The war on waste: What’s being done and why?

Australia has a waste problem. Photo by Justus Menke on Unsplash
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Those on the frontlines of the waste epidemic share their stories, concerns and solutions. Angus Delaney reports.

“The society, economy and jobs that we know will all cease to exist.” 

MRA Consulting Group managing director Mike Ritchie offered this dire warning about what life on earth will be like if we don’t start living more sustainably. 

“Australia will not be in a good place,” he said. “We register for 1.3 per cent of global emissions.” 

Part of living sustainably is making sure waste is dealt with properly.

Poor waste management has plagued Australia in recent years since China stopped accepting foreign waste in 2017, meaning an estimated 1.25 million tonnes of waste goes to Australian landfill instead of China every year.

Big changes have been signalled in Australia with the federal government devoting $190m towards new recycling infrastructure and the Victorian government planning on introducing a new four-bin system, with an extra one for glass.

However, it will take more than recycling glass separately to ensure a sustainable future for Australia. 

Getting the community involved

Ritchie says MRA Consulting was aware of the problematic future for Australians and launched HalveWaste, described as the most successful program at reducing landfill in Australia.

The award-winning project reduced waste by 50,000 tonnes per year at the Albury Waste Management Centre by running extensive community and business education programs, putting a new three-bin system in place and setting up a state-of-the-art recycling centre.

“HalveWaste was successful because it empowered local people,” says Ritchie. “Recycling and waste is something everyone can do.”

Ritchie also floated the idea that Australia might be headed to weight-based billing for waste disposal, which offers benefits to the most sustainable members of society. 

Rubbish vs Recycling: Angus Delaney explains what goes in what bin.

“Pay as you throw is about sending a different price signal to residents and waste generators,” says Ritchie.

“If you put more waste out you pay more, if you put less waste out you pay less. In other words, the things that are valued in society you pay less for.”

“I imagine over the next decade some councils will begin to offer a discounted rate for people who produce a smaller amount of waste and larger amount of recycling.”

Everyone has a role

Ritchie and MRA consulting may have been inspired to foster a more sustainable future because of the scientific consequences, but Chairman of Clean Up Australia Pip Kiernan was inspired by her father. 

“Dad was a very visionary and inspiring man, and a lot of the time I was just trying to keep up with him,” says Kiernan. 

Volunteers taking part in Clean Up Australia Day Photo: Clean Up Australia’s Facebook

Kiernan’s father, Ian Kiernan, founded Clean Up Australia more than 30 years ago and Kiernan took over the position of Chairman when her father fell sick in 2018.

The inspiration Ian Kiernan gained from his experiences and Pip Kiernan gained from her father has been shared around Australia and resulted in over 16,000 tonnes of rubbish being picked up on the annual Clean Up Australia Day this year alone. 

“It started with a simple idea of doing something constructive and I think that’s more relevant than ever,” says Kiernan. 

It isn’t political, it’s about positive community action.

As well as hosting the annual Clean Up Australia Day, Clean Up Australia are launching their Greening the Green initiative to reduce waste at Australian sporting clubs. 

“It is about trying to reduce waste in the sporting facilities we all know and love and spend so much time in,” says Kiernan.

“It is about working with the community and that shared responsibility for the upkeep of those facilities.”

“Plastics, food waste, paper… it’s about capturing those resources and making sure they’re recycled properly.”

After these materials are recycled, they return to the sporting clubs as brand new equipment. 

“The program will run for three years and with 110 local sporting facilities across Australia,” says Kieran. “As well as rubbish collection there is online interactive education tools.”

An international example

The Bridge to Work program in Little Rock, Arkansas found a way to help provide jobs as well as reducing waste.

This program was run by Canvas Community Church and tackles homelessness and littering by paying homeless people to pick up rubbish. 

Canvas Community Church Pastor Paul Atkins said this program captured the city’s imagination and when none of the well-funded organisations took it up, they turned to Canvas Community Church.

“Three days a week I meet the homeless at our church,” says Atkins. 

“They’d get $40 for four hours work … and lunch paid for by the city where we’d sit with a life coach and talk about their goals for the future and how to get there.

“I think they enjoyed having something productive to do,” says Atkins. “It’s a matter of saying ‘you’re making the city look better, we’re grateful for you’.”

Atkins says the streets looked cleaner during Bridge to Work. “At first when the city sent us to areas that they wanted us to clean by a 10-day deadline,” says Atkins. “We were doing it so fast they dropped the deadline.”

“It helps the neighbourhood, and if nobody is responsible for cleaning it up it becomes a dumping ground and the community suffers.”

According to the 2016 census an estimated 24,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Victoria and taking on Little Rock’s program could be helpful.

Different inspirations

All these innovative solutions happened for slightly different reasons, Ritchie saw the scientific danger of the future, Kiernan was inspired by her late father and Atkins wanted to support vulnerable people in his community. 

However, these programs are united in one core aspect – their belief the everyday person can make a difference.

Kiernan says Clean Up belongs to the people, and that being educated on waste management strategies is important.

“It’s all about being informed,” she says. 

Atkins feels there was nothing special about Canvas Community Church to make the Bridge to Work program, just a desire to make a positive change.

“It was just leg work … and a willingness to give it a try,” says Atkins.

Ritchie encourages Australians to keep sustainability in mind on election day to maximise their impact on the environment.

Vote, vote, vote. These are ultimately decisions of the government. Individuals can do a little bit and they should, but policy needs to be changed.

Although many people are working tirelessly and ingeniously to combat the problems of global warming and waste, Ritchie says this issue should be addressed with more urgency.  

“We need to fast track this transition and do it at an economically rational way. The emphasis is on speed, not on cost.”