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Can NSW achieve the national waste targets?

NSW is heading away from a circular economy. The latest National Waste Report data shows that not only is NSW total waste generation growing but our waste to landfill is also growing.

By Mike Ritchie, Director, MRA Consulting Group

We landfill 1.6 million tonnes (MT) per year more waste now than we did in 2007 (7.3 MT now versus 5.7 MT in 2007).

And the trend is pretty constant, as shown in the historic waste data (Figure 1). 

As many readers will know, the NSW Government along with all other State, Territories, Federal and Local governments signed up to the National Waste Action Plan and its Targets of:

  • 80% diversion from landfill by 2030; and
  • 50% reduction in organic waste to landfill by 2030.

If we project current trends out to 2030 the picture for NSW is not good. We expect the economy to keep growing and with it, waste generation. That means we need to run even faster.

We cannot achieve the Targets with the current policy settings. Simple.

We currently recycle about 61% of NSW’s generated waste (Blue and Yellow lines in Figure 1). We still landfill 7.3 MT/year or 40%. 

As illustrated in Figure 1, to get to the agreed 80% diversion target by 2030 we need to: 

  • Grow recycling from its current 12.4 MT to 18.2 MT in only 7 years; that is a growth of 5.8 MT or an uplift of almost 1 MT per year, every year, to 2030; AND
  • Reduce waste to landfill from 7.3 MT to 4.5 MT (see Red line in Figure 1 and the Target in 2030).

Even if we take into account the historic growth in recycling (call it the “natural growth rate” of recycling (refer yellow trend line), we still need to grow recycling by 3.9 MT per year above historic growth rates.

5.8 MT/year of additional recycling. Let that just sink in a bit. 5.8 MILLION tonnes per year in new recycling.

Figure 1. Historic NSW waste trend data (Source National Waste Report 2022)
Figure 1. Historic NSW waste trend data (Source National Waste Report 2022)

A bit of context:

  1. Coffee cups to landfill represent 5,000t/yr in NSW;
  2. All soft plastic represents less than 50,000t/yr ;
  3. Straws and clam shell plastic is a couple of thousand tonnes per year;
  4. e-waste (TVs computers etc) is about 150,000t/yr.

Such minor streams are worthy of attention but not in the absence of the larger mixed waste streams – if we want any chance of hitting the Targets and reducing waste to landfill.

We need to focus on the big waste streams and big solutions. We cannot recycle enough plastic bags to get ourselves to 80%. We cannot educate enough business owners or school kids, to get to 80%. 

We need to think in the millions of tonnes and that means infrastructure, levies, mandates and market-based interventions.

Ok. So what are the solutions? I hear you ask.”

In terms of ease of intervention and cost to the economy of recycling (rather than landfilling), we need to focus on:

  1. C&D (mixed construction waste);
  2. C&I (commercial waste) particularly organics and dry recyclables;
  3. MSW (household waste) and particularly organics.

What are the priorities for action?:

  • Mixed construction waste- all of it. It is dry (inert), it is easily sorted, and it has lots of reuse markets (think steel, aluminium, concrete, bricks, gyproc etc).
  • Mixed commercial waste can be collected as both dry and wet (food) loads. Dry loads can be recycled, while clean food can be composted or anaerobically digested.
  • In the household (MSW) space, the low hanging fruit is organics (think food and garden organics; FOGO by another name). FOGO represents 50% of all the waste coming out of households.

In the next section of this article, I look at each of these streams and suggest the solutions we need to achieve the agreed Targets.

Construction and Demolition

Figure 2. The trend in C&D Waste

The trend in C&D waste is very positive. 

While growth in the economy is driving higher generation, the C&D recycling sector is keeping up and on trend to achieve the Target. 

While we need to grow recycling rates by 2.5 MT over the next 7 years (from 7.5 to 10.1MT/yr), the historic trends show that, with the same investment pipeline, we will get very close.

To achieve the Target we need to build (and/or expand) a whole bunch of C&D recycling facilities. For example:

  • 5 x 500kt/yr C&D recycling facilities; OR
  • say 25 x 100kt/yr facilities.

That is very achievable based on historic trends but it requires the NSW Government to continue to increase the landfill levy, in real terms. The levy has underpinned the historic growth in recycling and needs to further increase to capture the remaining “harder to get” C&D materials.

Good on the C&D sector.

Commercial and Industrial

In the C&I sector the economics don’t work as well. We see cardboard and metals recycled but almost all mixed waste goes to landfill. 

It is simply cheaper to landfill much of this material than to separate it. It is expensive to drive multiple 4 tonne trucks to pick up separated streams and then pay someone a gate fee to recycle it. Generally, only cardboard and metals can overcome these cost disadvantages.

