In less than two months, a ban on exporting Australia’s waste is due to begin and researchers say attention needs to shift to avoid creating waste, to stop the problem piling up in the first place.
- The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering argues for greater emphasis on avoiding, rather than managing, waste
- The Federal Budget contained $250 million in funding for the recycling sector
- Companies including IKEA have implemented repair and buy-back programs to try and stop products becoming waste
The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), which develops researched-based policy advice, has recommended government grants and incentives target innovative designs, which avoid or minimise waste.
“The end of a product’s first life ought to be disassembly and reassembly, or repair and repurpose,” ATSE chief executive Kylie Walker said.
“Then only after all those things have failed, should we start looking at how do you melt down and recycle, or extract the component resources.”
Legislation currently before the Senate includes a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, which is scheduled to be phased in from the beginning of January.
There were 4.4 million tonnes of waste exported from Australia in 2018-19 and that annual amount will soon have to be dealt with onshore.
The Federal Government has increased its involvement in recycling — previously the domain of the states and territories — and the latest Budget included $250 million for the recycling sector.
Of that funding, $190 million is for a fund to spur investment in infrastructure to sort, process and turn waste into new products.
The further $59.6 million will go towards implementing the National Waste Policy Action Plan, which has been agreed to by all levels of government.
The plan’s targets include a 10 per cent reduction in waste generation per person, increasing resource recovery to 80 per cent across all waste streams and halving organic waste sent to landfill by 2030.
The ATSE report concludes those goals will be “difficult to achieve without focusing on avoidance”.
It found that while the plan prioritises avoidance in principle, its “measures are heavily weighted towards waste collection and recycling, rather than avoidance, reuse, repair of remanufacture.”
However, Ms Walker said she was optimistic based on ATSE’s consultation with companies, industry groups and government as part of the report.
‘Prevention is better than cure’
The ATSE report has recommended legislation be introduced to improve the consumers’ right to have products repaired, to avoid creating waste unnecessarily.
As part of the National Waste Policy Action Plan, the Government committed to reviewing that possibility by 2021.
Some companies have already implemented their own repair programs to extend the life of their products, including furniture giant IKEA.
IKEA’s sustainability business partner Bhumika Selot said customers can now bring goods back to a store, to pick up a spare part or have it repaired.
There’s also a buy-back program, to encourage customers to return items in exchange for a voucher, to be cleaned, checked and resold ‘as is’.
“We do understand that our customers have this perception that IKEA products are usually cheap products — yes they are and we are proud of that — but it’s not necessarily that cheap products are bad in quality,” Ms Selot said.
“We are seeing that the customer behaviour mindset is changing… what is the reusability of that [product] and if it cannot be reused by them, pass it on to another house or another family.”
Ms Selot said repurposing the materials from old IKEA furniture into new items, rather than using new wood, is a long-term goal, but it is constrained by the technology and infrastructure available in some countries.
“Globally, there is an ambition that prevention is better than cure, but a lot of times it doesn’t happen,” she said.
Big data possibilities for waste and recycling
Part of the Budget funding for the implementation of the National Waste Policy Action Plan will be allocated to increasing the availability of data about what waste is ending up where.
Ms Walker said data capabilities should be used to hold companies to account for the waste created from what they make and sell.
At the smaller end of the scale, she said it could also be used to inform consumers about where products come from, what they’re made off and how they should be disposed of or where they should be taken to, to avoid ending up in landfill.
“We’ve got the capabilities and the computing power now and the technology to be able to embed tracking devices, or barcodes even at the very simple end of things, into all products,” Ms Walker said.
The report recommends that data collection and sharing be mandatory, for manufacturers, waste recovery businesses and governments.