Our planet has a waste problem – this is not a secret, nor is it something that is up for debate. Collectively, the world’s major cities generated about 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste in 2016 alone – breaking down to about 0.74 kilograms per person, per day. This number is expected to increase by a massive 70% over the next few decades, by the time we reach 2050.
In Australia, the states and territories have historically dealt with waste management in different ways and this has lead to some ‘landfill shopping’ as waste generators found an economic advantage is simply transporting waste to lower cost landfill destinations such as Queensland. This may have distorted the waste statistics somewhat but the past patterns of growth in waste – increasing by about 24% between 2007 and 2015, and the low rate of diversion to reuse and recycling – suggest that all jurisdictions need to consider how to improve waste reduction, reuse and recycling in concert with adjoining states and territories.
The good news is that we are seeing a higher level of regulatory consistency with the introduction of more comparable landfill levies.
Understanding waste behaviour
The way people behave and the decisions that they make – whether about waste or any other aspect of life – is often driven by habits, perceptions and mental shortcuts. This is a necessary cognitive mechanism that we all have. It prevents us from being weighed down by processing every single decision that we need to make. Behavioural economists and clinical psychologists have found that there are patterns to these biases, and for us, that means that we are able to take account of those decision biases when we design systems or make rules. This includes waste systems and waste regulations.
It is generally recognised that there is a lot of waste generated by demolition and construction. These activities are part and parcel of the urban and regional development we require as a growing nation. It is estimated that out of all the building materials delivered to an average construction site, about 30% of that is waste. In Australia, statistics show that approximately 20 Mt of C&D waste was produced between 2014-15 and 64% was recovered. Construction waste management is well-established in Australia, but there is still scope to improve with many mixed C&D waste loads still being taken directly to landfill.
Some interesting research suggests that there are ways to shape behaviour at the myriad of building sites where demolition and construction is occurring. Even our individual choices when it comes to household recycling and waste disposal can benefit from examination through a behavioural lens. Recent research suggests that people inclined to reduce waste and people inclined to recycle waste respond to very different incentives. This sort of research provides important insights for those designing waste systems or policy, which will ultimately assist the community to improve waste management outcomes.
Waste from the mining industry is also particularly pressing, especially when you consider the sheer volume we’re talking about. While data is scarce for countries with the highest mining output like Australia, in Poland, the annual generation of hard coal mining waste added up to about 29.9 million tonnes in 2001 alone.
“The current necessity has a lot to do with the shift in China’s customs policy when the National Sword Program saw a sharp reduction in China’s importation of recycled materials. The impact has been felt globally and Australia is not immune.”
What We’re Doing About It
The waste problem is not a fight that we’ve lost. It’s a battle that we’re still fighting on every front. The property sector, to use just one example, has banded together to tackle the issue of waste and turn it into an opportunity to recover valuable materials within their industry.NABERS, GECA and the Better Buildings Partnership have recently worked to create new ways to accurately account for waste from office buildings and shopping centres – though they’re still trying to come up with viable solutions in terms of making sure they’re buying recycled materials in the first place.
Even the waste industry is booming as a result, with companies regularly hiring everyone from waste auditors to environmental scientists to stay up-to-date with the types of environmental requirements companies are facing every day. The government is also not taking this problem laying down.
“In March 2018, the NSW Government announced a $47 million support package to help industry and local government … and to incentivize innovation to increase the production and application of recycled products. There were also important policy and regulatory revisions, such as the temporary increase in stockpiling limits for recycled materials.”
The War Rages On
Based on all of this, it’s easy to see that we’ve come a long way in a short period of time. However, we still have a long way to go. At EMM, we are an established service provider to the waste management and recycling sector. What we observe is that the necessity to reduce waste has always been present but has, to a large extent, been hidden by the relative ease of disposal, whether that is by transferring the material to processing facilities in China or simply to landfill.
“The solution we see is to provide a more amenable approval pathway for waste transfer and processing facilities, particularly in metro areas, and to allow the regulators and policymakers to reform the economics of waste.”