Waste management suffered under COVID-19

How we are responding and why it matters

Landfill, recycling, organics: what we do with our waste has huge implications for sustainability and biodiversity. Recent events have challenged the sector, but stakeholders are finding opportunities among the ruin.

Posted by
Peter Somerville

What we eat, how we get around, the clothes we wear – nearly all human activities generate some form of waste. Australia produced 75.8 million tonnes of waste in the 2020-2021 financial year alone, a figure which continues to increase year-on-year.

Australia produces more than its fair share of waste while also getting less out of it.

At Currie, we help our clients to manage their communications along every stage of the waste management process – from production to reuse.

Why does waste management matter?

It’s taken for granted that poor waste management is a bad thing – but understanding why can help situate the discussion. When poorly managed, waste can contaminate the environment through a range of processes. Landfills, for instance, account for almost a third of Australia’s methane emissions (a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of climate change impact).

Poor waste management can reduce the quality of our soil, water and air – and can even expose animals, and humans to an increased risk of illness and infection. Microplastics, because of ineffective waste management procedures, are finding their way into the environment and onto our plates – the consequences of which scientists are only beginning to contend with.

Against positive shifts towards increased resource recovery and environmental awareness, recent events have hampered Australia’s progress towards a more sustainable waste future.

What are the challenges and what have we done?

In 2018, China placed strict limits on the kinds of waste materials they would accept for processing. Though, on average, Australia exports only 6% of its waste, China was by far our most significant export partner and the effects of the ban were not evenly distributed across industries and products (household paper and plastics were particularly affected by the bans – one third of which were exported to overseas trading partners.)

It took China’s reforms, and similar ones in other major importing nations, to alert most Australians to the export dependencies of our waste management system.

Federal, State and Territory governments were quick to implement the 2018 National Waste Policy, which emphasized the need to regulate and innovate for a ‘circular economy’ whose goals were expanded upon in a 2019 Action Plan.

Among other things, the Action Plan set greater recovery goals, stricter limits on landfill and committed to bans on the exporting of certain waste materials. More recently, the Federal Government has pledged $250 million toward implementing a ‘circular economy’ over 5 years from 2022-2023.

A ‘circular economy’ approach requires contributions from all major players, and it is therefore essential that there is communication and transparency among stakeholders to ensure an integrated network of approaches.

This belief is at the core of Currie’s work in the waste industry. Whether it’s developing and implementing stakeholder engagement plans or facilitating consultative forums with regulators – we’ve learned that transparent, future-focused thinking best serves the interests of businesses and affected communities.

Just as Australia began responding to the export problem, COVID-19 further muddied the waste management landscape (no pun intended).

With more online shopping, more food and goods delivery, more single-use plastics for medical supplies, and less stringent oversight –  the environment has suffered greatly under COVID-19. In times of emergency, thinking tends to focus on the short term and important, yet less immediate, issues like climate change tend to be overlooked.

The uncertainty of lockdown protocols and reduced access to certain services meant less concern for the environment (for instance, Melbourne saw a 70% increase in illegal waste dumping during it’s first lockdown).

Progress made on the back of growing concern for the environment appears to have been chipped away at and, in some cases, reversed. Household waste, for instance, which had been steadily decreasing for 15 years, increased substantially during the pandemic. It has been estimated that, by late 2021, the pandemic had generated an extra 8 million tonnes of plastic waste globally.

With changing consumer trends, a public health crisis and a compelled transition to domestic processing, Australia’s waste problem is getting bigger and more complicated.

But positive change is happening. It’s not just the government that is investing in waste recovery. Increasingly, companies are taking control of their output with increased industry self-regulation, product stewardship and innovation.

The Construction industry, Australia’s second biggest industry in terms of waste production, increased it’s recycling rate from 55% in 2008-2009 to 76% in 2020. While much more needs to be done to reach the Federal Government’s 80% waste recycling by 2030 goal, at least we’ve seen that change is possible.

As Australia shifts towards increased domestic manufacturing, partly in response to global supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, huge recovery opportunities will continue to emerge. A 2021 CSIRO report outlined the economic incentives behind increased recovery in the manufacturing industry – for instance, a 5% increase in Australia’s recovery rate would add an additional $1 billion to Australia’s GDP.

The changing waste management landscape promises to bring with it many opportunities for innovation and growth. In the shift towards a ‘circular economy’ the Federal Government aims to redirect the Federal Government aims to redirect over 600,000 tonnes of waste from landfill while creating 10,000 jobs in the process. Australia’s waste sector may have more work to do – but recent years have shown us that change is possible.

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Currie acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country where we work throughout Australia and recognises their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders both past and present.