
Victoria already produces close to 13 million tonnes of waste each year and the state’s population is projected to reach 10 million by 2051. There’s no question more people will mean more rubbish.
But far from being an insurmountable hurdle, there’s a genuine chance to turn our waste challenge into an economic opportunity.
At the moment, that’s an opportunity being, well, wasted. And it’s worth reflecting on what else we are wasting.
We’re wasting food, with around 2.5 million tonnes of organic waste produced in Victoria each year by households and businesses.
We’re wasting recyclable materials. In 2016-17, the national plastics recycling rate was as low as 11.8 per cent.
We’re wasting money, with greater economies of scale possible if there was a more consistent approach across local councils. We’re also wasting money and creating greenhouse gas emissions through the unnecessary transport of waste.
We’re wasting precious resources, like energy and water, when we put things into landfill unnecessarily. That’s because most goods take energy and water to produce. When those goods end up in landfill, we miss out on the opportunity to recover those resources through recycling.
We’re wasting the opportunity to contribute to the Victorian government’s renewable energy target by turning food waste into energy.
We’re wasting the potential to create a robust, multimillion-dollar local industry and jobs for Victorians.
We’re wasting the economic benefits that could flow on from better processing and sorting of recyclables, which would make our waste more attractive to export markets.
And we’re wasting an opportunity for government to procure locally produced, high quality recovered materials – such as steel, glass and concrete – for use in Victorian major infrastructure projects.
The waste crisis that Victoria (and many other jurisdictions around Australia and the world) finds itself in provides a tremendous opportunity for a re-evaluation of how we manage our rubbish.
A rethink of the infrastructure required to manage the waste of 10 million Victorians by 2051 presents enormous potential for environmental, economic and social benefits – to create jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, benefit the local economy and drive renewable energy.
Identifying ways to realise this potential will be the focus of our advice.
Developing a sustainable approach for how, when and where we send waste to landfill is just one part of the equation. We will look more broadly at the role of government and the infrastructure required to support the re-processing and use of recyclable materials, the waste to energy sector and resource recovery of organic waste.
We will look at global best practice in countries like Scotland, Slovenia and South Korea, who are making great strides in moving towards a circular economy – systems which reduce waste, get greater value from existing resources, and create new opportunities for growth.
We will talk to stakeholders, such as local councils, who are on the front line when it comes to waste management and will be critical in helping to not only identify opportunities for improvements but implementing them too.
And we will talk to the community, because every single Victorian has a role to play in waste management through a combination of reduction, reuse and recycling.
We will deliver our advice to government in April 2020. And while it is far too early to know what our recommendations will be, I can tell you they will be focused on achieving good economic, social and environmental outcomes for the entire state. Anything less will be a waste of time.
See the article at The Age website here.