workers in recycling plant

News from the front desk, issue 524: When you get a call from Wendy Bacon, you sit up straight and pay full attention. She’s the investigative journalist who makes Kate McClymont look tame. (Going to jail for her beliefs against censorship in the 60s and uncovering police corruption is just part of her story) Then there is her long tenure as academic and professor of journalism at UTS. These days her main gig is a website covering public interest issues. We don’t know what the readership is but we’ll bet it packs a punch.

Last time Bacon got in touch it was because we were holding an event hosted by a big engineering firm that she told us was deeply involved in WestConnex. We really don’t like WestConnex but this wasn’t something we were aware of. It was uncomfortable…and complex. The company also does highly sustainable things and innovates a lot around sustainability.

It’s the kind of issue that comes up in our patch all the time. Big company, part good or getting there, part bad, hands in very dark places. The new term that’s emerged is green lipstick on the pig. Companies like AGL for instance, which is now suing Greenpeace of all things, for uttering such obscenities as that AGL is the biggest carbon polluter in Australia. Are they denying this? Apparently the suit is now related to asking Greenpeace to remove the AGL logo from their campaign. Delicate creatures these fossil fuel companies and interesting they care so much about their image, green or dirty.

So, last week, when Bacon called it was to note the upbeat coverage we gave to the launch of Bingo Industries’ new waste and recycling processing plant in Western Sydney at Eastern Creek and to point out the company has had significant issues that we probably should have also pointed out.

See our articles

We knew there had been an odour issue with the site but the stories we read in the papers said it was being dealt with.

Bacon had covered the story on her website, in more than 4000 words detailing claims and responses. She said the issue was serious and was not being dealt with, and that the cost was borne by residents at the nearby Minchinbury Estate.

Bingo’s response is that the very heavy rainfall in March unearthed matter at the bottom of the landfill and that it was doing its best to clean things up. Bacon said cleanup deadlines were not being met.

Media spokesman for the company Chris Gordon sent responses to Bacon and also to us when we asked him to respond directly to the issues at stake. 

There were other issues covered by Bacon but most are historic. More details on major claims and Gordon’s responses are below.

But why were we upbeat in the articles?

First is what’s happening to waste.

The Bingo stories were around the launch of a huge $1 billion facility touted as globally leading technology designed to recycle construction and building waste, which has been one of the biggest waste creators.

Another reason is that the waste and recycling industry is starting to get attention from the big end of town, especially the capital markets. There’s been a bevvy of merger and acquisition activity among the giants of the industry. Amidst this Bingo was targeted for takeover by Macquarie Group, valuing the company at about $2.3 billion.

This is optimistic because where the money goes is where the action goes. It signifies to us that it’s an industry in transition. The same as clean renewable energy is now in the cross hairs of the biggest investors on the planet. The same way governments far and wide are committing to net zero, corporates alongside them. 

But for waste, the story hasn’t been smooth and feel good like the story around renewable energy. Renewables are clean all the way through: their path has been paved with great intentions, excellent science and passionate committed individuals.

The waste industry couldn’t be more different: the antithesis.

It’s got a shocking history, filled with dirty stories of corruption and bad practice that matches the materials it’s dealing in.

There was the front page story of some journalists who followed trucks carting construction waste from a Green Star building site to a vacant block of land somewhere in outer suburbia which the developer claimed to be recycling most of its waste. Did the developer know?

There was the unmarked truck spotted by The Fifth Estate years ago in pristine bush. Was it lost? No. But we realised later it was certainly looking to lose something, probably highly toxic.

Waste conjures up toxic materials and ugliness, the thing we’d rather not look at. The bottom of the barrel job you’d choose to work in. The opposite of what we imagine our beautiful green new future could be like.

Now the tide is turning. 

When the ABC ran its War On Waste series it was phenomenally successful even prompting the PM to make noises about tidying ourselves up. 

China’s ban on our rubbish was another spur, as was the devastating vision we were gradually fed of once pristine Bali suffocating under mountains of tourist’s trash. 

Today there is rising enthusiasm for a circular economy. It’s even garnering government support, at least modestly in this week’s federal budget and certainly from the states and territories.

The accumulated attention and funding looks poised to hopefully transform its nature from an ugly polluting past to something meaningful. 

