There has been a lot of media attention on the issue of asbestos, and one might say at times a bit too much sensationalism about the risks posed, since the news broke of it being found in a park at the Rozelle Interchange.  

It even went global with a BBC World headline screaming ‘Sydney asbestos scare: How a mulch discovery has sent a city scrambling’ and the New York Times reporting ‘Sydney asbestos problem grows as Taylor Swift venue tests negative’.

While there may well have been a teen girl-led riot (including me) if the Taylor Swift concerts were impacted, it’s important to aim for balanced and fact-based reporting. 

It should be noted NSW Health states “small quantities of asbestos fibres are present in the air at all times and are being breathed in by everyone without any ill effects. Most people are exposed to very small amounts of asbestos as they go about their daily lives and do not develop asbestos-related health problems.”

And that is the key point. Asbestos is a very challenging issue because we cannot remove what we cannot see, and it is ‘present in the air at all times’.

In my view, addressing it requires the co-operation of everyone in the supply chain, especially from those at the source where the material must be correctly classified. This reduces the risk of contaminants (be it asbestos or anything else) from going to a facility where it shouldn’t.

I do not believe there is a single person associated with the waste and resource recovery (WARR) industry who would knowingly send asbestos to a recycling facility. Our industry is full of tens of thousands of people who go to work with the aim of making a positive difference to our environment.

One of the key challenges for our recycling facilities is that unlike almost all other manufacturing businesses, the material they receive is not uniform or homogenous. That is why correct classification of material at the source is so important to industry’s success.

Recycling facilities do their own checks of course. For example, NSW construction and demolition recycling facilities undertake three (3) visual inspections, including tipping, spreading and reviewing, before material is accepted. Facilities also undertake sampling and laboratory testing of source products to identify the presence of contaminants that are not allowed within the NSW resource recovery orders.

As the peak industry body for the entire waste and resource recovery (WARR) industry, we remain committed to working with the EPAs (in all states, as Queensland and SA now test) and everyone in the supply chain to ensure only safe material is brought to recycling facilities, and only fit for purpose, safe materials and products are made by our facilities. We have already had several very productive meetings to that end.

WMRR heard firsthand from Minister Sharpe on this issue last week in Sydney, where her handling of the issue reminds me of the old proverb – more haste, less speed. The Minister has responded in a methodical and measured fashion. She first established a taskforce headed by the highly respected NSW Asbestos Coordination Committee Chair, Carolyn Walsh. There was no over-the-top, rash, kneejerk or impulsive response off the back of media pressure for an immediate solution. She has also maintained an open and honest dialogue with industry and other stakeholders along the way keeping public safety and care for the environment at the forefront of her thinking, and she is waiting for the evidence from the NSW Chief Scientist’s Report.

Minister Sharpe made it clear that she knows and understands the important role the WARR industry plays in circulating material and improving our environment. She acknowledged that this is a supply chain issue, and we need to work together to solve the system that we operate in.  She acknowledged that asbestos is equally a supply chain issue, and the importance of working together to solve the system that we operate in. These are words we have waited a long time as an industry to hear.

These are words we have waited a long time as an industry to hear.Plus, she is experienced and knowledgeable having served as the Shadow Environment Minister for around six years before becoming Minister a year ago.

Given Australia had one of the highest take-up rates of asbestos use in the world, the management of this complex and difficult legacy issue will continue for decades more to come. It will always present ,challenges, but our industry is committed to working with the authorities to ensure only fit for purpose material is made by our facilities and that we continue to circulate material in a safe manner.

Asbestos highlights the systemic issue that the WARR sector ‘takes’ not ‘makes’. I am really hoping that out of this ’crises’ that real action by government (and business), will be taken to eliminate problematic materials like PFAS from the Australian market, and real action is taken to place responsibility on those that generate waste materials to correctly classify at point of generation to ensure that the materials are delivered to the correct facility.

This problem will not simply be solved by continuing to breach WARR operators for receiving materials that we are not licensed for, when we never sought it and could never see it!  It really is time that generators were held to the same standards. For example, if we are testing and sampling to NEPM or Australian Standards on site - they too must use the same standards and bear the consequences of incorrect classification (financial and otherwise).

If we don’t establish the system with this clear generator obligations and shared responsibility to both design out problematic materials and classify correctly, we have no hope of creating a circular economy, and we will simply keep having these circular conversations that lead nowhere and keep making my head hurt!

There are real glimpses of determination to fix, so let’s hope that this adverse media means that the pain was worth it…