In my previous articles I have outlined what I believe is wrong with waste management in New South Wales and why that is so.
I know it is easy to criticise. What’s not so easy is to come up with solutions on what and how to do better.
Let’s give it a try.
- Read: Here’s why things can go so wrong in NSW if you’re talking waste management
- Read: Waste and recycling: how else are the problems piling up in NSW?
- Read: When it comes to managing waste, NSW is in trouble
Before we start though, here are some basic considerations or “convictions”, if you like.
I once attended an event where David Suzuki gave the opening speech. What he said was this: we humans live on a tiny planet somewhere in a universe that is too large for us to comprehend. On this tiny planet there is a thin layer of air, water and soil—which he called the “biosphere”—that gives us everything we need. Air to breathe, water to drink and soil to grow our food in. Everything we need. Yet we humans always want more. So true!
This discrepancy between our needs and wants will not disappear magically. It is we who are flawed. It is we who are not living in unison with this planet.
There is no waste in nature!
This is the concept the circular economy (CE) is based upon. Yet the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeps referring to “waste” when it talks about CE. Not good. That displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the concept!
A CE can only be achieved if we design out waste. Ever heard of that? I can’t find any hint of it in the EPA’s strategy.
Of course, we won’t get there in a hurry. We may never get there – there might always be waste. But we should still strive for it, nonetheless.
You will quite rightly ask: how can we design out waste, when we don’t manufacture goods here in Australia? Good point. The federal government needs to commit to the new design rules for material circularity under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. i Sounds futuristic? Remember: keep striving.
The main problem, in my view, is the NSW definition of waste. It is incredibly broad and designed to be a catch all.
NSW definition of waste:
(a) any substance (whether solid, liquid or gaseous) that is discharged, emitted or deposited in the environment in such volume, constituency or manner as to cause an alteration in the environment, or
(b) any discarded, rejected, unwanted, surplus or abandoned substance, or
(c) any otherwise discarded, rejected, unwanted, surplus or abandoned substance intended for sale or for recycling, processing, recovery or purification by a separate operation from that which produced the substance, or
(d) any processed, recycled, re-used or recovered substance produced wholly or partly from waste that is applied to land, or used as fuel, but only in the circumstances prescribed by the regulations, or
(e) any substance prescribed by the regulations to be waste.
A substance is not precluded from being waste for the purposes of this Act merely because it is or may be processed, recycled, re-used or recovered.
I know, you have to read that a few times. Basically, the way I see it, it is a power grab. The EPA wants to be able to intervene as they see fit, when they want, to do what they want.
Waste is defined as “any substance” that is “emitted or deposited” in such a manner as to “cause an alteration in the environment”.
Sometimes I think the word “any” is the most powerful word in the English language. Imagine you build a house on a previously vegetated block of land. Have you deposited something in the environment? Yes. Lots of bricks. A whole house, in fact. Does the house cause an alteration in the environment? Yes. The bushes and trees that were once there are gone. The land surface has been sealed.
This example illustrates that the NSW definition of waste knows no bounds.
You see what I mean? Everything is waste in the eyes of the EPA. You might say that’s not how it works. The EPA regulates what needs to be regulated, but doesn’t interfere in people’s lives. You would be wrong.
The Grafil case:
In a landmark 2019 decision the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that Grafil and MacKenzie were operating a waste facility without lawful authority. Grafil argued it was using an extractive sand quarry to temporarily store recovered construction resources.
The long-running EPA v Grafil Pty Ltd and EPA v Mackenzie (2018) cases resulted in the ruling that just one fragment of asbestos (of any type or size) in a waste stockpile (of any size) means the whole stockpile must be classified as “asbestos waste”.
The decision had huge implications for the waste recycling industry. This imposes a greater burden in regards to inspections and compliance, especially for the processing of construction and demolition waste.
So, we can see that the waste definition completely contradicts what the CE concept tries to achieve. This definition of waste has no boundaries – whereas in the CE there is no waste. How do you reconcile the two? It seems no one in the NSW government has ever thought about that.
