The Australian Industrial Ecology Network (AIEN) believes the China Sword policy and the latest regulatory changes in New South Wales affecting the application of mixed waste organic material to land, constitute an ideal opportunity for change in the way the resource recovery industry, local governments and all stakeholders approach waste management in Australia.

The China National Sword policy – which came into effect in February 2018 to ban imports of 24 types of waste material and set a tougher standard for contamination levels in others – threw the industry and governments into a vortex of anxiety as they sought, and continue to seek, viable domestic resource recovery solutions.

The recent refusal by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to renew the exemption for mixed waste organic material from Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) to be used as a soil amendment on agricultural land, plantation forests and mining rehabilitation land) – after 18 years of the policy and practice – added to the turmoil, culminating in an incensed response from industry and senior NSW Government officials.

Chair of the AIEN, Colin Barker, and the AIEN Board sees what most stakeholders regard as a catastrophe; a grand mishandling of the issues surrounding the management of waste and resource recovery in Australia, as a positive wakeup call and opportunity to address some major flaws in Australia’s approach to rational resource management and resource recovery processing.

“The China Sword import restrictions can provide us with many benefits and opportunities,” said Mr Barker.

“It can serve as a catalyst for local governments and recycling industries to explore alternative supply chains. This additional investment can then provide commercial opportunities for domestic waste sorting and recycling businesses to begin accepting ‘waste’ as a valuable resource in higher value-added product markets rather than, a negative value problematic substance destined for landfill.

“It also opens the door to change within the industry as a whole and better public education.”

Improved education of stakeholders will also improve resource management outcomes through generation of higher quality materials for processing and reuse.

The AIEN questions whether we have unjustifiably resorted to MRFs for the recovery of materials that do not readily lend themselves to co-mingled recovery processes, such as mixing cardboard and glass in comingled recycling or organics in the general waste stream.

The National Waste Policy (NWP), nearing ratification in early December, espouses high targets for waste, food and hazardous waste reduction, including plastics and packaging minimisation.

While confirming this to be a positive step forward, the AIEN warns that if the focus of any resource management strategy is solely based on the premise of ‘diversion from landfill’, rather than ‘beneficial reuse’, real opportunities are in severe danger of being overlooked.

“The ambition of Australia’s renewed approach to recycling and waste should be to foster the creation of a comprehensive resource management system. The AIEN would be supportive of all policies contributing to that outcome.

“Any failure to properly consider the importance of the waste hierarchy and Highest Net Resource Value (HNRV) principles may result in losses in the longer term through stranded investment. When resource availability becomes a constraint, resources will always flow to those who can afford to pay the most for them,” says Mr Barker.

The AIEN, advocating the principles and concepts of industrial ecology in policy formation and business practice, actively engages with organisations and governments to facilitate improved performance and environmental benefits.

“The AIEN is very well positioned to work with all state governments and industry to create in Australia a truly wholistic resource recovery and management system based upon the principles and creation of a circular economy.

“We feel that this can only be achieved through collaboration and a constructive exchange on important and broad socio-economic issues.

“In addition to consideration of waste policy and resource management, consideration of further issues such as regional employment, industry policy and regional investment policy must also be addressed,” concluded Mr Barker.

In October 2018, the AIEN issued a communiqué calling for prioritised action with respect to facilitating circular economy in Australia.

Accelerating the Transition to a Circular Economy: A blueprint for action on plastics and packaging can be found here.

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