Australia’s waste crisis goes beyond the current problem created by China’s national sword policy to ban contaminated recyclable waste. Exporting and selling its waste to China was a convenient solution for the Australian government and industries, until China ceased accepting it on 1 January 2018. Since then, industry associations have been calling on the government to provide long term solutions, such as onshore waste processing facilities and creating local markets for recycled paper, plastics and glass.
However, this is just recycling. And recycling waste still requires waste to be produced, so is therefore only a short term solution to the overall waste crises. Long term solutions, as the below UTS waste hierarchy graphic illustrates, involve moving towards waste avoidance, reuse and repair.
The waste hierarchy is a familiar concept to those of us working in the industry, but most people around the country wouldn’t recognise the phrase. The two best environmental options are to reduce what you buy, or if you do purchase, to reuse and repair the items as much as possible.
Reuse is simpler and easier to implement than waste management, the umbrella term covering recycling, recovering and disposing. Reuse has a greater impact than these – but it requires the government to toughen up, articulate a vision and police the industry. The government can avoid reinventing the wheel though; as a starting point, Australia can look to the successful reuse and repair programmes that have been introduced overseas.
Tax breaks for repair were introduced in Sweden in 2016 in two ways, reducing tax on repaired goods and also allowing people to deduct the repair cost from income tax. Items covered include bikes, white goods and clothing, with the Swedish government hoping this will increase the amount of businesses offering repair services, boosting the local labour market.
France, followed by Germany and Norway, introduced legislation for manufacturers to announce upfront how long spare parts for new products will be available, and companies have to offer free repairs for the first 2 years after introducing new products.
The US, with the state of New York leading the fight, wanted to introduce Right to Repair legislation supported by third party repair groups. It makes it mandatory to provide manuals and parts to repair devices. While legislation was opposed and ultimately shot down by major tech companies in 2017, the ‘right to repair’ lobby continues to fight on.
The European CE safety marking of goods avoids the Australian red tape for selling 2nd hand products, such as the ACCC ban for 2nd hand infant products, without original instructions and mandatory standards. It is encouraging though that councils offer free child restrain safety checks, which gives consumers the option to reuse second-hand restrains which come without instructions.
All of those policies have proven their benefit from an environmental perspective, but they will also boost local economy and, in particular, the local manufacturing industry which can’t compete with the cheap imported furniture. A tax on importing these poor quality goods, which are guaranteed to end up in our tips, can work miracles.
It is obvious that introducing a mix of increased taxes on imports of low quality, disposable and non-repairable products, and tax breaks for repair to support the local reuse and repair economy, is a federal responsibility. But when a journalist from the ABC program War on Waste asked Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg his view, he had this to say: “Waste management in Australia, including incentives designed to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, is primarily the responsibility of the states and territories”.
Due to this lack of a long term vision, the current crisis and the lobbying of the waste industry, ‘waste for energy’ – with its harmful polluting emissions – is gaining momentum in Australia. Overseas experiences, such as the Swedish waste-to-energy incineration program, tells us that this model leads to a dependence on waste production, with Sweden now importing of waste from neighbouring countries.
Local, state and federal governments must join forces to implement a long term waste avoidance and reuse strategy, such as the program managed by the Belgian equivalent of the NSW EPA. Recent surveys confirm that this is also what the overwhelming majority of Australians want the government to do.
However, it’s equally important that the reuse sector develops a market strategies to reach out to new audiences, not only to collect reusable goods, but more importantly to also return reusable goods to communities. A circular economy is a far more sustainable economy than a linear one.
The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre’s data show that Australians are jumping in big numbers on the ‘donate preloved goods’ bandwagon, but not yet to the same extent on the ‘buying preloved goods’ bandwagon. This creates an unbalanced supply and demand situation and puts increased pressure on the Bower’s unique referral service. Similarly, we see other reuse organisations and auction houses struggling with a limited and sometimes shrinking appetite from consumers to buy preloved goods.
We are praised by many as a leader and pioneer in reuse and repair, but in reality the Bower hasn’t done much more than bring proven and reliable solutions from overseas to Australia, such as the introduction of the popular Repair Cafés and the House to Home program, whereby asylum seekers and survivors of domestic violence are given free access to household goods. The latter is based on the partnership in the UK between the reuse sector and Housing Association, and is welcomed as a win for both the environment and for disadvantaged communities. The intersection of environmental and social activism is a unique space which few social enterprises occupy, but the Bower proudly does.
If reuse is given a fair go, Australia should be able to meet targets on par with the Belgium reuse sector, who in 2015 sold on average of 5kg of secondhand goods to every resident. If every Australian would buy 5kg of reusable goods annually, as a nation we would divert 120,000 tonnes from landfill, saving an estimated $24 million in waste management fees annually and creating thousands of jobs.