President’s column – 10 July 2020

Image shows President David O'Loughlin smiling in front of a black background

The war on waste is proving to be a protracted affair, like any war, but this week’s announcement of $190 million in Commonwealth funding to create a new Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF) is significant in several ways.

Besides tipping $190 million into the RMF, the Federal Government is providing $35 million to implement the National Waste Policy Action Plan and a further $25 million to be spent improving national waste data.

The one-third matching funding structure of the RMF responds to ALGA’s calls for any Federal funding to leverage the ample “waste levy” funds in most states. The Federal grants are contingent on matching funding being provided from industry and state or territory governments.

It’s a modest start but we can expect the $190 million RMF will see nearly 20 per cent of the over $1 billion in state waste levy funds co-invested in industry improvements and, ultimately, returned to the community as per the original intent of these levies.

In this way, the Federal Government is suggesting the fund will generate up to $600 million in investment – a much-needed boost to improving resource recovery processes and for creating on-shore jobs.

Economic forecasts during Covid-19 warrant some caution, but this figure seems realistic given the generally favourable response from the waste recycling industry, reflecting their long-term calls for funding partnerships from governments.

They know, as local governments know, that our recycling infrastructure must be expanded in time to accommodate the impacts of waste export bans beginning on 1 January 2021 and extending through till July 2024.

However, in my tele-meeting with Environment Minister Sussan Ley yesterday, I stressed that none of this will amount to much unless we collectively create much greater demand for products incorporating recycled materials. In the absence of demand, we will simply end up with bigger stockpiles – creating fire risks and undermining community confidence in home-based recycling, where it all starts.

Governments, including local governments, must play a key role. And if you are an elected member, that means you.

Your council will spend around half its annual budget externally. Have you checked your procurement policy to make sure it compels your CEO and their staff to consider buying products incorporating recycled materials? Or to prefer such products? Or to mandate they must buy such products if they provide an acceptable level of service at a reasonable price?

Creating demand for recycled materials will lift the value of our yellow bins. If we get it right, our next waste collection contracts should be cheaper. In this way, our council’s purchasing decisions can lead directly to future savings in our waste management services.

Road bases can include recycled glass, asphalt, recycled plastics and toner cartridges. Spray seal can include recycled rubber. Beverage containers can include recycled glass or PET plastic. New paper can be made from recycled paper. Decking, seats, wheel stops, and bollards can include recycled plastics.

Your council will be purchasing all of these, virtually every year. And the list of such products is growing.

Your decisions at the grass roots level of government can make a huge difference. You don’t need to wait for a directive from state or federal governments to get on with it — it’s your choice, as it is a choice for every consumer.

Creating new markets for products containing recycled material, developing new and innovative recycling methods, establishing product stewardship schemes, and boosting education programs are all goals that ALGA has pushed for at umpteen inquiries, reviews, and intergovernmental policy forums, and it is pleasing some are now being acted on.

In its submission to a Senate committee inquiry earlier this year, ALGA pinpointed the lack of standards, government and public sector procurement, financing and funding, data, and national coordination as major impediments to creating a more vibrant and innovative waste management and recycling industry.

Monday’s announcement of the RMF and support for the National Waste Action Plan will go a long way to dismantling these impediments.

And just yesterday, the Commonwealth announced it is making $14 million available through its National Product Stewardship Investment Fund to support new product stewardship schemes or to expand existing ones.

The Commonwealth can and should go further. It needs to lead from the front to harmonise state and territory approaches.

Yesterday, the Minister confirmed the demise of the Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) in the wake of the Prime Minister’s transformation of the COAG framework.

It is hard to believe the nation will not have a nationally coordinated approach to implementing the national waste export ban, or improving resource recovery, let alone national coordination of broader environmental issues.

The Minister is adopting a one-on-one approach with State and Territory Ministers, and the ALGA President, as a replacement. This is admirable, but well short of what the average Australian would expect their governments to be doing on important issues such as these.

I urged the Minister to recommence the MEM, or implement a new alternative, at the earliest possible opportunity.

There is no doubt in my mind there would be no RMF, no National Waste Policy, or any focus on creating market demand for recycled products if it were not for the work of the previous MEM structure and ALGA’s strong representations within it on these topics.

You might want to talk to your local Federal representative about the narrow focus emerging from the new National Cabinet structure, and local government’s exclusion from it.

But first, take a look at your council’s procurement policy.

Keep up the great work.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President