Sustainability’s missing link
For those of us in the waste industry, talk about plastic bags and coffee cups somewhat pales in comparison to some of the larger structural items that still exist. Don’t get me wrong – the focus on waste and recycling issues being generated by the ABC’s #WarOnWaste is a great step forward in raising the profile of sustainability’s ‘missing link’.
But the challenge for an industry like ours is that there are so many material streams, each with their own unique requirements, that it’s hard to know where to focus the attention. Some of the really big things, those classic mind benders, become almost too hard to think about, and so often we don’t.
There’s no doubt the community has a long way to go before it understands the bigger questions at play. Things like the #WarOnWaste campaign help drive momentum and now is as good an opportunity as we’ve ever had to get a conversation going.
Essentially, we need to talk about what the waste industry must look at over the next 10 to 20 years. I’m firmly of the belief that the macro debate has to start with the community rather than the industry responding once the community knocks on its door. For me, there are three major issues.
We live in a highly commoditised world and the waste and resource recovery sector is no different. According to the Waste Accounts released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we export more than four million tonnes of waste per annum.
While much of this is legitimate trade in processed materials (such as metal, paper and cardboard), global trade in baled waste tyres, unprocessed e-waste and hazardous materials are all increasing annually.
There is little, if any, oversight over this market and I am left wondering whether Australia is just exporting its obligations to manage waste appropriately to the developing world.
We’re talking about a really fine line between what we would class as something that should be traded on the open market versus just trying to export our liability.
A great example of that is baled tyre exports: 20,000 to 40,000 tonnes a year leaves the country. It’s not shredded to a specific size for a customer’s needs – the whole tyre is just compressed.
So just because it’s baled, does that mean it should be classed as a commodity or a processed material? And should we be comfortable with exporting something that the World Health Organisation has directly linked to the spread of dengue fever? This is one area where I’d love to see a good dialogue between government, community and industry.
HAZARDOUS WASTE STOCKPILES
A recent federal Department of the Environment and Energy report into the fate of spent pot lining (SPL), a by-product of manufacturing aluminium, suggests that some 700,000 tonnes remain stockpiled around the country.
SPL really ticks the boxes when it comes to hazardous waste. It is toxic, corrosive and has a habit of exploding when coming into contact with water. This is just one of a number of high-risk waste materials currently being stockpiled in large quantities, many with no feasible treatment or safe disposal options.
These sorts of stockpiles are something the industry doesn’t really talk about. Rather, when we hear of hazardous waste, it’s more often than not connected with contaminated soil from building sites. But what I’m talking about is nasty stuff, such as from metals manufacturing and mining tailings.
What happens now when the reduction in commodity prices means some activities and businesses are becoming less viable? No one is talking about this.
It’s not quite worthy of Tony Soprano, but organised crime in the waste sector remains a challenge. Sectors such as end- of-life vehicles, demolition waste, asbestos and waste tyres still have thriving cash economies that encourage illegitimate operators to collect and illegally dump or export waste materials.
Some states have invested resources to crack down on these activities – Queensland’s Taskforce Tora comes to mind – but more needs to be done to level the playing field for legally compliant operators.
While I don’t want to downplay the importance of managing plastic bags and coffee cups, I’d love to see some increased dialogue about some of these bigger challenges that need government and industry to work together in order to solve them. For me, these are the ‘elephants in the room’ for the waste industry.
Matt Genever is managing director of Reincarnate, a strategic environmental consultancy specialising in waste and resource recovery and sustainability advisory services.
This article also appears in Issue 7 of CWS magazine.
Image: lianem © 123RF.com