SUEZ Australia & New Zealand CEO Mark Venhoek explains why waste to energy infrastructure is the missing link in Australia’s national waste management hierarchy as China’s National Sword policy alters the shape of the industry and opens opportunities…
I was in Melbourne for the Waste Management Association of Australia’s ENVIRO’18 Convention, where I took the opportunity to present on the state of the nation in waste management at this critical juncture.
There has been much focus on China’s change in policy towards the importation of recyclables, and where this leaves us here in Australia. Though reports have painted this as a crisis situation, we at SUEZ see it as an unparalleled opportunity for industry, governments and communities to work together to change behaviours and adapt policies towards a more sustainable model of consumption and growth.
Though Australia is wealthy and developed, in reality our domestic waste story reads closer to that of a third world country. As a nation, we have long maintained a linear approach to domestic waste, favouring short-term fixes such as offshore recycling over investment in local solutions with long-term benefit.
So how did we get here? The macroeconomic context paints a compelling picture. Decades of economic growth driven by government policy and the resources boom pushed input costs – and labour costs in particular – to astronomic levels, making Australia uncompetitive across a range of industries. This in turn created greater demand for imported manufacturing inputs such as cheap virgin glass products, leading to declining demand for recycled glass and generating huge stockpiles of glass around the country.
For many years, Australia’s linear approach saw more than one million tonnes of waste transported cross-country to landfills in Queensland each year, favouring cost savings over sustainability. The lack of local investment – and incentives to invest – in recycling facilities is another key element, leaving the industry less able to cope with major shocks like the China situation.
Overwhelmingly, Australians want more and better recycling, with 88% supporting pro-recycling action at government level. But at the same time, 51% of people opposed rates increases of up to $50 per year to improve recycling. The short-term view taken by governments at both Federal and State level is a powerful factor in maintaining the linear economy approach that is failing our communities.
Rather than going around in circles, we must look to radical changes that transition our economy to one that is circular and sustainable. Beyond simply promoting recycling and landfill diversion, we must explore the causes of waste inherent in our society’s models of production and consumption and look to achieve value across the whole economic chain – from manufacture to supply, retail, consumption and end-of-life. This multifaceted approach encompasses reducing unnecessary waste, more sustainable product and packaging design, integrated waste management and investing in our capacity for local processing and remanufacturing.
We have a waste infrastructure deficit. At SUEZ, we believe that energy from waste (EfW) technology is the missing link in our national waste management hierarchy and infrastructure. Though prevalent throughout Europe, EfW remains in its infancy in Australia. This is due in part to the need to overcome negative perceptions in communities, fed by councils withdrawing from projects and the hesitancy of our leaders to commit to investment in an environment governed by political election cycles.
Delivering EfW requires the right settings – a stable market, regulatory and political environment, access to optimal technologies and development sites, and the engagement and support of communities. SUEZ has recently partnered with Australian Paper to progress plans for an EfW plant in Victoria to reduce its reliance on natural gas and coal-fired electricity in manufacturing. It’s a long-term commitment that we hope will not only provide essential and sustainable infrastructure for the state, but build a momentum for change, engender positivity and make circular economy approaches such as this business as usual.
It’s just one of many opportunities for Australia to embrace a new way of thinking and take control of its own destiny, investing in collaborative innovation towards more sustainable growth'.
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