CEO Report: Inside Waste February - March 2022 Issue

From the CEO’s desk

2022 is now upon us and while I had hoped that we would be reaching some sense of normality with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is, Omicron continues to cause numerous (and possibly more) challenges across Australia. The surge in cases has had a significant impact on staffing levels across all industries, including our essential waste and resource recovery (WARR) sector. These issues, and in particular how jurisdictions are dealing with them, highlight two pressing challenges that our industry continues to face, pandemic or not: the continued lack of policy and regulatory consistency across jurisdictions, and the lack of understanding by (some) governments of the essential nature of our sector and how integral it is to Australia’s economic supply chains.

There are many examples throughout COVID-19 of inconsistent policy application across Australia, most recently seen in the number of states that have moved away from an approach discussed in 2020 by jurisdictions on how COVID-19 infected waste should be consistently managed and classified. This departure is causing real challenges with managing volumes, resulting in the clinical supply chain being severely tested.

Further, at the time of writing, we understand that the federal government is working on a national plan to review quarantine and isolation rules for essential workers to combat chronic staff shortages. This move is supported by WMRR; however, our essential industry does not appear to have been considered in the changes to-date for critical industries and retail despite playing an integral role in the supply chains of these industries.

National consistency has always been a challenge for Australia, despite us being one country and one economic market with numerous businesses (within our industry and beyond) operating on a national level. Over the last few years, we have certainly noticed green shoots emerging for our sector, with the incumbent federal government stepping up its involvement through the launch of a new National Waste Action Plan in 2018, which aims to pursue collaborative strategies to deal with emerging WARR issues, to the ongoing Environment Ministers Meetings (ENM) that has kept our industry on the agenda, and the Prime Minister’s continued emphasis of WARR as seen in ongoing funding through the Recycling Modernisation Fund, Healthy Soils Fund, and Manufacturing Modernisation Initiative.

While these actions are applauded, to forge ahead in 2022, we need this collaborative and prioritised approach to focus on creating consistent national regulatory frameworks that can then be replicated by state and territory governments. Our essential industry appreciates the funding support and opportunities to partner with government; however, in being one of the most regulated industries in Australia, the lack of regulatory consistency and common-sense approach will hold us back from maximising what this once-in-a-lifetime funding can deliver for industry, the community and the environment.

Government at all levels in 2022 must prioritise working with us to develop clear, consistent, robust, and common-sense policies and regulations in areas such as planning (have you tried to get a timely development approval lately?), end of waste management to resource recover with certainty the valuable secondary raw material that we manage (at present, this is done through General Environmental Duties in SA and Victoria, Resource Recovery Orders in NSW, etc.), extended producer responsibility (as not everything is appropriate for kerbside), proximity principle, green government procurement, including mandated Australian recycled content targets, and codifying the waste management hierarchy in all jurisdictions, including sensible energy for waste policies. These challenges are creating barriers to industry developing and delivering solutions (and the ability to spend some of the funding on offer), and they require a consistent national approach to drive growth and investment, which will lead to beneficial economic and environmental outcomes, including jobs and carbon emissions mitigation.

While we are slightly encouraged by the ongoing consideration by jurisdictions on how to improve their regulatory frameworks to enable a smoother transition from waste to resource, in 2022, WMRR will press on with its call for all states and territories to adopt a General Environmental Duty model. This is fundamental to being able to create a circular economy where secondary raw materials are circulated. With some jurisdictions still without such a framework, how can we possibly recover 80% by 2030?  

There also remains a lack of practical solutions by governments to truly manage material across the entire supply chain, with some continuing to put too much emphasis on dealing with materials at end-of-life. Oftentimes, this linear approach has resulted in our sector having to deal with the issues related to contamination (PFAS anyone?) that should have been dealt with at the time of being placed on market (if not banned, then there must be a genuine EPR scheme for managing at end-of-life, funded by producers).

It is clear that we are on the government’s radar, but they are still coming to grips with what our industry does. Collection and disposal are valuable and important, but we do far more than that - we are essential to the smooth running of the community and the environment, including public health, we are remanufacturers, greenhouse gas managers, innovators, and we contribute to saving the planet! Until governments take a holistic approach to material management and understand the flows in a system-based approach as well as our role in supply chains, and until they can move away from the current short-sighted view that industry must simply be “managed” and “regulated”, they cannot properly address planning and infrastructure needs and proper policy responses (e.g., design standards, EPR, product stewardship), nor can they create a strong national regulatory framework that will achieve the National Waste Policy targets.

Some jurisdictions, including SA and Victoria, have led the way in working with industry to improve WARR outcomes and WMRR will continue to build these partnerships across Australia. We hope that in 2022, governments recognise the essential nature and complexity of our industry, and develop strong policy responses and appropriate regulatory frameworks that draw all stakeholders in the supply chain to the table to find productive ways to share costs, shift product design, and drive greater reuse, repair, recycling, and remanufacturing of Australian products. Doing so will ensure we continue to move up the hierarchy consistently across the nation and grow market demand for Australian recycled products.

2022 will be an interesting year, with Australians heading to the polls nationally, in SA, and in Victoria. WMRR, with the support of our members, will continue to engage with state and federal governments, inform vital policy conversations, and lead the conversation on the multiple benefits of an integrated WARR system as well as the importance of a circular economy.

We look forward to working with our members, whose input and support have been invaluable to cementing our position as the peak national body for our essential WARR sector. Let’s strive to make 2022 the year where not only is our industry’s value truly recognised and acknowledged, that nationally consistent and robust policy and regimes are also put in place to maximise our value.