Turmoil and Triumph in Victoria’s Waste World

Turmoil and Triumph in Victoria’s Waste World
Urban EditorialJanuary 24, 2020

Comment: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the constant images of mountains of rubbish, or recurring newsflashes of the Great Pacific Garbage patch, a convergence of plastic the size of Texas floating in the Pacific, caught in a relentless cyclical current.

So in response, we do our best. We reduce plastic, we take our bags, and we recycle everything we can. We take the time to separate the recyclables and carefully place them in the yellow lidded bins. Last year, however, it surfaced that many local government areas in Victoria were not sending recycling to be recycled, and it was all being sent to landfill. When the act of recycling relieves a small amount of the guilt associated with waste production, hearing that the effort is being fruitlessly reversed does make you want to throw up your hands in defeat. The recycling crisis of 2018 in Victoria and Australia alike has permeated into 2019, but amongst the turmoil of the recycling apocalypse, there have been some local government areas acting as shining lights for new waste initiatives.  It’s not all bad news, and sometimes we need to focus on the light at the end of the legislative tunnel.

Amidst a climate of already rising levels of waste production, the future of recycling in Australia took a plunge after China enforced it’s National Sword Policy in January of 2018. This policy enforced strict rules on the importation of recycled materials. China now only accepts recycled materials with a contamination rate of 0.5%. Instances, where unrecyclable materials are caught up on recycling, causes it to become contaminated.  Canterbury Bankstown states that;

The recyclable material Australia sent to China had a contamination rate of six per cent.”

Therefore, our massive number of exported recyclables were no longer accepted, and the recycling industry went into free fall across Australia. This in itself bungles the mind when you think of throwing your crumbled soft drink into the recycling bin, only for it to shipped 7000km away to China. China was previously the largest importer of recyclable materials and accepted 30 million metric tonnes of waste from all over the world.

As a result of this new policy, recycling was being stockpiled at recycling plants to wait and see what the next move would be for the industry. However, the stockpiling of recyclables creates a higher risk of fires, similar to the one that occurred at the Coolaroo Plant in Melbourne’s north in 2017. Therefore, cautious of the growing risk, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) necessitated the closure of several recycling centres following fears of fire at many of the SKM Recycling sites. From here, the situation worsened.

Turmoil and Triumph in Victoria’s Waste World
Firefighter hosing Coolaroo recycling fire – Image credit: news.com.au

­­Following EPA closures of several of their sites, SKM took the plunge on 25 July 2019 and closed its doors to 30 Councils across Victoria, “effective immediately.”

Councils were left scrambling, with imminent waste collection days coming and nowhere to put the recycled waste of 1000’s of homes in their vicinities. Unfortunately, many councils had to start sending recycling to landfill.

The affected local Councils were:

  • Melbourne, Port Phillip 
  • Darebin, Nillumbik, Hume, Whittlesea
  • Wyndham, Brimbank, Moonee Valley, Hobsons Bay
  • Cardinia, Boroondara, Stonnington, Knox, Casey, Kingston, Mornington Peninsula
  • Geelong, Colac Otway, Queenscliff, Surf Coast
  • Ballarat, Macedon, Hepburn, Golden Plains
  • Mildura, West Wimmera, Yarriambiack, Buloke, Hindmarsh, Pyrenees, Glenelg

Following closures, many residents were left in the dark about the true resting place of their carefully separated recyclables which were heading directly for landfill. Many residents turned to community forums to seek recycling friends from across local government borders or began storing their recycling at home for months.

However, with the year drawing to a close, there are small mushrooms of positivity popping up after the proverbial storm is passing, and things are starting to resolve. Whilst there are still Councils in the thralls of recycling contract negotiation or breakdown, some are striving in other areas of waste management and recreating the new normal.

Moreland City Council, whilst unaffected by the SKM breakdown, came out swinging in July of this year with a green waste collection initiative. From July food scraps (of many different shapes and varieties) could be placed in the kerbside green waste bin alongside garden waste. It is an opt-in service that is expanding to the rest of the municipality in 2021, but already people have excitedly taken up the offer.

Turmoil and Triumph in Victoria’s Waste World
City of Moreland food waste disposal guidelines – Image credit: Moreland City Council

Moreland Council is involved the Back to Earth Initiative, helping to divert thousands of tonnes from landfill for it to be turned into compost for parks, gardens and farms. City of Moreland Mayor Natalie Abboud states:

Currently over 50% of waste in Moreland that goes to landfill is food organics, and when it breaks down in landfill it produces the harmful greenhouse gas methane, which contributes to climate change.”  

