Australia and the world have looked on in shock and horror as Australia continues to tackle a terrifying bushfire season that will no doubt be etched in the minds of one and all.
The scale is colossal. As I write this, some 10 million hectares have burned, upwards of half a billion animals are dead, 28 lives have been lost, and more than 2,000 homes destroyed. It is utterly devastating and together with our fellow countrymen, the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR), supports and thanks all our nation’s firefighters (both volunteers and paid staff) for their continuous and heroic efforts as Australia endures months of hot and dry weather ahead.
Our essential waste and resource recovery (WARR) sector can play a significant role in mitigating some of the risks posed by climate change – we all know that, and today, more than ever, we need to promulgate the positive impacts of a well-managed, forward-thinking, and integrated WARR system and stress the urgency required to move Australia towards a circular economy.
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit – food waste. According to federal estimates, food waste costs the Australian economy approximately $20 billion annually. Approximately 7.43 million tonnes of food is wasted in Australia each year, comprising 35% of the average household bin, and annually, we continue to send more than five (5) million tonnes of food waste to landfill.
According to the Climate Council, landfilled food waste in Australia generates methane equivalent to about 6.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Despite this, and despite food waste being the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, it continues to be overlooked as a driver for addressing climate change both here and globally.
While we know 2020 will be a busy year for WARR, preparing for the impending waste export ban, we also believe that concurrent work can and must be done on food waste. A national campaign focusing on avoiding the creation of this waste (currently absent from the National Waste Plan Action Plan), must be a priority in 2020. Not only will this assist in addressing emissions, it has a real chance of leaving money in the family hip pocket! While we have a national food waste strategy, this simply isn’t enough without the avoidance piece - it is at the top of the hierarchy after all!
WMRR has been banging on the drum for greater focus and emphasis on comprehensive supply chain management because a circular economy is based on designing out waste, keeping materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Continuing to place the onus solely on the WARR sector will simply retain the status quo – our current linear (take, make, dispose) model. Our food system is primed for transformation and there is an opportunity for Australia develop a strategy that focuses on designing and marketing healthier food products, sourcing food grown regeneratively and locally, and ensuring by-products are fed back into the bioeconomy, much like what the UK is doing.
This strategy should include ambitious avoidance targets for food manufacturers, community, the food and beverage sector, and retailers. It must provide detailed pathways that map out how Australia can undertake this systemic shift, including staged approaches and milestones, the policies needed to support this move, initiatives that promote avoidance such as more effective labelling systems and a requirement to use trimmings and rejects, as well as the investments and funding required to drive a circular food model. And of course, the strategy should incorporate and expand (nationally), the Love Food Hate Waste initiative already adopted by Victoria, New South Wales, and Brisbane.
Another area where WARR can play a vital part in mitigating carbon emissions is eliminating unnecessary waste transportation. In 2019, both Western Australia and Victoria commenced or announced a review of their landfill levy while Tasmania committed to introducing a levy by 2021. Herein lies an opportunity (and frankly, a necessity) to develop a common approach to landfill levies nationally. WMRR does not mean setting a standard financial rate across all jurisdictions, rather we mean putting in place a standardised approach (the what and how), in order to more effectively support diversion targets while preventing perverse outcomes.
In 2020, WMRR will keep progressing the years-long levy and interstate waste transportation conversation, which of course includes a national proximity principle. We will continue to advocate for a levy rate of at least $100/tonne in all jurisdictions to both realise associated benefits as well as ensure that the levy does what it is designed to do – increase landfill diversion and commensurate investment in resource recovery infrastructure. Modelling undertaken by Deloitte Access Economics in 2017 has shown what a >$100/t levy can do, noting that if Victoria’s levy rate increased to $130 in the metro area, upwards of 2,200 jobs would be produced and between two (2) and 3.53 million tonnes of waste diverted from landfill.
In developing a common approach, WMRR also recognises the need for a levy portability element, that is, the applicable levy rate will be where the waste is generated, not landfilled. This will also remove the incentives behind perverse outcomes, specifically, this should end the practice of unnecessary transportation of waste across state borders to take advantage of levy differentials. However, it will require all states to take action to ensure that the correct legislative regime exists in each state as well as appropriate recognition under the Mutual Recognition Act.
Further, landfill levies must not be seen and used solely as revenue raisers, with collected funds predominantly propping up state budgets. Instead, governments must commit to reinvesting more of these funds back to the WARR sector and WMRR will continue to call for a minimum 50% of landfill levy revenue being hypothecated to supporting improvements in our essential sector. WMRR acknowledges that the landfill levy is not the be all and end all, but it is one instrument within a suite of policy tools that must be used to drive better waste management and resource recovery.
Australia has had a challenging four months and studies show a trend towards more dangerous conditions during summer and an earlier start to future fire seasons. Climate models also indicate more dangerous weather conditions due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. We are one part of the economy but WARR can and must increasingly contribute to lowering our country’s emissions. We are looking forward to 2020 and our essential industry playing an integral part in this necessary change.