There is much more to the word we know as ‘waste’ and that means viewing resource recovery through a lens that creates value.
At a recent conference I was speaking on how to track whether recyclables are really recycled when I got a great question: “When is something a waste, and when is it recycling?”
It is just a word, but that word waste is inextricably but unfortunately linked to recycling. Waste management is presented as almost interchangeable with government recycling policy and regulation, and to the pursuit of the grand aspirations of reduced disposal to landfill and a more circular economy.
But what is commonly called ‘waste’ is not waste, it is a ‘product’.
Effective and sustainable resource recovery and recycling is fundamentally about value generation. If it is cheaper to throw something away than it is to recover and recycle it, then by definition our economy and therefore community is saying it does not value that material.
Changing that value equation is not easy. In 1991 the Industry Commission upon reference from then Treasurer the Hon PJ Keating pointed out what many may say is obvious when it stated that “…recycling is an alternative to waste disposal…” i.e. recycling is not waste.
The Commission also made the finding that ‘’Governments cannot be expected to determine efficiently how much recycling of each product should occur now or in the future. But, by changing arrangements in some areas, governments can contribute to more efficient recycling”.
So, it was recognised 27 years ago that generating greater value through resource recovery should not be through a narrow lens of “waste” or simplistic targets.
What does this mean when talking about how to track recyclables? Only that having proper processes in place to track where materials collected for recycling actually go is an economic and risk management tool.
Firstly, tracking and reporting downstream activities means the purchaser knows whether they are getting the service they paid for. It is incumbent on the purchaser of recycling to demand such information, and the recycling service provider to furnish it.
And secondly, downstream assessment and knowing where recyclables go and what happens to them informs the market, and an informed market is an efficient market.
Knowing the fate of recyclables is at times a complex activity and needs a close eye on confidentiality and privacy issues, but ultimately is part of generating more value through recycling.
Download a copy of the presentation here. It was delivered at the WA Waste and Recycle Conference 2018 in Perth, WA on 6 September 2018.
This article was authored by Nicholas Harford, Managing Director of Equilibrium consultants.