Pete Shmigel who’s these days busy setting up a new recycling company and   was previously chief executive of Australian Council of Recycling says waste is difficult. 

“It’s an industry that has impact. It’s dealing with very challenging and difficult materials, whether they’re from a household or commercial bin it’s not clean nice white cotton sheets that are neatly folded for you. 

“Often you don’t have a lot of control on what a generator puts in a bin. You can take all the care you want but sometimes you find things going in to places they are not designed to go in.”

“If you look at it from a chain of custody perspective the guy who is the ultimate problem solver for society is asked to take all the responsibility for it.”

These are the tough questions we need to grapple with, he says. Society is happy enough to use materials that are convenient but have toxic waste stream such as PFAS used for firefighting but found to have badly contaminated water tables. 

And he’s right. We use plastic because it’s cheap and useful, we use petrol because it gets us from A to B, conveniently in cars made nasty chemicals and materials. 

Of course we need to redesign our entire material world to mimic nature. We need to eliminate waste, re-use and so on.

But for now we’re stuck with mountains of toxic materials that we need to deal with somehow.

The answer is not to shove it further out from our cities into pristine country, using armies of diesel-pewing trucks. The answer is to change everything and deal with our own mess.

These waste and our recycling facilities need to be encouraged to come out of the dumpster and dank nasty corners of our world and be encouraged to come clean. The way we should. It’s a process. 

Shmigel says big companies like, Suez, Veolia and Cleanway represents the top of the industry that’s trying to reinvent itself. And it has for at least a decade. Those with European parents are trying to operate in line with European standards, with “heaps of data and heaps of capital investment”.

“Do they get it right all the time?

“Absolutely not.”

But then neither do we.

He says the biggest problem in the industry isn’t the big companies like Bingo and Cleanaway, it’s the small operators that fly under the radar of any regulation and scrutiny.

One company on a big site will be completely in the view of the EPA and another one on a smaller site next door will completely evade the EPA and submit only to council rules. (Which raises some other questions).

Bingo media spokesperson Chris Gordon told us it was a unique set of circumstances that led to the odour from the Eastern Creek facility. “Our facility is generally non odourous,” he says. “I’ve been out there every day and I haven’t had any odour at all. [Which he agrees does not mean there is no odour at other times].

He said the various independent experts concur that the odour issue has been caused by floods which in March were a one in 100 year event, and which caused a build up of the water in the base of the landfill. About 400 people have lodged complaints.

Until then there had been just three complaints in the past which triggered an EPA investigation that concluded that the odour was not from the Bingo property.

The waste Eastern Creek he said, was “not putrescent” as it was building and construction waste.

In recent times, however, he told The Fifth Estate it was “receiving very small volume of MWOO (mixed waste and organic outputs) and also in recent time, flood affected waste as the company had played a “major role in the clean up after the floods”.

It’s possible this may have contributed to the odour he said.

Among actions that would be taken to remedy the problem would be flares to burn the emissions from the landfill.

See the full list of actions and updates here

Other issues raised in Wendy Bacon’s article included trucking waste to landfill in Queensland to take advantage of zero or cheap fees and other allegations of past poor behaviour including by an entity now owned by Bingo.

A response from Bingo says:

“Regarding the other historical items in Wendy Bacon’s article, we have responded to the issues at length at the time.

“Bingo does not transport waste to Queensland and has not done so for more than two years. We were vocal advocates of Queensland’s re-introduction of a waste levy from the outset and believe its implementation will lead to better recycling outcomes. “

Another issue in the Bacon article was dumping of waste at Mangrove Mountain.

“Bingo has no association with Mangrove Mountain landfill and does not (and has not) tip waste there.”

Bacon also said there were consistent attempts to increase the size of the landfill at Eastern Creek.

Gordon responded: “We have increased the volume of waste at our Eastern Creek facility because we are aiming to recycle more waste at our new, world-class MPC2 recycling centre. While we expect to achieve recovery rates of up to 90 per cent, there is still some residual that at this stage must be recycled.”

Gordon declined to respond to issues around Ian Malouf who’s company was taken over Bingo some time ago and who remains a major shareholder, saying these were not issues the company could comment on.

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