Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) president Mayor David O’Loughlin writes that the waste fiasco exposed in the ABC Four Corners report is a complex issue that will have wide-ranging implications for local governments.
For those of us who care about the environment and the efficient recycling of Australia’s household and industrial waste, the ABC’s Four Corners program was troubling.
The factors behind the mess Four Corners exposed on Monday may be complex – but we can play a powerful role in fixing them, if we choose to.
Four Corners’ revelations will undermine the public’s confidence in Australia’s waste management systems and, in turn, confidence in their local Council and the amount of rates they are paying for recycling services.
We know, however, that the vast majority of Local Governments across Australia manage their waste collection and recycling operations professionally and in an environmentally sustainable manner, after sustained improvements in policy and practice over decades.
We also know that Australia’s waste management system is subject to market forces, private practice and regulation that is outside the control of our sector, with cross-border differences exacerbating local issues.
What also appears to be common is a failure of other levels of governments to effectively patrol the beat – to identify, penalise and stamp out individuals or companies conducting illegal dumping or other practices that undermine the industry as a whole.
And, as the Four Corners program showed, the indiscriminate imposition or removal of state landfill levies create disincentives for recycling, and encourages illegal dumping.
State government-imposed levies were originally well intended: to support recycling, to reduce waste going to landfills, to remediate landfill sites, and to educate consumers. Some of this has happened, but there is much more to do and the funds appear to be more and more difficult to access to achieve this.
In the absence of sufficient leadership or discipline by others, how can Local Government get the results our communities increasingly expect and demand?
We may not have regulatory powers, but what we do have is procurement power.
Waste management is one of our largest areas of contracted services. We spend vast amounts of money in this area and we can choose how we spend it and who we spend it with.
We can also choose our contract conditions, and how we will enforce those contract conditions. As a client, we can insist on the right to inspect and audit the services we contract, to confirm they are receiving and recycling as contracted, as we are paying them to do, and as we have told our communities we are doing on their behalf.
The control and enforcement of our contracted services can be in our hands, if we choose it to be.
In addition, if the issue is a lack of market demand for recycled products, or products containing recycled material, our procurement powers can also be used to choose and purchase these products in preference to others. In doing so we will be making a clear statement that we want to create a sustainable destination for recyclables – and that we are prepared to trial them, to use them, and to preference them.
Sustainable and valuable recycling requires a circular economy. If we want the supply side to work, we should step up and be part of the demand side.
As an elected member, if you care about recycling, have you checked your Council’s procurement policies? Have you asked if your road building specifications state a preference for recycled material, including glass and construction waste? Or that your posts, fences and benches should use recycled plastics? Are your paper sources all recycled? Are you prepared to ask your Council to trial new products to help create new markets?
As per my recent column, ALGA will continue to do all we can on the national front to improve results, to better design product stewardship schemes and to keep Local Government at the table as part of the solution.
You can do your part locally by checking your contracts, your reporting and enforcement practices, and by ensuring your procurement policies help and don’t hinder the use of recyclables. In doing so, you should ask if your own Council would survive the level of scrutiny we witnessed on the television.
Let’s aim to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
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