Look, I understand that the EPA’s main job is to protect the environment and human health. That is good, and we need some rules over how we treat this planet of ours.
But (and this a very big but) to achieve a CE we also need to get away from thinking about the very concept of waste as “waste”.
And We need to put boundaries on the power of the EPA.
Because as long as the EPA can revoke, in its absolute discretion, the nomination of a site where an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility is being built, then there will be no EfW facilities in NSW.
If there is no limit to how much asbestos or how many fragments of asbestos can determine thousands of tonnes of soil to be “asbestos waste”, then there will be no investment.
You cannot have it both ways
We need to find a balance between the justified powers of the EPA as a regulator and the justified interests of the community to live their lives and go about their business.
“Alteration” of the environment cannot be proof of there being waste. The burden of proof has to be higher than that.
The EPA talks about a “risk based” approach when it comes to managing waste. Yes, but what is the risk?
I believe it needs to be the EPA explaining and providing proof for what the risk is – and that decision needs to be open to expert or judicial review. At the moment, the EPA is like a state within a state in that it can make its own regulations, based on its own policies and can enforce them as well.
In some cases, like with dangerous goods or hazardous substances, I agree with that power. But that power needs limits.
Why does one fragment of asbestos in 10,000 tonnes of soil create a risk or harm to the environment or human health? The NSW Land and Environment Court thought it wouldn’t. Nor should any reasonable human being.
In the Grafil case, it was the word “any” that made all the difference. “Any” asbestos, even the smallest fragment, made thousands of tonnes of soil “asbestos waste”. That is senseless stuff.
Should we trust the EPA with all that power it has? Remember: we are flawed creatures. That is why we need a system of checks and balances.
We need to agree on limits for materials that can be harmful
And when new knowledge comes to light, we need to change again. If we are serious about wanting to create a CE, then we need to change the definition of waste.
It makes no sense to call a bale of high density polyethylene plastic milk bottles coming out of a material recycling facility “waste”. Someone pays a few hundred dollars for the bale to get it into their factory and make new HDPE bottles out of them. The new plastic bottles aren’t waste anymore, because they are not ”applied to land”.
In my view, the bale of HDPE coming out of the MRF isn’t waste. It has a value, there is demand for it and it does no harm to the environment.
It is certainly not my job or my ambition to come up with new definitions or a whole new system here, but what I can do is point out the inconsistencies of a system that doesn’t work or that makes no sense.
We need an agency to protect the environment
No doubt at all. But that power needs to be checked and co-operate with other agencies to achieve sustainability goals.
We need a separate agency
NSW also needs a separate agency whose clear mandate is to help with transitioning to a CE, to set policies to do that and to plan for the required essential infrastructure.
We need more landfills quickly
Time is running out. Prohibiting EfW in this context is possibly the worst idea anyone can think of. It shows how conflicted the EPA is. The EPA is totally the wrong agency to look after these issues. By all means let them police, but don’t let them set the rules or policies.
Avoiding waste, the top of the waste hierarchy, is achievable – if we design materials so they can be reused and recycled. But if we do that, we shouldn’t call these materials “waste” at all.
We need to change the definitions.
In my view the definition of waste needs to be specific and based on harm (or risk of harm) to the environment or human health. Let’s have a serious and learned debate about that.
In the meantime, the EPA’s assumption that industry will somehow magically provide the missing infrastructure is flawed thinking. Read my previous articles (linked at the top of this article in case you missed it).
The government has to step in and build new facilities
NSW needs more landfills. And in order to reduce the need for new landfills it also needs three to four new EfW facilities. Throw the draft EfW regulation into the bin. It is useless and will only hinder investment. Just ask the investment community.
This could be a lucrative investment.
The government, if smart, could make money with this infrastructure investment. No one would value a non-existing landfill or EfW facility. But a landfill or EfW facility that is up and running with contracts for supply will sell at a premium. Recycling of capital? Yes, it can be done!