Those rolling stones: coordination in waste policy
Are we pushing boulders uphill just to see them roll back on top of us? Nick Harford looks at the need for greater coordination in national waste policy.
Development of waste and recycling policy is a lot like the legend of Sisyphus – it can feel like rolling a boulder up a great hill just to see it roll back down again.
But every now and then the rock gets rolled over the top, and actions and outcomes abound. Like most areas of good policy development, in waste there is nonetheless the need to grind out and test responses time and time again.
To force the analogy a bit, what we are seeing in waste policy in Australia at present is not a collective attempt to roll that boulder, but a fractured approach where industry players and governments are pushing their individual pebbles down the policy path. Some policy advances are being made, but the boulder is not really going anywhere at present.
This fractured approach is not delivering a good outcome for Australia, our environment or our economy. But there are perhaps winds of change. Of late there has been a noticeable outpouring of calls from waste and recycling industry leaders for greater policy cohesion and consistency.
The Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) is calling for greater national leadership. WMAA released a five-point plan, arguing strongly that the economic importance of the waste and resource recovery industries and the need for appropriate protection of the environment and public health demands greater national coordination and consistency.
The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) is warning that aspirations for resource recovery are threatened, and the sector’s strong economic and environmental contribution is at risk of being squandered. Pointing to declining scrap metal prices and a stagnant overall national recycling rate, ACOR argues that the absence of a consistent national approach and suitable policy interventions are lowering our standard of waste management and resource recovery.
Some may well say that these industries will seek interventions to benefit them and their members, but there is an underlying issue of potential public good that is hard to refute.
What we call waste is a sign of inefficiency. It is not acceptable nor is it in the best interest of Australia’s economy or environment for people to continue to throw away and send to landfill materials that have an economic value, can generate environmental improvement or may cause environmental harm.
Having said that, the amount of waste material generated in Australia is often beyond the direct control of individuals and organisations. The totality of waste generated in Australia – especially non-organic waste – is partly a function of population, income and urbanisation, and partly, and increasingly, a function of global production and consumption.
The resource recovery side of waste management is also increasingly influenced by global factors. Solid waste materials recovered for recycling are priced and traded globally. Australia is presently a net exporter of many recovered materials such as paper, plastics, metals and many components from e-waste.
Waste, of course, can be reduced and better managed through increased awareness that leads to behaviour change – either upstream in product design, manufacture and distribution, or at the ‘end-of-pipe’ disposal point. Such change can influence waste generation while also enabling greater resource recovery and economic generation.
However, raising awareness and changing behaviour conflicts with the market forces of global production and consumption. So where the market is not delivering good waste management, where valuable resources are being lost and where health and the environment are exposed to risk, policy needs to address market failures and provide appropriate interventions.
In waste, this is best done through direct regulation of materials (such as mandated treatment of a particular waste or a ban from landfill) and through market price signals that incentivise behaviour change and investment.
Such change is happening. It’s just not happening at a large scale and with any consistency and coordination across the country.
“It is not acceptable nor is it in the best interest of Australia’s economy or environment for people to continue to throw away and send to landfill materials that have an economic value, can generate environmental improvement or may cause environmental harm.
Waste and recycling policy is not dramatically different to many other areas of our economy and policy, which are also suffering from lack of coordination and consistency. The Council of Australia Governments (COAG) and the whole commonwealth/state relationship for policy and program delivery have both seen a tug of war between governments and other stakeholders in recent years.
A difference with waste is that we already have an agreed roadmap for waste and recycling – the National Waste Policy.
Seven years on from initiation of the National Waste Policy, its aims and key strategies remain valid. It remains relevant to Australians, our environment and the waste and recycling industries. As the policy is due to expire in 2020, it is timely to revisit and pursue means to refresh and renew it.
The National Waste Policy is an agreement between all Australian governments that aims to:
- avoid generation of waste and reduce waste for disposal
- manage waste as a resource
- manage waste as a resource
- ensure waste treatment, disposal,
- ensure waste treatment, disposal, recovery and reuse is safe, scientific and environmentally sound, and
- contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, energy conservation and production, waste efficiency and the productivity of the land.
As part of the agreement, there was a focus on six key areas that then informed 16 priority strategies. Jurisdictions took leadership for each of the strategies, and eight working groups were established to manage, track and implement the strategies and commitments.
This well-structured approach and coordinated activity provide an excellent framework to progress all the key waste and recycling issues, to ensure the aims and focus are maintained and to grind away to ensure barriers to economic and environmental improvement are removed.
It has achieved a number of good outcomes to date – most notably the Product Stewardship Act and the product stewardship schemes it has, if not directly spawned, aided. These include the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS), Paintback, FluoroCycle and Tyre Stewardship Australia, as well as endorsement for the long-running MobileMuster.
In this regard, while the NTCRS has attracted a lot of criticism because of failed recyclers and some poor outcomes, what cannot be refuted with respect to the scheme is this: if it were not in place e-waste would be a bigger problem.
So the National Waste Policy is there and has been shown to be effective in delivering nationally consistent and progressive approaches to better waste management and resource recovery. The problem is that there hasn’t really been any coordination and consistency since 2013.
That’s when COAG’s decision to streamline its structure saw the ‘revocation’ of the Standing Council on Environment and Water. This was replaced by the ‘Meeting of Environment Ministers’ that, when they met to decide ongoing priority matters, decided the National Waste Policy was not a priority.
In 2009, the decision to endorse the National Waste Policy was agreed by all governments, as was the decision four years later that it was no longer a priority.
That doesn’t mean nothing has happened since 2013. States and territories have rolled the policy rock over the top. New South Wales, with ‘Waste Less, Recycle More’ and container deposits, has certainly pushed on with structural and infrastructure reform. Western Australia has significant investment in waste to energy on the table and the ACT and Northern Territory have implemented fresh initiatives attracting investment and infrastructure.
Other jurisdictions have been less active, and Victoria stands out for its inertia. Successive Victorian governments have sought to distance themselves from the policies of predecessors and embarked on organisational restructures and producing plans in lieu of reform and progress. To its credit the state did lead the development of Paintback and has mooted a ban on e-waste and plastic bags from landfill.
Queensland remains at odds with all other states as it is without a landfill levy. The low landfill charges and the lack of a price signal to drive innovation, investment and improvement are attractive to some
– that’s why a lot of waste is going to Queensland landfills from other states. On the upside, Queensland has mooted landfill bans for a number of priority wastes and is actively working on the introduction of a container deposit system.
What progress the states and territories have made serves to highlight that, as a nation, we have not travelled far. The progress made is, for the whole nation, piecemeal.
The National Waste Policy – the policy agreed to by the Commonwealth and all states and territories – sets out a way to take a shared responsibility whereby each government could work to its strengths and progress the 16 key waste strategies.
In large, the steps taken by the states and territories in the last three to four years are good and should be commended, but without a nationally consistent and coordinated approach to the overall issues facing waste and resource recovery these measures will just be pockets of distinction.
National leadership does not mean pointing the finger at the federal government – it does not have the powers to manage the vast bulk of waste issues. The states and territories are best placed to deliver the best outcomes for most issues, and will not give up their authority anyway.
National leadership means the states and territories, the commonwealth and industry leaders working and communicating together. It means a focus on the benefits of consistency and cohesion to significantly advance waste and resource recovery practices, and deliver better economic, environmental and social outcomes. The National Waste Policy provides the blueprint to get that focus back on track and get the boulder moving again.
Nick Harford is the managing director of Equilibrium.