Waste: to recycle or dump? Unfortunately it is a red tape decision

Troy_Green's picture

Waste: to recycle or dump? Unfortunately it is a red tape decision

The Productivity Commission in 2006 identified the high cost of dealing with non-hazardous waste and recommended the development of a national “waste” classification system and a review of the appropriate balance between prescriptive and risk based management systems for “waste”.

Most Australian jurisdictions define “waste” as any material that is discarded, rejected or surplus to current requirements, whether or not it is intended for recycling or reprocessing. As a consequence, a huge range of non-hazardous materials destined for recycling are captured by the respective States’ “waste” regulatory systems which are inefficient, costly, and have considerable record keeping and compliance overheads. Perversely, this cumbersome regulatory framework often has the unintended consequence of materials originally intended for recycling being conveyed to landfill because of the compliance and administrative regimes which in turn makes recycling less economically attractive and places additional, unnecessary pressure on limited landfill site airspace which is a challenge for future generations.

At a local level, Tweed Shire is reviewing its compliance costs for disposal of surplus material from road works that have traditionally been reused elsewhere on council works. The NSW “waste” system has a complicated set of “exemptions” for reuse of these surplus materials which imposes limits on tonnages that can be dealt with, require expensive laboratory testing, and make it very difficult to process the materials at regular council depots. In Tweed’s case, which is located on the NSW/ QLD border, the high cost of NSW waste compliance encourages dumping of perfectly acceptable material into QLD landfill sites which do not attract the NSW Waste Levy of $53 per tonne.

Historically, Council had used surplus fill from road works to convert old landfill sites to sports fields. However, the cost of compliance testing of non-hazardous road material required by the NSW waste exemption system under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 now makes this a marginal proposition. It is ironic that the system that has an objective of encouraging recycling in effect discourages the recycling of road material for alternative community uses.

Other consequences of the system are that Council cannot economically remove aquatic weeds from storm water canals as the regulations make it impractical to lawfully store and treat this material anywhere except at a licensed landfill. The problem with the landfill option is that the saturated weed is very heavy and the NSW waste levy of $53 per tonne makes dumping unaffordable, and the QLD landfills do not accept saturated material. The result is the weed stays and rots in the canals, which is a poor environmental and amenity outcome.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the complex regulatory framework manifests during natural disasters involving floods and landslips. The waste system places tonnage limits on the amount of landslip material and flood debris that can be disposed of on nearby rural properties. Land owners are generally very cooperative in assisting Council in providing disposal sites as it can be used to improve their properties. However, because of the tonnage limits, Council is generally forced to transport this material long distances to land fill sites, making the recovery effort longer and more expensive which in turn requires additional Disaster Recovery Funding from other tiers of government.

It seems perverse that legislation that is supposed to be designed to protect the environment and encourage recycling actually places impediments for doing so, both at a cost and compliance level. The end result is that perfectly good material is being sent to landfill, and virgin non-renewable material is being quarried to replace it, simply because it is cheaper and simpler to do so.

Australia needs to develop a national “waste” definition and compliance framework that is risk-based rather than prescriptive, and minimises unnecessary red tape and compliance costs. In doing so, better environmental outcomes will be achieved and the reuse of our limited natural resources will be optimised.

Troy Green is the GM at Tweed Shire Council and an alumni of the ANZSOG-ACELG Excellence in Local Government Leadership program.

Image courtesy of SitaEnvironmental

Back to the Town Crier

Comments (1)

Chris_ACELG's picture

The Australian recently published an article giving their take on the issue