Australia would reduce its total waste by 10 per cent per capita by 2030 if proposals for a revised national waste policy are adopted.
The updated national waste policy would also mandate 30 per cent recycled content across all goods and infrastructure procurement and diverting half the organic waste currently sent to landfill by 2030.
A discussion paper to guide the updated waste policy also sets out a goal of phasing out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2030, and a focus on timely data for governments and business to make informed decisions.
In April, federal and state ministers agreed to update the national waste policy after China restricted the foreign waste it would accept for reprocessing, which highlighted long-standing issues with Australia’s waste and recycling sectors.
According to the discussion paper, performance against the targets would be reviewed and reported on every two years, allowing “regular analysis of progress.” This review would be guided by a cross-sector working group including government and sector representatives.
The updated national waste policy would be supported by the development of action plans by 2020 to outline priorities including landfill levies, research and incentives.
The discussion paper notes that improvements in kerbside collection and processing capacity means Australia is now recovering 58 per cent of the 64 million tonnes of waste generated each year.
Currently, 35 million tonnes of Australia’s waste is recycled, 2.3 million tonnes is used for energy recovery and 27 million tonnes goes to landfill.
The discussion paper argues that the updated waste policy needs to reflect circular economy principles, which the waste and recycling industries have been lobbying for throughout this year.
A 5 per cent improvement in the efficient use of materials across the economy could benefit Australia’s gross domestic product by as much as $24 billion, according to the paper.
It notes that governments have a role to play as “responsible consumers” and that sustainable or green procurement supports a circular economy and helps to grow the recycling and re-manufacturing industry.
Dr Damien Giurco, professor of resource futures at the University of Technology Sydney, welcomed the proposed targets, which he said would be helpful for getting Australia moving in the right direction.
The 10 per cent target for reducing total waste generation was a “worthwhile start,” he said.
“Reducing people’s waistline by 10 per cent wouldn’t be enough to make many of us healthy nor will reducing waste by this amount make us a healthy country, but we must get started and go further,” he told Government News.
Dr Giurco praised the 80 per cent resource recovery rate as well as the 30 per cent recycled content in procurement target, which he said represented “significant change from today” and would help stimulate secondary markets.
“We also need to remember to make and buy things which are designed to last longer, mainstream reuse and avoid going down the path of just procuring cheap goods with their quota of recycled content.
“We’ll also need to ensure quality and safety of the recycled content products sourced from international markets and this may offer a space for local suppliers who focus on quality to develop,” Dr Giurco said.
Gayle Sloan, CEO of the Ausrtalian Waste Management Association, said the updated waste policy needed to bring about greater harmonisation across the states as the industry wanted a “level playing field.”
“We know waste doesn’t recognise borders. We have waste companies that operate nationally and its nonsense to think that when they cross jurisdictions they face a completely different set of principles,” she told Government News.
Using government procurement
By setting targets for sustainable procurement and increasing the purchase of recycled materials, governments could lead by example and help stimulate domestic markets, Ms Sloan said.
“It’s very challenging for business to invest in [their] infrastructure without certainty of someone buying it. Government has the ability to buy it and give us certainty,” she said.
She pointed to survey commissioned by the Australian Council on Recycling in April that found 89 per cent of people support government using public funds for the purchase of recycled content.
Dr Giurco said that while the discussion paper referred to sustainable procurement, it was important to ensure this also fostered circular procurement.
In July, a senate inquiry into the waste and recycling industry recommended that Commonwealth departments and state and local governments adopt more explicit ‘green procurement’ policies.
Many in the waste and recycling industries point to the recent Victorian Government’s $37 million package to boost the market for recycled materials through government procurement.
Dr Giurco said the measures proposed in the discussion paper are an important first step but to be “successfully circular” system-wide changes in the Australian economy, altering systems of production and consumption, were required.
“Other countries, like Finland, more closely link discussions of circular economy, renewable energy and responding to climate change. We might find that perhaps this line of thinking makes more sense for the Australian Government in 12 months’ time,” he said.
Ministers have committed to updating the national waste policy by the end of the year. Feedback on the discussion paper is open until 5 October.
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