CEO Report: Inside Waste August - September 2021 Issue

From the CEO’s desk

With almost $70 million committed by the federal government towards investment in new Food Organics Garden Organics (FOGO) initiatives, coupled with organics strategies and targets either developed or in development across jurisdictions, what’s the go on FOGO and are the pathways to managing this significant material stream quite as straightforward in reality as they are on paper?

This is a great opportunity for Australia to implement a nationally consistent, best practice scheme to managing food. Simply put, when looked at from a systems-based approach, implementing FOGO has the potential to boost significant landfill diversion of household material nationally, which will contribute to reducing carbon emissions, as well as increasing beneficial reuse within the garden and agricultural sectors. In turn, we will see new jobs created, local economies boosted, and our soils improved. However, the mechanics to get us there nationally are not as clear, and the challenges of rolling out wide-scale FOGO programs need to be well understood and considered.

Starting at the top of the food chain

While the federal FOGO funding is welcome, an important piece of the food chain puzzle that also requires  attention is that of avoidance in the first instance – this is not only the top priority of the adopted waste management hierarchy, but also has a national target to half food waste by 2030.

In July 2021, the Fight Food Waste CRC released a telling report, unveiling that the average Australian household throws away 219kg of food a year, equating to a waste of some $970 per person per year. The report noted that beef, bread, cheese and salad were the most thrown out foods in Australia and the community simply had little clue about what to do with leftovers.

As the report highlights, the key barrier to this is a lack of knowledge; as such, a national education and communication plan is pivotal to assist Australians with how to reduce their food waste, whether it’s teaching people to shop for what they need, reading storage labels, or learning to use leftover food and this plan should be done as part of, and well before we go down the FOGO infrastructure path.

Pleasingly, a number of state governments have embarked on the avoidance pathway, with the UK’s successful Love Food Hate Waste program running in Victoria and NSW, and Queensland recently signing up to the initiative, presenting an opportunity to roll this out nationally. However, to achieve real change and avoid what could be stranded assets in the future, we need nationally consistent education to drive real behavioural change to maximise food value and minimise materials that are being deposited within the FOGO system. 

Setting regulatory pathways

Policies, strategies, and funding are all necessary of course; however, these are not effective without robust regulatory frameworks that consistently transition “wastes” to “resources” in order to drive beneficial reuse.  These frameworks must provide processors of FOGO and users of compost with certainty in relation to standards and specifications undertaken to ensure both a quality product and end market.  

At this time, the regulatory pathways are quite varied across jurisdictions. Victoria and South Australia apply a General Environmental Duty (GED) framework that puts the onus on businesses to take all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimise any resulting environmental harm. Queensland has an end of waste code system where a waste is approved as a resource and issued a code if the Department of Environment and Science considers that it meets specified quality criteria for its specific use. In NSW, resource recovery orders and exemptions are issued by the EPA if the latter has determined that the re-use of a material is genuine, beneficial, or fit-for-purpose, and will not cause human health or environmental harm. And in 2020, WA consulted with industry on a legislative framework for waste-derived materials in an attempt to define when a material ceases to be a waste in order to be granted a determination; this has yet to be finalised.

Therefore, we have at present (as part of this national FOGO roll-out) an opportunity to build a nationally harmonised, forward thinking, and future-proofed regulatory framework that facilitates the movement of materials through the supply chain.  WMRR’s view is that the approach taken by SA and Victoria with the GED model should be adopted across Australia. This framework ensures resources can move through the supply chain and continue to be re-used, repaired, and ultimately re-manufactured without being overly prescriptive and onerous, while continuing to protect human health and the environment. A consistent education campaign based on what is accepted in the bin (in accord with the regulatory standard) must also be agreed on and undertaken – we need to avoid bespoke solutions wherever possible to assist with consistency and reduction of contamination.  

We must have national agreement (or as close to harmonisation) on the materials that can and should go into the FOGO bin, including what we do with packaging which is accepted in some states and deemed contamination in others. Let’s hope that the Commonwealth investment also necessitates a nationally consistent regulatory framework to be put in place, one that requires consistent national bin standards as to what goes in a bin so that we won’t have to come back years later to retrofit state schemes after finally recognising that we are one national marketplace.

While we celebrate the fact that FOGO will play a distinct and important role in diverting material from landfill, it is important to take into consideration the real challenges and realities of rolling out these systems, and then plan and solve them accordingly, better yet, nationally!  We also must recognise that there are a number of very practical challenges to rolling out of FOGO, not the least of which is gaining approvals and licences within reasonable timeframe, a problem for the vast majority of WARR infrastructure across jurisdictions at this present time and an issue that all states desperately need to address now or risk missing the 80% national diversion target given the lack of infrastructure being approved and delivered.

We must harness this momentum and funding for our industry to create best practice, standard practices across all states to maximise food value and diversion so that we can harness the many environmental and economic benefits that come with doing so.

WMRR is undertaking a deep dive into these issues, challenges, and opportunities and will soon publish a series on FOGO. In the meantime, these are just a snapshot of factors we should chew on to give our FOGO aspirations the best chance at success.