Mike Ritchie: Are the National Waste Targets achievable?

Mike Ritchie: Are the National Waste Targets achievable?

Mike Ritchie: Are the National Waste Targets achievable?

Mike Ritchie: Are the National Waste Targets achievable?

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Mike Ritchie is the managing director of MRA Consulting Group. MRA helps businesses and governments with environmental and economic policy, with a focus on recycling, waste and carbon. Mike sees a future that is not only environmentally sustainable, but also economically rational.

In this interview, Mike shares insights about the national waste targets, the current waste situation in Australia, and the urgent actions the governments must take. The current pace, as Mike emphasises, won't lead us to reach the targets.

What are the national waste targets? 

The National Waste Policy and Action Plan 2019 outlines Australia’s waste and recycling goals up to 2030. The Targets include:

  • Ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres 
  • 10% waste reduction per person by 2030
  • 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030
  • Significantly increase the use of recycled content 
  • Phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025 
  • 50% reduction in organic landfill waste by 2030
  • Make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available.

Source: MRA Consulting Group Blog

What's the current waste situation in Australia?

Australians generate 67 million tonnes/year of waste (excluding ash).

Our current recycling rate is about 60% or about 40 MT/yr. The National Waste Target is 80% by 2030. But of course with population growth and rising per capita consumption, we are generating more waste each year between now and then. To reach our 80% goal, we will need to recycle an additional 18 million tonnes more every year or 58 MT/yr, which is almost a 50% growth rate over the next 7 years.

Most of the waste, around 75%, is generated by businesses. Therefore, that is where we need to look for the big uplift in recycling rates. 

The construction sector has a recycling rate of about 75% across Australia. The material generated from construction is highly recyclable. This includes concrete, bricks, metals and wood. There are strong recycling markets for these products.

However, the commercial sector (manufacturing, education, small business etc) lags well behind. This sector has a recycling rate of about 45% mainly made up of cardboard and metal recycling. The reason is that the economics are broken. It is usually cheaper for these businesses to landfill their waste than to separate it and recycle it.

Household recycling is about 55% nationally but could be grown rapidly by keeping organics out of landfill. Kerbside recycling captures about 1.9 MT of glass, plastic, paper etc per year (the yellow lid bid). But households also landfill about 7 MT of organics per year. We need to keep that out of landfill.

It's great that small companies are stepping into the space to do innovative things, but this alone is not enough. You can't scale up quickly enough to get to the required 18 million tonnes of recycling every year. The market can't get there on its own.

To achieve those targets, the government must take decisive action. It must adopt a more interventionist approach in fostering both private and public sector businesses. 

What are the solutions?

We have three possible solutions:

  • Market pricing- to change the economics of recycling for the 40% of materials we still landfill. We will never get to 100% but we can certainly get to 80% recycling rates. The simplest way is to increase the costs of landfill compared to the costs of recycling. To make this case a simple way – imagine how much recycling we would do if landfill cost $1000/t. Of course that is not realistic but landfill levies are driving recycling upwards by encompassing the environmental costs of landfill into the gate fee that landfills charge.
  • Regulation – Governments can and should regulate the collection and recycling of materials. There are a wide range of regulatory mechanisms that are available to them. A sample would include virgin materials taxes, Extended Producer Responsibility, bans to landfill, bans on single use materials, mandatory pricing of environmental externalities etc.
  • Education – Engaging the public more fully in the challenges and opportunities arising from higher recycling rates. This includes significant emissions abatement, closed loop and lower costs in many areas (especially metals and cardboard).

The economics of waste needs re-evaluation. Currently, recycling costs more than landfills. Even when landfill taxes are introduced, they're rarely reinvested in recycling.

Take organic waste to landfill for example. Organics in landfill generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Emissions from landfill represent 3% of Australia’s total emission profile (about 11 MT CO2e). But organic waste would be much better used as compost or to generate energy. 

Unfortunately it is currently cheaper for most businesses (and especially small businesses) to send organic waste streams straight to landfills. The costs of separation, collection and recycling (composting or anaerobic digestion) of organics are often higher than the cost of collection and landfilling at the local tip. As a result we landfill over 10 MT/yr of organic waste (food, garden, pallets, cardboard, textiles etc).

The same basic maths is true for clothing, toys, mattresses, tyres, plastics, furniture etc. We really must change the economic equation so that recyclers can both obtain supply of materials and make a profitable return.

My preferred model is for a new $6/t annual landfill levy increase (for 3 years) that is 100% hypothecated to recycling infrastructure development. Across Australia this would raise $120m in year1, $240m in y2 and $480m in y3 or almost $1B over the first 3 years. Using this to stimulate private sector investment via capital grants would stimulate about $5B in infrastructure builds, quickly and efficiently. Simple.

People would support it if explained properly. It is up to government to be proactive.

How can we achieve the national waste targets?

I've shared this earlier on MRA blog, here are the key strategies that can drive us toward achieving these targets:

  1. Increase landfill levies. I prefer the $6/t mechanism mentioned above. But based on the current rate of hypothecation the average $100/t levy (across Australia) would need to rise to about $200/t to meet the 2030 recycling target.

  2. Bans on materials to landfill. Europe simply bans things from being landfilled. This makes us find other ways to deal with them.

  3. Collect Organic Waste from homes and businesses. NSW has mandated commercial organic waste collections by 2025 and households by 2030. These mandated separation systems need to be rolled out across Australia.
  1. Develop end markets. If we can sell things we recycle, more people will recycle. There needs to be a demand in the market.

  2. Build sorting and recycling infrastructure. The private sector will fund it if they have the right price signals and support from governments.

  3. Speed up the approval process. Designating planning precincts for resource recovery infrastructure can streamline the approval process.

  4. Convert waste into energy. EfW (energy from waste) is in its infancy and has a case of the wobbles (except in WA) but is necessary if we are to achieve 80% diversion.

  5. Make specific plans: Not a single state government has put the maths down on paper as to how it will achieve the national waste targets. This should include details about waste streams, infrastructure, tonnage, and a timeline.

Conclusions

Governments need to genuinely tackle the structural issues, instead of small ones that don't really fix the problems. We need to focus on solutions at scale. While I fully support small businesses doing their bit, we need structural change to move an additional 18MT/yr. That will not happen without government changing price or regulatory signals.

My hope is the national Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) will consider specific roadmaps from each State showing how they will get to the 80% Target. At this point no government has put together such a plan, never mind show it to the public or the investment community. They need to do that if they want to unlock private sector investment. 

Finally, as individuals, we can make a collective difference:

  • Reach out to your local MP, urging them to take action and develop a Plan to achieve the Targets;
  • Support innovators and investors;
  • Advocate for your local Council to innovate (including food and garden waste recovery (FOGO))
  • Maximise your own recycling at business and at work.

Most importantly, we can all work together to get the government to pay attention. Don't underestimate the power of people in making this transition happen.

Learn more
mraconsulting.com.au
mraconsulting.com.au/blog

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This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at: reco.net.au/circular-sydney

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Author

Interviewed by Danling Xiao. Edited by Adam Matthews.

Adam Matthews is driven by a deep-rooted passion for environmental protection and sustainability. He’s currently pursuing a masters degree in environmental management and sustainability. Connect with Adam on Linkedin.  

Danling is the co-founder of ReCo and creative director of reco.digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin.

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