Blake Lindley explores the increasing use of life cycle assessment to inform decision-making in the waste and recycling sector, in the below article published in Sustainability Matters.
Recent announcements by the respective environmental agencies of South Australia, Victoria and NSW have all confirmed a continued focused on diversion of waste from landfill in the coming years. Here we take a look at emergent industry and government initiatives changing the landscape of waste disposal by challenging the status quo and delivering improved environmental outcomes.
Have you ever wondered about what happens to a milk bottle once you’re finished with it? Well, depending on where you are in the country, the results are going to be very different. A milk bottle disposed of in your local kerbside service may become a piece of blended plastic street furniture; in another part of the country, it may become a plastic bag; and elsewhere it may be sent offshore as fuel for energy recovery.
As you can imagine, the environmental impacts of each of these scenarios are radically different. Economics drives recycling, and recyclable material, being a commodity, has a value affected by its collection and processing costs. It competes directly (in price) against its virgin equivalent. These economic drivers are in continuous flux, driven on one end by raw commodity prices and on the other by changing demand for recyclable materials themselves. Throw into the mix the motivations of each profit-seeking enterprise in the process and the difficulty of modelling, regulating or mapping downstream waste flows becomes apparent.
However, in the same way that ecolabels and procurement guidelines have long been used to drive action in upstream supply chains, industry leaders are harnessing collective influence to drive increased clarity across waste disposal streams.
In the C&I (commercial and industrial) waste industry, understanding the outcomes of various recycling solutions has been a priority for some time. However, a thorough life-cycle assessment can provide controversial results, indicating that, with some scenarios, the transport and recycling impacts of some material streams may not always provide the optimal environmental outcome.
One such example is glass. On a life cycle level, the environmental impact of the transport and recycling of glass (and the virgin material it will offset) is not always less than the environmental impact of disposing a fully inert material to landfill and extracting new raw material.
In visionary work, the revamped and soon-to-be-released National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) is pushing the envelope of accountability for downstream waste disposal. With the objective of incentivising industry to deliver the best possible environmental outcomes in waste disposal, the inclusion of an outcome-based adjustment to recycling rates will ensure that the pursuit of higher recycling rates is aligned to achieving the lowest possible downstream environmental impact.
As a secondary benefit, this addition will assist with the development of recycling capacity by increasing the value of higher order recycling services from waste service providers to property owners. With a clear intention, this leadership is providing a path toward new levels of accuracy and alignment in waste reporting.
Accurate reporting for improved recycling outcomes
Continuing with the property sector, the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) and its membership of large property owners have focused on the delivery of improved operational and refurbishment waste reporting for some time. Acting collaboratively to send a clear signal to market, these groups have influenced and redesigned the expectations of contractors, eliciting new levels of accuracy and transparency in reporting.
The focus on collaboration has also created a depth of information through aggregation – and knowledge is power.
As we strive to increase recycling alternatives and outcomes for the economy more widely, the collation of data on previously indistinguishable or mixed waste streams becomes a critical piece of the puzzle. As the understanding on the quantity or volume of a material improves, so it becomes easier to leverage funding for innovation and research into the recovery of materials — or attract investment from providers of new recycling technologies.
Tools and resources developed by the BBP are publicly available through its website and provide a roadmap toward best practice in waste management in commercial and retail spaces for all councils, businesses and property owners.
Where to from here?
Providing suitable support to industry to deliver industry-specific incentives for behavioural improvement, reporting and procurement of waste services should be a goal of policymakers. Working in conjunction with industry bodies offers an avenue toward developing systemic change and the tools to support it in the longer term, thereby avoiding a transactional approach to waste diversion or intervention. Furthermore, the proactivity of industry to address waste, which in many cases is a costly component of operations, should not be underestimated.
In the construction and demolition (C&D) sector, the Responsible Construction Leadership Group (RCLG) is exploring options for by-product exchanges between members. Similarly, procurers of corporate uniforms are working toward addressing the issue of branded textile waste and recycling alternatives.
Waste remains one of the most practical, immediate and influential ways to reduce a business’s operational environmental impacts and in many instances also reduce costs. As the sustainability agenda continues to develop globally, it’s clear that improving waste management should be front of mind for any business manager.
Waste levies have been introduced in NSW, SA, Vic, ACT and WA.
A net zero emissions by 2050 target has been set in NSW, SA, Vic, ACT and Qld.
2021 recycling rate targets for NSW:
- Municipal solid waste 70%
- C&I waste 70%
- C&D waste 80%
2020 recycling rate targets for SA:
- Municipal solid waste 70%
- C&I waste 80%
- C&D waste 90%
$30.4 million for waste and resource recovery has been provided in the Victorian Budget 2017–18.
10,000 tonnes of waste recycled = 9.2 direct jobs created (source: www.zerowaste.sa.gov.au).