The next big frontier in waste is reducing the production and consumption of rubbish in the first place, says Clean Up Australia chief executive Terrie-Ann Johnson.
Ms Johnson was speaking to The Fifth Estate after appointing new business development manager Wendy Chapman (who previously consulted to The Fifth Estate, Green Capital and Pyrmont-Ultimo Precinct Project, among others), taking total permanent staff numbers to five.
Delivery of the organisation’s agenda – addressing environmental issues by fostering ties between the community, businesses and government – continues to rely on the assistance of 670,000 volunteers.
Ms Johnson said that although there is a lot of “good will” in communities, businesses and governments, the waste issue is often not given the holistic end-to-end treatment needed for real change to occur.
For example, there is a significant opportunity to reduce the amount of food packaging produced, particularly packaging for fresh produce.
Cutting down on the amount of food packaging used is a multi-dimensional problem, with the primary objective to stop retailers from stocking it.
This task comes with its challenges, with suppliers and retailers often preferring to prepackage fruit and vegetables because it speeds up the check-out process.
The issue is further complicated by waste management providers that are falling behind the rapid rate of innovation and change in the industry.
According to Ms Johnson, Australia is not yet equipped to process some packaging alternatives, such as renewable plant-based materials, on a domestic scale.
In the future, Ms Johnson would like to see more businesses taking environmental issues into consideration as part of packaging and product design.
Consumers also play a key role driving change on waste issues, Ms Johnson said.
Consumer-led waste reform has already had its successes, with awareness of the problems caused by single use plastic bags now widespread.
Bans on single-use plastic bags have been mandated by law in several states, with bans coming into force in Victoria and Queensland on 1 July. NSW is now the only jurisdiction that doesn’t require bags be removed from checkouts, but several large retailers have taken heed of consumer interests and removed them anyway.
The new series of ABC’s War on Waste is also likely to throw a powerful spotlight on the sector. Season one last year racked up a massive 4.3 million viewers, more than 50 highly active Facebook pages, and 20 million views of its video on dumping perfectly good bananas.
Ms Johnson said this awareness is possible when it is easy to demonstrate the impact a waste item is having on the environment.
“People want something tangible to hone in on,” she said.
The broader recycling and waste management industry in Australia has been under stress since China’s decision to stop importing waste earlier this year. The ban triggered a collapse in the prices of some waste commodities being sold to Asian countries, including China.
Clean Up Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that was founded by Australia in 1989. The organisation is best known for its Clean Up Australia Day event that encourages people to clean up their local areas. The event is held on the first Sunday of March every year.