16/07/2009 - 00:00

Do we really care about waste?

16/07/2009 - 00:00


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Waste management is an issue that warrants more serious attention in the community and in business.

Do we really care about waste?

WESTERN Australia has a long history of grand policy pronouncements on waste management, which are usually followed up by very little.

In 1991, the state government said it was aiming to cut the amount of waste per person going into landfills by 50 per cent by the year 2000.

The outcome? A 25 per cent increase over that period.

In 2000, the state government announced that "waste as we know it could be a thing of the past" under its Waste 2020 strategy.

(Then) environment minister Cheryl Edwardes said the strategy, which she described as bold but achievable, advocated a shift from waste disposal to resource recovery to achieve zero waste by the year 2020.

In 2004, her successor, Labor's environment minister Judy Edwards, also spoke of working towards zero waste, when she released the Statement of Strategic Direction for Waste in WA.

However by that stage, zero waste had become a "vision", which is a polite way of saying nobody really expected to achieve that outcome.

The goal of zero waste remains as elusive as ever, which poses the question of whether the community ever really embraced this objective.

Some organisations have been trying to make a difference.

The Southern Metropolitan Regional Council is one group that has put its money where its mouth is, investing $100 million in a recycling facility, green waste plant and composting facility at Canning Vale.

The outcome? It has diverted 70 per cent of its municipal waste from landfill and improved recycling rates.

However, it has had more than its fair share of problems, including engineering setbacks, odour problems and recently a devastating fire.

Consequently, some in its local community have lambasted it as an environmental vandal and economic villain.

The state government's most notable initiative in the last year was a budget decision to hike the landfill levy, but that had nothing to do with environmental management and everything to do with raising revenue.

The government has acknowledged that proceeds from the higher levy, which incidentally has been deferred, will be used to fund its agencies rather than the traditional purpose of funding waste reduction and recycling initiatives.

Proceeds from the landfill levy have been used to fund many very worthy community initiatives, but not the kind of things that make a big difference.

That task has been left to agencies such as the Water Corporation, which has been quietly successful in implementing capital projects to improve re-use of waste water, and Perth's regional councils.

The Mindarie Regional Council has appointed the Biovision consortium, led by SITA Environmental Solutions, to develop an $80 million waste treatment facility at Neerabup, north of Wanneroo.

The plant is designed to produce about 40,000 tonnes of compost annually and divert some 70,000t of household waste from landfill.

On a smaller scale, the Western Metropolitan Regional Council has backed an innovative recycling process developed by Perth company, Anaeco.

The challenge for these projects is to generate an acceptable rate of return on what are big investments.

Perth company GRD has been a big investor in waste treatment, via its subsidiary Global Renewables, but the low returns from its existing project in Sydney and the long lead time for its even bigger project in the UK has seen it struggle to retain investor support.

Municipal waste is just one part of a wider issue. As Dan Wilkie reports in this week's cover feature, any progress on one front can be outweighed by new challenges, such as dealing with the growing volume of e-waste; ie mobile phones and computers that get dumped every year.

The debate over waste treatment illustrates what some see as a recurring issue.

The public loves the idea of living on a greener, cleaner planet, and they heartily support grand gestures like endorsing the Kyoto protocol and introducing a carbon-trading scheme.

But when it comes to tangible action that carries a direct cost, the support can quickly evaporate.

Unless the community genuinely embraces the issue, or is given very strong price signals to change their behaviour, change will be very slow in coming.



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