I recently attended the world’s largest waste expo in Munich ahead of travelling across Germany to see some of REMONDIS’ waste processing and recycling facilities.
I was struck by the ‘can-do’ culture and the big things being achieved – from creating renewable biogas through anaerobic digestion of organic waste through to re-use of used hybrid car batteries for grid-scale power storage and advancements in Energy from Waste technology.
On the downside, I was embarrassed when comparing so many remarkable advancements to what’s happening – or not happening – in Australia.
The experience was a stark reminder that Australia is, frankly, decades behind Europe when it comes to waste management.
Over there, governments, manufacturers, communities and leading waste managers such as REMONDIS (which is headquartered in Germany) have a knack of making tremendous strides when it comes to waste re-use and recycling in ways that are good for the environment, communities, industry and economies.
We are a country with natural wonders ranging from rainforests and deserts to snow and the Great Barrier Reef.
With all that at risk, how can Germany leave us in the dust on just about every waste management front? Why are their environmental outcomes part of the national psyche and pursued with vigour, but not ours?
I suspect Australia takes its gift of expansive land for granted. So much space might be inadvertently holding us to landfill solutions. If that’s the case, we’re selling out, and it’s inexcusable.
Landfill is crude and ugly, the worst form of waste management. If landfill is essentially a default option, you not only lose recyclable and recoverable materials (and energy generation options if energy from waste solutions are in the frame), but you create land disturbance and methane and leachate issues – setting all the greenhouse gas bells ringing.
The looks on people’s faces in Germany when I explained the extent to which landfill is still happening here in Australia was more than enough to signal that we’re getting it very wrong. And Australia is still baulking at Energy from Waste technology that’s used in major cities all over the world? Surely not.
Germany’s successes come down to its legislative approaches. Landfill in Germany is more-or-less illegal and has been for decades. Want to stop landfill? Legislate against it.
Further, manufacturers are legally required to pay the costs of recycling the packaging materials they create, meaning the onus of circular economic responsibility can’t disappear like a plastic bag in the wind. Glass must be re-used or recycled.
Non-recyclable waste is all but eliminated through safe combustion, and the heat used to generate a cleaner form of power. The thought of waste going into the ground is heresy.
In Australia, the approach has largely been to disincentivise landfill through levies that make landfill more expensive and recycling more attractive.
While this might get to the right outcome in the long run, it’s a painfully slow process, meaning the same-old approach of tipping waste into holes in the ground continues.
Granted, recycling is generally more expensive, given that it’s much more labour and equipment intensive.
A federal government report from the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment in October 2021 shows that for every ten thousand tonnes of waste recycled, 9.2 jobs are created, whereas only 2.8 jobs are required to landfill the same quantity.
But when you’re a manufacturer, consumer or waste manager and the door for cheaper landfill options remains wide open, chances are you’ll keep going in that door.
Somehow, sometime, Australia has to bite the bullet and eliminate such choices through legislative enforcement. There might be teething pain, but if it’s an all-in approach costs will be manageable over the longer term, and the overall benefits will be overwhelming, a la Germany.
A step in the right direction is the 2019 Australian COAG decision banning the export of certain waste in stages across 2020-2022. The intention is that these bans will force Australia to develop more recycling capacity for waste that’s historically been handled overseas, primarily Southeast Asia (countries that, sadly, were often partially hand sorting in dangerous conditions, hopelessly stockpiling or open burning our waste).
This is a good example of legislative enforcement pushing us to get our longer-term waste management act together. Everyone needs to be on board, the Commonwealth and the states, right down to consumers.
Another bright story from Australia is the take-up of Container Deposit Schemes over the past few years.
Having worked closely with these in three states, I can attest they are the most valuable recycling initiatives Australia has seen in a long time. A small price-per-container means industry and consumers are sending containers for recycling like never before.
The results are hugely beneficial to the environment, manufacturers and consumers, an ultimate win-win, especially when considering that bottles and cans account for a staggering amount of waste (in Western Australia, for example, containers and bottles account for nearly half of all litter).
Germany, however, is a nose in front. Whereas Australian bottles and cans are recycled back to usable products, the German scheme is broken into ‘Einwegflashen’ or one-way bottles which are collected and recycled like those in Australia.
The Germans also have ‘Mehrwegflaschen’ or multi-use bottles and containers that are returned, washed and refilled by manufacturers before being sold again. It’s one step further up the waste hierarchy.
Re-using materials has a much lower energy intensity than recycling them. And everyone’s on board because it’s government regulated.
I have invitations to go back to Germany to tap into more waste management advances in due course and would welcome any Australian government decision maker to tag along. Maybe an entire delegation should come, because what’s to see is too important to miss.
If only we could take more leaves from the German playbook and turn the waste management corner in Australia.