This article discusses if Queensland’s regulatory framework and weakened policy agenda can manage the current commercial reality of recycling, whilst still maintaining the political aspirations offered-up by the impending local government elections and increasing community expectations?

We all know that commodity prices, including those for our recyclables, are under pressure and will continue to be under pressure into the foreseeable future. The focus on collecting and processing ever greater volumes of recyclables will not be sufficient to create additional added value.

This situation, is causing major problems for many recycling enterprises, with some having already having to shut down processing capacity, lay off workforces and rethink future business plans to respond to the falling commodity prices and rising operational costs.

Increasingly, the strategies to manage the current commercial conditions are nothing more than store-it, hide-it and/ or dispose of it until market values are restored. Whilst we are not, for a moment, proposing that we should not be creating opportunities for the reuse and recycling of materials or avoidance from (landfill) disposal, we need to re-design, implement and support innovative approaches that can both create value and protect the supply chain by ensuring reclaimable commodities can be returned to the manufacturing stream – working our way to a circular economy approach.

PULL QUOTE “We need to design and introduce appropriate measures to correct regulatory distortions and incentives to reflect in the prices the huge benefits recycling brings to the environment and society in terms of CO2, energy and natural resource savings.”

This will need a complete rethink and re-communication of everything we currently know and accept. We need to design and introduce appropriate measures to correct regulatory distortions (just look to our current licencing framework and the issues caused by arbitrary thresholds) and incentives to reflect in the prices the huge benefits recycling brings to the environment and society in terms of CO2, energy and natural resource savings.

This may include a carbon metric for waste (rather than weight-based recycling targets) that identifies and prioritises materials with the highest environmental benefit for recycling, leading to better environmental outcomes and a more efficient economy. Evidence exists that some Local Governments in Queensland are now prepared to bury recyclables or maintain massive stockpiles of product in the hope that either commodity prices increase or the fact no-one really cares, rather than accept a diminished return for the effort.

Not only is this a reckless attitude it is infact a very short sighted decision by some public officials as to its disregard of what those decisions mean to their community both in terms of the risks (landfill fires, health and environmental) not to mention consideration of their future landfill capacity, as precious void space is misused for simple cost / expense budget benefits.

Commencing with the re-education of the community led by our elected members, so that recycling is not seen as ‘free of charge‘; and that the collection of recycling from households is simply a logistics exercise which does not actually constitute ‘recycling‘ until the collected materials are reprocessed – more often than not, often overseas and many months later.

Only by implementing a culture to pricing waste management assets adopting a full financial model that accounts for all current and long term financial externalities of operating and owning these public assets can a conversation then be held as to identifying the true benefits and real returns that recycling of materials and a circular economy model delivers.

Reprocessing markets are, of course, continually developing with new technologies which will recover materials in a useable form. It is recognised that this will impact on the lifecycle of the material and hence the environmental impact will change. However, this is a role for designers and manufacturers in the first instance; and for recycling companies to provide valuable services within the overall supply chain, including quality materials for remanufacture and as a substitute for virgin resources.

Rewarding businesses that are managing their waste properly, whilst businesses that break the rules or fail to make any attempt to recycle their waste should be penalised. This should include a ‘duty of care‘ arrangement, so that waste generators strive for best practice and are more accountable for the management or their waste, to ensure that they only provide their waste to appropriately licenced companies.

The Queensland’s Government, Advance Queensland initiative now provides the framework for all stakeholders in the recycling and secondary resources industry to access and leverage these government incentives as more than ever ‘innovation‘ will be the central theme for how we use these valuable wastes as the readjustment to market norms slowly takes place.

This is not business as usual. And it is highly likely with increasing price volatility across all commodity markets, that the ‘recycling business‘ will never be the same again. The question for us is, how we can find new opportunity and prosper?