Waste and recycling: how else are the problems piling up in NSW?

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My previous article listed some of the ways NSW is failing to manage its waste. Unfortunately, the pile of problems is actually a lot bigger than just not having enough landfill airspace.

The NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery (WARR) Strategy 2014-21, published in 2014, set a waste diversion target for household waste (MSW or Municipal Solid Waste) of 70 per cent, to be achieved by 2021.

NSW was hovering around the 40 per cent mark before the 70 per cent target was adopted.

The NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041, published in mid-2021, still has the same target, but has now been pushed out to 2041. It shows the following depiction of what had been achieved up to 2019:

When you compare the two graphs, you can see we actually went backwards in NSW, as in financial year 2016 (FY16) we achieved less diversion than in the four years before. What would you call that? I call it: failure!

From 37.8 per cent in 2005/06 to 43 per cent in 2019 is a 5 per cent increase in diversion over 14 years. Impressive? I think not!

More interestingly, the 70 per cent diversion target, published in 2014 for 2021, remains unchanged until 2041. What does that tell you? It tells me that the EPA has no confidence in its own targets.

The target diversion for 2021 for commercial and industrial waste was also 70 per cent. What has been achieved to date (FY19) is 53 per cent. Failure!

For construction and demolition waste it looks a bit better, as it is the easiest to achieve. The target set in 2014 for 2021 was 80 per cent, and 77 per cent was achieved in FY19. But that is down from 81 per cent in FY17. Another failure. And we know that the new “recovered fines” resource recovery order is likely to increase waste going to landfill by about one million tonnes per annum. Proposed by the EPA. Failure!

Previously, I mentioned that the situation of not having enough operating landfills, or not having enough time to get new urgently needed landfills approved and built, was predictable.

Let’s have a quick look back at recent history to see why this is the case. A number of reports were conducted that “helped” form the waste strategies for the NSW government:

There was the inquiry into “alternative waste management technologies and practices” published in April 2000, which recommended adopting a “triple manifesto” moving away from waste disposal toward resource management. The current NSW EPA strategy for 2041—“Charting our path to a safe and sustainable circular economy in NSW”—is called Waste Delivery Plan. Clearly, the message of “resource management” hasn’t sunk in. Result: More failure to come!

A landfill assessment also conducted in 2000 had the message that an aggressive scenario should be adopted to divert waste from landfill and the waste diversion targets could then be achieved in 14 to 16 years. Has such a scenario been adopted? No. Result: The bleeding obvious. The waste diversion targets for 2021 were not achieved and have now been pushed out to 2041. Abysmal failure.

The Public Review into “landfill capacity and demand” published in March 2009 states that Sydney had landfill capacity left for another 20 years, which was about right. The policy at the time basically said that new landfill capacity would only be approved if there was demand for landfill. At the time everyone thought recycling and waste treatment technologies would “save us” from building new landfills. Ha! What did the EPA do? It pulled the rug underneath the facilities that were processing residual waste, so the waste diversion targets were no longer achievable. No further comment.

There was also the “Richmond review” in December 2010, the “review of waste strategy and policy in New South Wales”, which recommended the removal of the time limit on the output of the so called AWT’s (called Mixed Waste Organic Output or MWOO) and to “actively support EfW” in NSW. We all know what happened. MWOO was “cancelled”, leading to more waste going to landfill and EfW is now prohibited, except for one location (and possibly others) but subject to heavy caveats. I don’t know what else to say. What are the above reports telling us? They are basically recommending a course of action which was not adopted, as a consequence of which landfills are filling up faster than predicted. It seems nobody bothered thinking about it. All waste diversion targets (with one exception for c&d waste) were continuously missed. What happened? Nothing.

Over the years, one landfill after another was closing down, as they were full. What happened? Nothing.

The decrease in landfill airspace—as highlighted in the 2041 strategy—was clearly predictable.

Now you could argue that there is still enough time to get organised, right?

Answer: Nope.

As admitted by the EPA, planning new landfills takes a very long time. It should have never come to this and I believe the people of NSW have good reason to be angry and disappointed with the government for failing to plan properly. (Falling asleep at the wheel might be a better term!)

I find one area in the 2014 strategy particularly revealing. It says: “We need a strong pipeline of infrastructure investment to maintain and improve capacity to collect, sort, process and dispose of waste. … While this investment will largely be driven by industry, the NSW government has a role to play to support those looking to invest in the right place at the right time”.

These two sentences explain our current dilemma. A complete and utter misunderstanding of how the waste market has operated in the past, and still operates today.

I’ll explain myself in my next article.

Originally published by The Fifth Estate, for more information click here.

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