For many, 2020 has become the year we would rather forget. It’s been challenging for so many sectors, with uncertainty around job security, education, the economy, health and wellbeing.

While the waste and recycling sector has taken a hit in some areas due to declining volumes from commercial and industrial, and construction and demolition customers, household and organic collections have grown due to a much larger number of people working from home.

Fortunately, the momentum created by the Federal Government in 2019 to proactively tackle Australia’s waste and recycling issues has also been maintained, with COAG signing off on the waste export ban response strategy in March.

As a result, additional funding from the Federal Government has been committed including the $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund (to be matched by state and territory governments and industry), $20 million to reduce plastic waste and boost plastics recycling through the Cooperative Research Centres Projects, $20 million in the Product Stewardship Investment Fund, $35 million to implement the National Waste Policy Action Plan and $26 million to nationalise waste data collection and reporting.

Legislative reforms through the new Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020 are also being introduced to implement the waste export ban and recommendations from the Product Stewardship Review.

An independent Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence was also established.

Further, the Federal Budget has identified recycling and clean energy as one of its six manufacturing priorities to stimulate the economy and employment as part of the COIVD-19 recovery plan.

Through the Modern Manufacturing Strategy $1.5 billion has been allocated, over five years to improve competitiveness, scale and resilience in Australian manufacturing.

Off the back of the government’s 2020 policy initiatives, funding allocations and legislative reforms, the scene has been set for the waste and recycling sector to look to 2021 as a foundation year to grow and develop its material and energy recovery infrastructure and capacity.

We know that every $100 million invested in productivity improvements in waste-related activities is estimated to generate an additional $350 million to Australia’s GDP and create 1670 jobs.

With potentially up to $1 billion of new investment by industry and governments over the next four years generating a further $3.5 billion to Australia’s GDP and more than 16,000 jobs.

To achieve this development, NWRIC sees that in 2021 priority must be given to three things – developing markets and recovering more materials, streamlining regulation and fast-tracking infrastructure.

NWRIC has long been advocating for stronger markets for recovered materials in both Australia and overseas. Already $2.9 billion worth of materials are returned into productive circulation each year with potential for this to double.

Mandated recycled content in products and packaging and government procurement of recovered materials will assist in developing these markets. Greater separation of waste leading to cleaner inputs will increase resource recovery and help guarantee supply.

Effective application of federal, state, and local government enforcement of existing regulations and standards will help ensure best practice across the sector.

Key steps such as reducing the number of unregulated industry operators, and the harmonisation of landfill levies will help to synthesise policy objectives and outcomes and shore up investment.

There is also a real need for coordinated planning between the Commonwealth and the states on critical infrastructure and the investment needed to increase recycling capacity, recover energy from waste and ensure safe treatment and disposal of hazardous and residual waste.

What can we expect in 2021?

• Domestic and organic markets will continue to increase while commercial and industrial and construction and demolition markets will be slow to recover.

• Enormous potential in energy recovery from residual wastes – with an estimated 18.3 million tonnes of residual waste going to landfill by 2030, 75 per cent of this could potentially be diverted to generate energy, creating an investment opportunity of $8.2 to $13.7 billion.

• Focus on diversion of organic waste from landfill by state and territory governments by increasing domestic and commercial and industrial FOGO collection services, compositing and energy recovery capacity.

• Victoria and Tasmania to finalise the design and implementation of their container deposit schemes. 

• Acceleration and establishment of new product stewardship initiatives, as the Product Stewardship Centre of Excellence gets to work driving efficiencies, collaboration and best practice.

• Progress on plastics actions at a national and state level including phasing out problematic and unnecessary plastics and increasing plastic recovery rates.

Australia produces around 67 million tonnes of waste annually, with the waste and recycling industry directly contributing $4.8 billion to the economy each year and employing more than 36,000 people.

Now recognised as an essential service, the waste and recycling industry will look to 2021 as an opportunity to develop as a supplier of resources to the manufacturing and infrastructure sectors and an alternative fuel source.

It is an essential industry that has great potential to strengthen Australia’s resource security, generate clean energy, create jobs and protect the environment.

This was first published in Waste Management Review on 8 December 2020