Among the fancy new words around business nowadays are “agile” and “nimble”.

I’m old so I think what those words mean in practical terms is listening to your customers and better meeting their needs. It’s new spin on old-fashioned and effective practice.

It’s through that lens that we see a good recycling sector announcement last week. Namely, with Commonwealth government funding and policy endorsement, two of the leading resource recovery industry associations will do projects for better “rules of the recycling road”.

It shows the industry getting better at listening to both community concerns about the fate of collected materials, and supply chain requests for better quality recyclate.

Let’s first hear what Minister for Environment Sussan Ley exclusively said to Talking Rubbish about the projects:

“As part of national harmonisation, the Australian government is supporting the development of specifications for recovered materials to improve the quality of these materials and help ensure they meet market demands.

“Accrediting or certifying recyclers will demonstrate that they are meeting these performance standards, providing confidence in the products Australia’s recyclers create.”

So let’s look at a little deeper at the content that the minister hopes will create confidence.

One project is by the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) – and executed through Equilibrium – and it will develop a national accreditation/certification scheme for Australian recyclers. (And, it’s kind of incredible to think it’s taken until 2021 for the industry to do this…)

ACOR’s new chief executive officer Suzanne Toumbourou, who comes from a building sustainability background (ASBEC) where standards are all important, said:

“For the recycling and resource recovery industry, a national accreditation or certification scheme will support continual improvement in recovery rates and improve stakeholder and investor confidence in their facilities.”

Talking Rubbish understands ACOR’s scheme will include independently conducted facility audits to cover both compliance aspects and the quality of material handling at sites. Fundamentally and importantly, this goes to putting paid to the niggling question: does the stuff really get recycled?

If the ACOR project is very appropriately about ensuring that companies and facilities operate in a ridgy-didge manner, the project by the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) is about making sure that the materials produced from recycling facilities meet new and consistent specifications and buyer expectations.

NWRIC CEO Rose Read said that, in consultation with off-takers, specs will be developed for plastics, paper, glass, metal and organics. Her body’s project aims to “assist Australian recyclers meet market demands for recovered materials”, “improve the quality of recovered materials as tradeable commodities”, and build “greater confidence”.

Spot on. Brand owners interested in using recycled content in their products have often said to Talking Rubbish: “We want to use recycled content made in Australia, but it needs to be competitive on cost and quality.” 

Translation: they’re basically saying they need their risk reduced. To that end, the NWRIC initiative is a positive link between recyclate manufacturers and off-takers, and between different parts of the supply chain.

And that’s the heart of the matter. For recycling to become truly domestically sustainable in Australia and for us to aspire to circularity, it’s all about equitably decreasing risk for all the players along the supply chain: from collectors to sorters to reprocessors to remanufacturers to brand owners to retailers.

That’s the left hand. The right hand is making sure we actually have the facilities we need to meet export bans and the like. On that count, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley exclusively also said this to Talking Rubbish this week:

“To date, the Australian government has invested $92.6 million in glass, tyres plastic and paper projects in ACT, WA, TAS, Vic and SA through its flagship Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF). The fund will ensure that we have new recycling infrastructure operational in time for when the export bans are fully phased in by mid-2024.

“The $190 million RMF investment, and associated measures to support Australia’s National Waste Policy Action Plan, will divert 10 million tonnes of waste each year which will no longer go to landfill.”

The minister also reminded Talking Rubbish of current efforts to harmonise the size and types of containers accepted in container deposit schemes across jurisdictions, and refund amounts, as well standards for labelling, and community education by the end of 2025. 

She and her state colleagues are also working on nationally phasing out eight “problematic and unnecessary” plastic product types by 2025, including lightweight plastic bags, plastic products misleadingly termed as “degradable”, plastic straws, plastic utensils and stirrers, expanded polystyrene (EPS) consumer food; EPS consumer goods packaging, and microbeads in personal health care products.

Sounds good and is good. There’s no doubting the minister’s, her colleague Trevor Evans’, and the Commonwealth’s real engagement with resource recovery, and the unprecedented levels of cooperation the States are providing.

There’s lots of activity we simply have not seen before, including the meritorious standards projects announced last week.

Engagement and activity are not the issue; the issue is whether the effort will be sufficient to successfully convert into substantially higher recycling rates, genuine domestic circularity, resource recovery jobs reaching their full, and, dare I say it, less pollution including lower greenhouse gas emissions.

No doubt, as we near the election, the Labor Opposition will have something to say about relative progress in the months to come.

But that’s a whole different metrics for another day.





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