The way the New South Wales Government deals with waste companies is “inappropriate” and “flawed”, hindering rather than helping waste businesses while waste infrastructure is “significantly lacking”, the director of a top industry association says.

Tony Khoury, executive director of the Waste Contractors & Recyclers Association of NSW tells The Fifth Estate that the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “has proven that its desire to regulate and prosecute is far greater than its interest to achieve high resource recovery rates”, and that funding would be better spent on strategic planning for resource recovery rather than “[focusing] unduly on compliance risk”. 

This month, Moorebank recycler Paper Trade Processing was fined $50,000 ($25,000 per offence) by the EPA for breaching its environment protection licence, for receiving an excess amount of waste at its Heathcote Road premises.

The company owned by Mark Falanga pleaded guilty to receiving 52,000 tonnes of waste between May 2020 and April 2021, and approximately 34,000 tonnes between May 2021 and December 2021. Its licence limits the amount of waste that can be received and processed at its facility to 28,000 tonnes per year. On becoming aware that they had breached their EPA licences, Paper Trade self-reported to the EPA, which then proceeded to prosecution. 

At a hearing on 4 July, Liverpool Local Court Magistrate Imad Abdul-Karim said the company acted recklessly and obtained a financial benefit. However, he stated that there was no actual environmental harm or direct risk of harm. 

Khoury says fines like this one highlight flaws in the system that are hindering businesses like Paper Trade Processing.

“The fine was entirely inappropriate and highlights the flawed approach from the NSW EPA.”

“It doesn’t take much to fall foul of the authorities,” he says. “There’s some factors in the market right now, shipping and logistics delays are horrendous. It wouldn’t be hard to get caught with extra materials, what’s a recycler supposed to do?” 

“The NSW EPA to date has proven that its desire to regulate and prosecute is far greater than its interest to achieve high resource recovery rates.” 

Redefining waste

Mark Falanga, owner of Paper Trade, wants the regulator to reclassify clean materials that are bound for recycling as a resource rather than a waste product, and says that the EPA’s definition of waste should be changed to reflect this. 

“Paper Trade’s business is based on purchasing clean, good quality materials from non-waste facility sources. These products are internationally traded commodities and should not be included by regulators in the definition of waste”.

Khoury agrees, saying that in order to meet resource recovery targets, “the definition of waste will need to change”. 

He says fines like these are significant for small businesses like Paper Trade, as they hinder business operations, growth and employment opportunities.

“For many years, senior EPA staff have advised us that we should not fear being prosecuted in these situations, yet Paper Trade [has] 50,000 plus reasons to feel betrayed, aggrieved and let down by a system that does not support sustainable resource recovery outcomes.”

Australia’s waste problem

The federal government’s bombshell State of the Environment report has revealed that most major Australian cities are growing at a faster rate than other developed cities across the planet, increasing pollution and waste and exerting pressure on our waste system. 

As the number of waste processing facilities needs to expand to cope with increased population, NSW’s “severely lacking” infrastructure is an issue that has been both exacerbated and brought to the fore during the recent unprecedented rain events. 

“We are lacking an infrastructure network to safely address our essential waste management disposal needs. In light of these ongoing challenges, it is critical that EPA and the NSW government support the NSW waste management and resource recovery sector by ensuring that the regulatory framework does not hinder legitimate and sustainable resource recovery operations,” Khoury says. 

The EPA’s site-specific framework hinders broader resource recovery targets for NSW and the needs of the emerging circular economy, which Khoury says could be addressed by amendments to the Protection of the Environment Operations Act, the Resource Recovery Orders under the Protection of the Environment (Waste) Regulation or the NSW EPA.

An independent review of the EPA’s Resource Recovery Framework is currently being undertaken by Monash University’s Dr Cathy Wilkinson of the Sustainable Development Institute, who formerly headed up the Victorian EPA. 

It will examine how the Resource Recovery Framework works to divert materials derived from waste away from landfill, and whether it is effective and fit for purpose.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Khoury says. “To this extent, WCRA commends the current work by Dr Cathy Wilkinson who has been commissioned by the NSW EPA to undertake an independent review of the resource recovery framework in NSW.”

The Fifth Estate reached out to the EPA for comment but did not receive a response at the time of publishing.

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