CEO Report: Inside Waste June - July 2021 Issue

From the CEO's desk

Industry has long advocated that waste management and resource recovery is a shared responsibility that requires a polluters-pay model for hard-to-recycle materials as this is the most effective way to drive circularity as well as sustainable product design. However, to-date, we continue to be the whipping boy, quietly receiving materials that are in fact problematic, then copping the blame and responsibility for where these materials might end up. While this has been the case for a number of materials, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, are materials that also evoke an emotional response from community, largely because the full picture has not been adequately painted.

PFAS is often associated with firefighting foam despite being prevalent in common household products such as microwaveable popcorn bags, pizza boxes, aerosols, children’s clothing, carpet and non-stick cookware. We have seen firsthand the panic that these substances cause, but little is said about the April 2019 findings by an independent expert health panel established by the federal government, which concluded that there is “mostly limited, or in some cases no evidence that human exposure to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is linked with human diseases” and there is “no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk.” To err on the side of caution, the panel noted that given PFAS continue to persist in humans and the environment, exposure to these chemicals should be minimised and future research should focus on long-term studies and solutions.

The confusing information that is  sometimes perpetuated and in particular, the recent events in South Australia pertaining to end-of-life management of residual waste with low concentrations of PFAS are cause for concern, not just for our industry but also the community. To provide some context, SA’s Environment Protection (Disposal of PFAS Contaminated Substances) Amendment Bill 2020 was read in Parliament on 4 March 2021 and while WMRR supports the need to take a precautionary approach towards PFAS, the proposals in the Bill had a number of shortcomings, which will hopefully be addressed when considered by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee, to which this has been referred to.  

For one, the Bill does not acknowledge, much less address the fact that PFAS are commonplace in a host of household and industrial products. Yet the Bill stipulates a restrictive manner in which PFAS are to be disposed, which is not only impractical given their prevalence, but perpetuates the misconception that PFAS are far more dangerous and toxic than what is reflected in current findings (and uses). If the Bill is passed, it could set a precedent for other jurisdictions and we need to genuinely consider what would happen to all PFAS-contaminated materials in Australia, as well as if any progress would be made in fixing the root of the problem, i.e., the use of PFAS in production in the first place.

So, what is WMRR proposing?

Firstly, Australia has a national framework for disposing and storing of PFAS given their widespread presence, that being the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP). The NEMP, which SA and other states are signatories to, provides nationally agreed guidance on the management of PFAS contamination in the environment, including prevention of the spread of contamination. It provides a consistent point of reference nationally for environmental regulators, industry, and the community.

Secondly, our waste and resource recovery industry currently provides highly engineered containment facilities for PFAS that are already within the community. As we continue to manage end-of-life PFAS-contaminated products that are currently in existence, what we really need is for PFAS management to be thought about long before the disposal stage.

This means product manufacturers and suppliers that bring these chemicals to market must start to pull their weight – just as McDonald’s has committed to doing by pledging to remove all PFAS from its packaging by 2025 - and if they can’t or won’t, then the federal government must hold them to account through a polluters-pay scheme so that these materials are managed at end-of-life by those who create them. This polluters-pay model must be bolstered by appropriate labelling and classification and the great news is, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The European Union has for many years managed these chemicals under its REACH program (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.

For our industry’s part, we will continue to provide permanent disposal to highly engineered landfill sites, which must be done within the nationally consistent requirements of the NEMP, in conjunction with existing planning and licensing frameworks and our treaty obligations under the Stockholm Convention and Basel Convention.

Our industry has a significant role to play in the safe and appropriate disposal of PFAS, which we cannot do if snap changes to regulations are made that create national inconsistencies penalising the industry and the community. It is far safer that these materials are containerised in high engineered landfills. However, as SA now has no site that can accept PFAS, these materials will need to be transferred interstate, which is both inappropriate and truly takes NIMBY-ness to a whole new level!  

We all have a part to play in managing PFAS so, as an industry, let’s continue to advocate for strong leadership on this issue, including a genuine national polluters-pay scheme for these substances, not scaremongering.