CEO Report: Inside Waste February - March 2021 Issue

From the CEO’s desk

Happy New Year to you and those you hold dear; we hope you had the chance to relax and recharge after a remarkable and challenging year.

It is great to see that 2021 has kicked off with industry projects being funded across Australia under both the Recycling Manufacturing Fund (RMF) and the Modern Manufacturing Fund (MMF). There hasn’t been a time in industry’s history when we have had a greater opportunity to gain government funding and support for what we do. However, the ability to plan and manage strategically and nationally is being significantly hampered by the lack of consistent and transparent data (let alone real-time) about our industry and supply chains. Today, it is no longer enough to simply know what is collected and taken to a facility - we need to know what happens to it! How else will we measure our success against the national targets we have all agreed to, including 80% recovery by 2030? 

The absence of this data significantly hinders forward planning and confidence that we are investing these once-in-a-lifetime funds wisely and future-proofing not just our industry, but the Australian economy and community. Further, with no federal action on the proximity principle, materials we collect will continue to move between states, making it even more challenging for industry to predict what materials it will receive to assist in preparing the business case for these facilities. The ability to track cross border movement (and understand it) is exacerbated by the fact that states manage data and planning for infrastructure independently - the inability to be able to plan nationally for infrastructure under the RMF due to state confidentiality requirements makes it extremely difficult to build a robust national industry.

The failure of the federal government to implement a strong procurement policy prioritising and committing expenditure to buying Australian recycled products, and no state (other than Victoria) having progressed this area to-date, means we have no real certainty around where our materials will go. Thus, we need to transparently track what is happening both with these materials and with this investment!

We may have important sources of data such as the ABS reports and the National Waste Reports, which are largely based on individual state and territory data reporting, but numerous problems remain. For one, the information gathered is not contemporaneous; in most cases, they are in arrears of one to two years and if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that our world can change in the blink of an eye. Importantly, as state and territory data systems are independent of each other, there is a host of differing classifications, terminologies, reporting systems, timeframes and scopes across jurisdictions.

Nationally consistent, timely, and transparent data for our essential industry must be a priority for 2021, as recognised by Assistant Minister Trevor Evans, who committed $24.6 million in 2020 to improving our national WARR data. What we need is a comprehensive system that brings all the pieces together from jurisdictions to standardise and harmonise WARR data reporting and collection. In doing so, Australia could move towards painting a more a comprehensive picture of circularity across operations, while assisting businesses (both within our industry and across the supply chain) to make informed decisions based on nationally consistent and robust data and metrics. 

This work must be accelerated in 2021 and done in partnership with all states. So, what do we need to do?

#1 Nationally consistent and harmonised data reporting

National harmonisation is the goal in so many areas of policy and regulation, and there is a compelling case for government at all levels to work together to develop consistent data reporting systems (let’s face it, no level of government can actually tell the other what to do, so isn’t it time that there was a real partnership approach?). What this means is the creation of a national standard in reporting to be adopted by all jurisdictions and supply chain stakeholders; one that stipulates how, when, and what is collected (including performance metrics) based on, and captured across, nationally consistent definitions, timeframes, and categories. This is a major piece of work that is vital in removing the complexities of reporting that are largely due to inconsistent systems, methodologies, self-reporting, and rules across jurisdictions.

Nationally harmonised rules around data collection and reporting would lead to consistent data being captured and while the National Waste Report remains an important reference point and WMRR acknowledges the improvements made to the National Waste Account, there is an opportunity maximise state/territory datasets – high-level insights and data – made publicly available through a federal government-managed centralised data vault that upgrades the way datasets are visualised. These improvements would provide stakeholders across the supply chain with a much richer data source to develop industry insights and trends.

#2 Capturing data across the entire supply chain

Historically, Australia has focused its attention on the fate of materials, categorised into disposal, recycling, and energy recovery. While the headline numbers in the National Waste Report 2020 show a marginal improvement in our recycling and resource recovery rates – 60% and 63% respectively in 2018-19 – do they present us with a genuine picture of our material flows?

We know that a true circular economy is one that focuses on material design and avoidance of the creation of waste; however, we simply do not have enough (if any) data on avoidance, design, or consumption in Australia, which makes it more difficult to set policy settings related to material design and avoidance of waste creation. If we do not know what and how much we have, how would we determine what (and how much) needs to change?

It is difficult to see how Australia can meet its target of 80% recovery across all material streams by 2030 if we are not capturing consistent real-time data on material flows across the entire supply chain and continue to have a myopic view of WARR that ignores material creation and management.

The money in the pot, if directed to the greatest areas of opportunities, will help pivot Australia to a more resource-efficient nation as it gives us the ammunition – by way of robust and accurate data – that we need to fire up solutions, policies, technologies and more in our quest to build a thriving circular economy. We must get these basics right to maximise the $24.6 million allocated and the vast sums currently available for infrastructure (and hence, jobs) in our essential industry. Let’s make 2021 a year where real results are delivered and monies and spent wisely!