Simple economics.

Figure 3. The trend in C&I

The first thing you will note from Figure 3 is that the generation rate (blue line) is falling over time. That is fantastic but it could also be a temporary trend rather than the decoupling of commercial waste generation from economic growth. You will note that the biggest falls (in the last 3 years) coincided with COVID 19 and people not going to work. It is expected to bounce back rapidly with the reopening of business.

The second thing to note is that we need to grow commercial recycling rates by over 1.5 MT by 2030 to achieve the Target (from 2.6 MT to 4.2 MT by 2030). 

Again, we know what to do but recyclers are loath to invest in this space because the competitor (landfill) is so much cheaper. They just cannot make a reliable return on investment. 

To achieve a 1.5 MT growth in C&I recycling we need to:

  • Mandate organics separation (congratulations to NSW Government for announcing this will commence from 2025. We don’t know which commercial businesses will be included nor how many tonnes, but let’s assume 300-400kt).
  • Build big sorting facilities “dirty MRFs” to take dry inert commercial waste and sort it for its cardboard, steel, pallets, plastic etc. For example:
    • 11 x 100kt C&I sorting facilities spread across NSW;  (But this kit will only be built if the landfill levy increases or there is some other regulated mandate, such as a ban on landfill);
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for specific minor streams such as packaging, e-waste and mattresses etc.; and
  • Finally, mixed residual C&I material, once stripped of its recyclable content, is suitable for energy recovery. NSW will need a portfolio of EfW facilities to achieve the Targets. (You may have noticed the purple line in Figure 1 representing Energy Recovery. Most of that is landfill gas recovery, not EfW).

Further, we need markets for the materials. It is not enough to collect and reprocess it. Industry needs viable and sustainable markets to sell the products into. That requires positive procurement policies and a bias towards recycled content. 

Investors will only build these recycling facilities and invest in recovery when they can make a sustainable economic return. 

Why would Cleanaway, Veolia, Remondis or any other operator try to recycle a mixed load of commercial waste when it is cheaper to landfill it, with no commercial risk.

This is one of the major broken pieces of Circular Economics in NSW.

Household Waste (MSW)

We already recycle about 2.2 MT of material from households. This is primarily Garden Organics, kerbside recyclables, Packaging (CDS material) and some minor streams such as mattresses, e-waste, polystyrene etc.

Figure 4. The trend in MSW

Figure 4 shows that MSW generation continues to climb, as does waste to landfill. 

To achieve the national waste target for NSW we need to grow recycling by 1.7 MT/yr (from 2.2 to 3.9 MT/yr by 2030.) 

To achieve the Target we need to:

  • Mandate the separation of organic waste (garden and food) from other waste and collect it for composting or anaerobic digestion. (Again to the NSW Government’s credit they have mandated separate collection of FOGO for all households by 2030.) Of course, this is too late to achieve the target so the new Minns Government should look at bringing forward the compliance date or providing incentives to get Councils to move earlier. MRA estimates this will divert 1.2 MT of organics from landfill;
  • The remaining 500kt/yr must come from better segregation of recyclables (we lose 30% of all available recyclables into the red landfill bin; about 200kt), extended Container Deposit Schemes (CDS; e.g. to include wine and spirits and consider a 20c rebate), separation and recycling of kerbside bulk clean up, MSW processing (noting the “MWOO” restrictions; see MRA blog for further details) and/or Energy from Waste; and
  • These will involve lots of new infrastructure including composting, anaerobic digestors, MRFs and reprocessing facilities (plastic reprocessing, plastic to fuel, glass reprocessing etc).

In summary to get to just an 80% “circular economy” in NSW, we need to grow:

  1. C&D recycling by 2.5 MT/yr;
  2. C&I by 1.5 MT/yr; and 
  3. MSW by 1.7 MT/yr.

We don’t have a Plan to do that. 

The task is enormous. We need to get $Billions of investment in infrastructure. We need to speed up the Planning approvals. We need the offtake markets and procurement policies to be developed. But most important of all, we need to change the incentives so that investors and proponents will invest. 

That means new or increased levies, subsidies, grants, mandates or bans. I am pleased the NSW Government has started down this path. But we need to move much faster.

It cannot be done without Government leadership and intervention in the market. Blind Freddy can see that.

I hope that the new Minister for Environment will prioritise the above actions. To do so will create lots of green jobs, reduce emissions and put us on the path toward a more circular economy.

Mike Ritchie is the Managing Director at MRA Consulting Group.

This article has been published by the following media outlets:

Inside Waste, 27 June 2023


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