This represents the repurposing of a huge percentage of waste and the changing of ingrained waste habits and behaviours for the better. The Back to Earth initiative focuses on a closed-loop system. It brings green waste from the cities, turns it into compost to enrich soil quality, therefore growing more crops of better quality and sending those back to the city. This represents the satisfying symbiosis of urban and rural needs working in harmony.

Turmoil and Triumph in Victoria’s Waste World
Participating Councils of the Back to Earth food and green waste initiative – Image credit: Back to Earth

The City of Darebin has followed suit, coming through shining after months of recycling chaos. After Darebin’s previous contract with SKM collapsed following the state-wide chaos, recycling was being sent to landfill.

As of September 5 2019, Darebin announced its new 4-year Recycling contract with VISY, diverting recycling from landfill after months of heartbreak. Particularly for an area such a Darebin for which sustainability seems to be well ingrained into the ethos of the area, it was a tumultuous time.

Following the announcement for the new recycling contract, City of Darebin also announced a food waste initiative in line with Moreland and many other local government areas and commenced a fortnightly green and food waste collection in October. Collected food and green waste are taken to the Veolia recycling facility located in Bulla to be turned into compost. Similarly to the City of Moreland, food waste makes up a significant amount of waste in the area (38%) and Darebin states that:

Calculations show that the introduction of food waste recycling to existing green bin users could reduce emissions by up to 1,600 tonnes in the first year and many more after that as more users get involved.”

Hobsons Bay is joining the bandwagon and commencing a new waste and recycling program this summer. It is taking recycling to a new level with:

  • weekly food and garden waste collections
  • monthly glass recycling collections
  • fortnightly general waste collections
  • fortnightly paper, cardboard, metals and plastic recycling collections
    (Hobsons Bay)

The separation of glass with a new glass only bin is on the forefront stating;

 “The simple act of separating glass from other materials drastically improves the quality of all recyclable material.”

Nether less, the recycling contract situation at Hobson’s Bay still appears dicey with new agreements. It appears after previous contracts and interim agreements did not offer a reprieve, there has been a resolution if somewhat short term.  The problem with the new recycling contracts is that are all in many ways finite. If the general state of recycling statewide is not ameliorated they are just sand through an hourglass, if you will.

The City of Yarra commenced its trial waste revolution in June for a small sample of human guineapigs living in Abbotsford. They are focusing on the concept of the ‘circular economy.’

“We’re going to be using what we’ve got (our waste), to create what we need (the possibilities are endless!). It’s called the circular economy.”

Again we see the separation of the glass material for bi-weekly collection. As glass breaks, it is mixed in with other recyclables lowering the overall quality and making the whole lot harder to recycle. It is also adopting the food waste initiative of the other local government areas. They are similarly collecting food and green waste but are proposing more frequent weekly kerbside collections.

Turmoil and Triumph in Victoria’s Waste World
City of Yarra waste trial revolution journey – Image: City of Yarra

It is unclear when the trial waste revolution is to be concreted for the rest of the municipality but it certainly represents revolutionary new ways of conceptualising waste for the future.

There are many municipalities throughout Victoria that are similarly making noticeable changes amongst the waste chaos, but it would be impossible to focus on them all. It is exciting, however, to see a few standing out.

So, nearly 2 years on from when the National Sword Policy sliced a big hole through Australia’s recycling industry, it is easy to feel forlorn. However, it is more markedly cheering to see Councils finding new solutions and exploring other facets of waste and examining what is possible, or even more so, what options are too glaringly obvious to ignore.

China’s National Sword Policy, although throwing us into unprecedented chaos out of nowhere, really did serve a purpose. We were forced to hold up a mirror to society and realise that sending recyclables halfway across the globe was really quite insane.

Waste is not a groovy topic. Many people don’t like to think about the life of their chip packet after carefully knotting the garbage bag and placing it in the kerbside bin, waving to their neighbour jovially before continuing with life.

However it’s a reality that everything carries on, previously to China, sometimes to the Pacific ocean, but hopefully for more of our organic waste, it carries on to begin its new life on the crop dotted fields of rural Victoria.

Whilst Councils are restoring relations and contracts with recycling companies, these are finite in many ways. It’s a state and nationwide problem of too much waste, and no efficient system to deal with it and deal with it correctly. A shake-up of the whole system is dearly needed.

And no, I don’t have the answers, I’m just watching hopefully from the sideline. At a smaller scale though, we can help. Look in the mirror, look in your shopping basket, look in your bins. Identify the culprit and start from there.

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