Unless we pay for it, our waste will consume us

The tail-end of the development pipeline is, as usual, being ignored, and Australia’s worst-offending state is Tasmania [3 November 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Cancer, sex, religion and death no longer seem to be on the list of items to be avoided in polite circles. Now our taboos are things like climate change. And waste.

Site of the Copping C Cell, proposed for long-term hazardous waste disposal. PHOTO Shane Humpheries/TasmanianTimes

Site of the Copping C Cell, proposed for long-term hazardous waste disposal for southern municipalities. PHOTO Shane Humpheries/TasmanianTimes

Messy, untidy, smelly and often hazardous – by definition it’s what we don’t want – waste does nothing for our image. So it gets left behind, out of sight, out of mind, out of conversation.

I had very few companions at a public gathering about garbage during consultation in August for the Hobart City Council, in stark contrast to a packed meeting about electric cars a week or so previously. Alongside cars, managing waste just doesn’t cut it.

Yet waste is a topic of growing public concern throughout Australia, reflected in public reaction to events such as contamination from landfill and mine waste dumps.

Tasmania’s 2009 Waste Management Strategy was to have been reviewed in 2012, but that didn’t happen. Our last waste regulations date from 2010 and our last legislation touching on waste was the 2007 Litter Act. Like the rest of us, state governments can’t seem to talk about waste.

All the while, our knowledge of how waste is best dealt with has been growing exponentially, fed by a global demand to keep reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill by fostering more active recycling of industrial and domestic waste of all kinds.

The terminology has changed. Tips are out; waste transfer stations and resource recovery depots are in. Landfill gas and organic waste are no longer just local headaches; they now carry the possibility of a whole new source of local income, the Emissions Reduction Fund.

In the rarefied atmosphere of waste management today there are plenty of ideas floating around, good and bad, about how to reduce landfill. But much of the wisdom remains at the tip face, where choices are being made daily about what is reusable and what isn’t.

This is no trifling matter. Landfill sites everywhere are at or beyond the capacity they were originally intended for. Local council can no longer just put a road into some new gully and start dumping. Now the whole idea of landfill is entering past history – an idea with nowhere to go.

A lot of well-meaning ideas are really for appearances, like the annual Australian “garage sale trail” held in October. They’re undeniably popular – this year sales venues totalled 486 across Tasmania – but they make precious little difference to the rate of landfill use.

We need over-arching strategies, but there aren’t any, and councils around the state are forced to come up with their own. The five-year plan of the Meander Valley Council, for instance, has aims to reach “a position of self-reliance and environmental sustainability” by 2019.

It’s laudable and very desirable, like the Hobart City Council’s aim of having no landfill waste at all by 2030, but lacking a deeper community appreciation of the problem, and in particular lacking some revenue stream to support the necessary actions, these ideas are window-dressing.

Like greenhouse emissions, landfill waste has a price. In Tasmania it doesn’t exist in any regulated form, any more than Australia currently has a carbon price, but it’s there whether we like it or not. As the years pass the price can be expected to rise, and one day we’ll be hit with a stupendous bill.

The three regional waste authorities and the councils they serve know this. They’re being asked to use their bare-bones budgets to deal with a problem that has been beyond them from the start. While they may stall the inevitable crisis, they can no more stop it than fly to the moon.

For zero waste strategies to have a hope of success we need a broad-brush signal that landfill disposal is a privilege, and hazardous waste disposal a special privilege. That can’t happen under the present fractured system, so overloaded local government carries the can.

Tasmania is worst among Australian states at diverting waste from landfill – less than 20 per cent against a national average of over 50 per cent. There’s a good reason for this: we’re the only Australian state never to have enacted a state-wide waste-to-landfill levy.

A waste levy was mooted in 2001, but we did nothing then and have failed since while the rest of Australia passed us by. The Hodgman government continues to make “bold” pronouncements at the sexy end of the development pipeline while ignoring what comes out the other end.

This is about the art of governing for the long term, where policies are more complex and need more explaining. But why should that be a problem? Isn’t that what we elect governments to do?

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