Local government plays a critical role in Australian waste and resource recovery
Australia’s 537 local councils manage around 26 percent of Australian waste, either directly or through contractual arrangements. Each year, local governments collect around 9.7 million tonnes of waste from kerbside bin services, sort it at material recovery facilities (MRFs), and dispatch what can be recycled to reprocessing facilities in Australia and overseas. Where waste cannot be recovered it is landfilled, and local governments in most jurisdictions must pay a significant levy per tonne for landfilled waste, as well as incur the operational costs of maintaining and managing a landfill. Collecting, treating, and disposing of Australian domestic waste costs local government an estimated $3.5 billion annually. Local government also dedicates resources to administering community waste-education programs, collecting litter, addressing illegal rubbish dumping, and ensuring compliance with waste bylaws.
Australian waste crisis
Australia’s recycling rate is below that of most OECD countries, with around 40 percent of Australian waste being landfilled. In the last decade, the amount of waste generated in Australia has increased by around 12 percent. Australia has little capacity for processing much of the mixed plastic waste and mixed paper waste collected by local governments. As a result, a significant proportion of Australian waste is shipped overseas for recycling. Offshore waste markets, however, are rapidly contracting, and prices for recovered material have slumped.
National Waste Strategy 2018 and National Waste Action Plan 2020
In response to this crisis, the Australian Local Government Association was a co-author of the National Waste Strategy 2018 (with states and territories and the Australian Government). The Strategy and its implementation plan, the National Waste Action Plan (2020), point the way to developing a more “circular economy” in which better waste management leads to a greater recovery of valued resources, creates jobs, protects fragile ecosystems and reaps economic rewards.
Fundamental to the development of a circular economy is the redesign of packaging in order that there is less of it and that it contains less mixed material and is therefore more easily recycled. Product Stewardship involves mandating industry-wide programs that ensure this happens in a way that does not disadvantage those brands wishing to do the right thing. Where such programs are voluntary rather than mandatory, the Australian Government should work to effect sector-wide compliance.
Most of Australia’s MRFs owned or contracted by councils lack the technical capacity to sort comingled, highly contaminated municipal waste into many specific material types that have low levels of contamination. Only 10 Local Government Areas have kerbside collections that can accept all types of recyclable plastic and plastic bags. Kerbside municipal waste collection and recycling services are not available in most communities in regional and remote Australia. Therefore, it is essential that the Australian Government lead and coordinate a national program of investment in advanced waste processing infrastructure and regional waste hubs.
Government procurement targets for products with recycled content
Recovering and recycling waste is, however, of no benefit if the recycled material does not find its way back into new products. The Commonwealth, states, territories, and local governments need to drive market pull-through of products containing recycled material by adopting more supportive, mandated procurement targets. Major businesses should do the same. Utilising products with mixed plastic waste content should be a priority – as should expanding the range of such products.
Education and standards
An awareness among consumers as to how to best sort each item of used packaging is fundamental to achieving low kerbside contamination rates. To this end, education programs are required that allow and encourage consumers to do the right thing. Similarly, where waste is incorporated into major infrastructure – such as plastics into new road surfaces – national standards are needed to instil confidence in the safety and durability of the resulting works and products.
ALGA’s policy priorities are:
- Strengthen Product Stewardship to increase recycling and reduce the volume of waste;
- Encourage investment in resource recovery infrastructure;
- The creation of markets including through mandated government procurement of products containing recyclates; and
- Mandatory adoption of the Australasian Recycling Label for all consumer packaging and for the development and promotion of a standardised national label that indicates recycled content.