Construction recyclers do most of the heavy lifting in Australian recycling, but several stones remain in the gears to drive its future, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC).
The trend isn’t hard to spot, behind the successful recycling strategy of any city are construction and demolition (C&D) recycling companies recovering large material volumes. C&D waste generation in 2016-17 (the latest year available) was just over 20 million tonnes nationally, or 38 per cent of the waste produced in Australia by weight.
Recovery of C&D materials across major urban centres can be as high as 90 per cent. So C&D recyclers have taken a hard problem, and over the last decade, have thoroughly crushed it.
Despite this welcome progress, many stones remain in the gears that drive its future development.
In 2019, the NWRIC undertook a survey of key C&D recyclers to determine barriers to advancing recycling in this sector. Our research identified six key areas for improvement:
- Implementation of effective specifications for the use of recycled aggregates in infrastructure construction
- Competition with virgin products
- Inconsistent landfill levies and insufficient enforcement resulting in levy avoidance
- Planning frameworks which often fail to provide certainty of site tenure
- Poor waste data that can inhibit policy and investment decisions
- Market economics that inhibit greater recovery of C&D materials in regional areas
While several of these challenges are self-explanatory, a few are worth discussing in detail.
The first is that local and state land use planning can fail to provide the site tenure required for some of the state’s highest performing C&D recovery facilities. This is a major challenge, as for C&D recovery facilities to be financially sustainable, they must be set close to urban centres where the waste materials are generated and eventually reused. Minimising transport distances is a key driver to the success of these facilities.
Likewise, these facilities require a reasonable footprint to be able to manage the flow of materials through the process; from receival, sorting, processing to stockpiling the various grades of final products ready for reuse.
Unfortunately, many of these sites across Australia are being threatened by encroachment of urban or commercial development, and in some cases, are being closed by local councils to create parks.
To solve this problem, the NWRIC recommends that current waste and recycling infrastructure plans that provide for C&D recycling be formally incorporated into local and state planning regulations, so that precincts or green zones for such facilities are clearly identified and protected for the long term. To be effective, the location and duration of tenure of these ‘green zones’ must be agreed by all levels of government.
A second major challenge is waste levy avoidance in the C&D recovery sector. Construction recyclers charge a gate fee to cover the cost of sorting and processing the materials they receive. This gate fee must be lower than the cost of landfill. To reach this cost, typically a landfill levy is required.
Unfortunately, where there are landfill levies, there is also levy avoidance resulting in potentially recyclable material being dumped or transported vast distances outside levy zones. One prominent example is the illegal waste stockpile in Lara, Victoria. This site contains a massive stockpile of up to 320,000 cubic meters of construction and demolition waste, including materials such as timber, concrete, bricks, plaster, glass and ceramics.
If one cubic meter weighs half a tonne, then this stockpile represents a loss of more than $10 million in levy revenue. To clean up this illegal dump of C&D waste, the Victorian Government has committed $30 million, the largest waste related budget item for Victoria in 2019.
To ensure the success of the C&D recovery sector, states must address levy avoidance urgently. Possible solutions include better inter-agency engagement (across Police, EPAs and the ATO) to monitor and prevent illegal activity, and more widespread use of regulatory tools like mass balance reporting and GPS tracking. Setting levies so any differences do not encourage its movement from one region or state to another, or applying the levy portability principle (i.e. the levy liability is a point of generation not disposal) both within and across state and territory boundaries.
Finally, C&D recovery providers can also help to support other recycling streams, including the recovery and reuse of tyres, glass and used plastics. Where these products are not suitable for cradle to cradle recycling, they can be reused as a substitute material for civil construction works. This further diversifies the market opportunities for these recovered materials, which in the past have relied on limited opportunities locally and internationally, ended up in landfill or illegally dumped.
This is why integration of state resource recovery infrastructure plans into local and state land use planning regulations is critical to the future success of C&D resource recovery. By securing space and long term tenure for these facilities states and territories will ensure a viable industry that can supply materials to the ongoing infrastructure development and construction needs of Australia.
This article first appeared in Waste Management Review.