CEO Report: Inside Waste April - May 2021 Issue

From the CEO’s desk

There is little doubt that over the last two years, we’ve seen significant progress by the federal government in supporting our essential industry. Today, not only are we front and and centre of federal environmental policy, the government has also backed its initiatives with substantial funding, and their actions have both complemented and boosted action on a state level.

Recently, WMRR participated in the review of the National Environment Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure, which occurred at a time when the federal government released its National Plastics Plan, and amid jurisdictional movements and announcements such as the ban on single-use plastics and fire foam containing PFAS. It got me thinking about what other policy leadership we need from the federal government to accelerate the move from business as usual to a truly circular model.

While the new Recycling and Waste Reduction Act and its emphasis on product stewardship are very welcome, I am not sure the recently announced product stewardship schemes for golf clubs and basketballs will really get Australia to where we need to be.

For too long (in my view), the WARR sector has been the whipping boy when things go awry with problematic materials in the community that pose potential human or environmental harm. For many years, our industry has safely stored, disposed, and or reprocessed and recycled these materials, yet when the blame game and fear mongering occur, it is often our industry that cops criticism or is impacted by ill-considered band aid policies. This is despite our industry being the end-of-pipe recipient of problematic materials created by others though linear thinking, with no requirement to do otherwise.

Is there a pathway to require a product’s creation and lifecycle to be a shared responsibility, with every part of the supply chain playing a role in better material management? A commonly accepted policy globally is the polluter-pays principle, stipulating that those who produce the pollution bears the cost – at least part of it – of managing the material at end-of-life, and in so doing, prevents damage to human health and the environment. Not only is this a logical solution, it is a proven concept, having been around since 1972 and is today the heart of environmental laws in the EU, which most OECD countries have also employed.

This principle is a powerful one because it provides moral, legal, and financial imperatives to take responsibility and action on products created by those that create them. This policy approach has the potential to drive a paradigm shift in the way products are created in the first place, with greater thought and emphasis given to material selection and product design, in order to minimise the costs associated with its end-of-life management. In Australia, this principle is already in action to some extent across products such as beverage containers, paint, oil, mobile phones, and TVs and computers. There is now an opportunity – or in WMRR’s opinion, a true need – to expand polluter-pays to many more materials currently circulating in Australia. 

Let’s start with a material that is never far from the headlines and very challenging for all in the supply chain to manage – PFAS. When we think about PFAS (the simple mention of it often leads to panic), firefighting foam comes to mind. However, what many in the community do not know is that PFAS is not just present in firefighting foam and air bases, it is prevalent in common household items such as microwaveable popcorn bags, pizza boxes, aerosols, children’s clothing, carpet and non-stick cookware. While PFAS is widespread, little is said about its heath impacts. Are they, as concluded in 2019 by a federal government-established independent expert health panel, “mostly limited, or in some cases [there is] no evidence, that human exposure to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is linked with human diseases” with “no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk”? Not only is the ongoing narrative about PFAS’ health impacts (and the opportunistic scaremongering) confusing for the community, this confusion is exacerbated when state governments ban some PFAS products with fanfare yet allow PFAS to be widely available in other products on shelves in the Australian market.

Our industry attempts to deal with this material when we receive it, and we support a precautionary approach to PFAS storage and management in accord with the national framework for disposal. However, it is concerning that there is no equivalent framework in Australia to tackle the ongoing production and supply of PFAS materials to prevent their circulation and use in the first place; a framework makes producers responsible.

PFAS lifecycle management (like all materials) must be thought about long before the disposal stage and we need to be strengthening a true polluter-pays scheme in Australia by emulating the EU’s initiatives such as its REACH (Register, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) program, as well as the Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation (CLP) scheme that requires identification of the material to ensure consumers can make an informed choice. 

Australia needs a true polluter-pays model for materials such as PFAS that are difficult to manage at end-of-life and it is time to recognise that PFAS (along with many other problematic materials) are national issues. Given the federal government has demonstrated a willingness to participate in our essential industry, we need to use this momentum to tackle the large challenging issues that have to-date not been able to be solved by working in isolation and across states. Action, collaboration, and regulation must occur in a nationally consistent manner that transcends sectors and borders and applied throughout the supply chain. Only then will we be able to effectively shift the national conversation to what is produced and how, in order to address the global challenges of climate change and drive circularity.

In my opinion, a polluter-pays model is the way to go; it is the medium that will enable partnerships on all levels while ensuring that the cost and risk of managing a product throughout its lifecycle are spread equitably. This is a no brainer so let’s get on with it.

PFAS management will be examined at WMRR’s 2021 Australian Landfill and Transfer Stations Conference, which will be held in Sydney from 8 to 10 June. For more information, visit