There is little that the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has not impacted and life as we know it has changed radically over the last few weeks. This is an unprecedented time for Australia and the world as the virus takes us into uncharted waters; every day brings forth new challenges, new learnings, and in time, new solutions.
The Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) has been trying to stay on the front foot, largely by relying on you, our essential industry, for updates on the situation that is unfolding on the ground. This information assists WMRR in advocating to governments for what we need to ensure service levels, to work together through this challenging time, and safeguard a robust sector that will exist well into the future. WMRR is acutely aware that our sector can and will play a significant role in kickstarting the economy and local jobs once this time passes.
Following ongoing conversations with members and governments, as well as from information gathered to date from our survey, WMRR wrote to federal and state/territory environment ministers and treasurers, as well as to the federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology in March to provide clarity and direction around why and what an essential service, which our waste and resource recovery (WARR) industry provides, entails. It is WMRR’s view that only when we can define what an essential service looks like will we be able to convincingly seek the practical elements of support required to ensure our services continue.
WMRR called on all governments to declare WARR an essential service for the purpose of emergency or disaster that is being undertaken by states/territories in relation to COVID-19, noting our industry fully encompasses the collection, transportation, handling, recycling, recovery, remanufacture, and disposal of any waste material. This includes the operation and support of all facilities, services, and functions such as (though not limited to) transfer stations, landfills, incinerators, recycling depots, treatment plants, as well as compost, alternative waste treatment, and remanufacturing facilities.
We called on governments to urgently assist industry by:
- Prioritising our access to PPE, cleaning products, and fuel;
- Reviewing operation hours to ensure a relaxation of collection periods and/or increases in opening hours of facilities and sites;
- Reviewing environmental licensing, land-use planning, and reporting requirements to enable access to facilities and extended operating hours, as well as an increase in stockpile limits and a relaxation of testing and other license requirements (without compromising environmental standards);
- Providing immediate financial release by way of cash injections, debt guarantees, waiver of levies and taxes applicable to our industry; and
- Ensuring consistent communication and approaches about all aspects including industrial conditions and entitlements, treatment and management of industry.
Ministers and Premiers are under significant pressure and credit must be given to them for their willingness to listen and understand what our needs are and how to fulfil them so that together, we can continue to protect both human and environmental health, which are all the more important today. It is heartening that jurisdictions are engaging readily with our industry and demonstrating real willingness to address issues as they arise.
Our national Biohazardous Waste Industry committee has also developed a handling and disposal guideline for infected and potentially infected COVID-19 waste in hospitals, health and aged care facilities, which was sent to all health ministers, and we hope it can be used as a base on which to build nationally consistent messaging for the general population, some of whom may have isolation and quarantine orders, and many of whom will be working from home indefinitely. While we cannot completely eliminate the risks associated with the collection and handling of infected or potentially infected materials, we can manage these risks by being armed with nationally consistent information – the recommendation is to double bag and tie materials and then place this bag only in the red bin - to ensure the health and safety of WARR employees are a top priority, and services can continue in a safe and efficient manner.
These are the strategies and responses to the “now” and we recognise that business as usual is unrealistic. However, we must ensure that as much as possible, we do not stagnate on the strategic policy development and progress of our industry, and importantly, the development of a sustainable circular economy our communities expect and one we have been working towards.
Thus, WMRR has also urged ministers to fast-track capital funding for the planning and approval of WARR as well as remanufacturing infrastructure we know are required to address the COAG waste export ban and beyond, to adopt and continue working on action plans of various WARR and circular economy strategies, and to continue building the WARR network, end markets, and government procurement policies that will take us to the national diversion target of 80% by 2030.
While it may be difficult to see beyond the current challenges, continuing to build on these positive strategies and policies will protect the investments and developments made in industry while continuing to give all stakeholders the confidence to build the capacity required to meet our national WARR targets and fulfil our obligations as part of the COAG waste bans. Deferment does not mean stagnation; all of us – governments, industries, the supply chain, communities – must take this time and opportunity to build a solid foundation on which we can grow our industry, which in turn will play a vital role in rebuilding the economy, as our Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, “on the other side”, and provide much-needed jobs as we know hundreds of thousands, if not upwards of a million, jobs will be lost during this pandemic.
Now is the time to consider and build the future we want, and WMRR will continue to provide updates, information, and network opportunities over the coming weeks. It is thus vital that we remain connected, work together, and share knowledge to sustain and support our industry and its people. We have already rolled out a series of industry meetings for members to ensure our critical work continues, and we urge you to assist in our knowledge building by filling out this survey (https://bit.ly/33T8kbi) to keep us updated on your operational changes, challenges, and solutions. Over the coming weeks, we will also be announcing a program of webinars to keep up our knowledge base and connectivity. We are all in this together; we can, and we will, find pathways into the future.