A practical view on recycling, jobs and the COVID economy

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Worthwhile jobs are needed, more than ever

According to the media, we will all soon be living in our very own post-apocalyptic story. Who knew? Of course, navigating Australia through the economic devastation caused by COVID-19, does not have to be a real-life Hunger Games. Yet, we can already hear the rhetoric that we ‘can’t afford’ the pre-COVID hesitant steps from our current ‘take-make-use-dispose’ linear system toward a circular economy. Such ‘green tape’ is a job-killing indulgence society cannot afford in the long-term.

You would have thought we have learned by now. COVID-19 has shown that specialists, by and large, can indeed predict the future, and governments heeding advice with collaborative decision-making helps us avoid catastrophe. Before the ashes were barely cold from the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, the Australian political class was once-bitten-twice-shy in the face of this second community crisis, allowing us, so far, to avoid a USA and European COVID experience. These actions show that the ‘Lucky Country’ tag is not all irony.

COVID-19 has also demonstrated without any doubt that only government has the power to re-create our economic landscape, for better or worse. The real questions government should ask their specialists is: with these policy settings – how many jobs are affected, and are the extra jobs created worth it?

Businesses, like waste, always flow down the path of least cost

For over ten years, we have known that moving Australia toward a circular economy will create more jobs and hundreds of millions more in economic opportunity than our current system does now. The expert consensus is that recycling creates jobs – around 17 jobs per 10,000 tons recycled (compared to landfill, at about five jobs per 10,000 tons disposed).

An example: If, from the municipal + commercial waste of 1.7 million people (e.g. the combined Queensland LGA’s of Brisbane, Redlands, Logan and Ipswich) we diverted/recycled around 390,000tons (i.e. the organic fraction) – we might generate over 600 jobs. The Queensland government, rightly, was recently excited by the $10 billion Arrow Energy announcement, which is around 800 jobs in the operational phase.

Are there practical resource solutions?

Below is an action list of what government could do to make our post-apocalyptic story less utopialess and more practical.

1. Ban green waste from landfill

This State level action is not a unique idea, but one we wrote about last year. In Queensland, this would mean mandatory green waste bins in the levy zone, and energy-from-waste via anaerobic digestion or co-firing, e.g. with bagasse.

2. Extend container deposit schemes to include e-waste

Queensland, for example, is leading the States with a recent introduction of a container deposit scheme. With the best model, people bring their bottles and cans to mini-transfer stations and feed them through automated ‘hole-in-the-wall’ conveyor belts, 10c a bottle, with funds paid in Woolworths receipts or charity donations. The scheme is wildly successful, and in these times every $20 helps. Why not extend this thinking to e-waste such as mobile phones, batteries, cameras, computers?

3. A carbon tax border adjustment by Federal Government

This is a carbon tax, with a tweak[1] to ensure that there is no national incentive to free-ride. It worked before, reduced greenhouse emissions and was spurring green economy investment and jobs in waste management. It was also a fantastic income source for the government.

4. Recognise the strengths of Federation in encouraging the circular economy

This crisis shows that Australia works best when the Federal Government sets direction and outcomes, leaving each State to work out specific solutions. Waste (like schools) is something State Governments have constitutional control over, so leave the detail to them. The Federal Government could easily set a mandatory target on landfill avoidance to set national policy and show job-creating leadership.

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[1] How does it work? Well, let’s take China, the biggest exporter of CO2 emissions in trade. In 2015 this was about 2 billion metric tonnes. Australia imported 48.5 million tonnes of this. A CBT adjustment — were Australia properly to price carbon while China did not — would tax on these products at the border to take away the carbon subsidy. Job losses from this source would be avoided. Seeing no advantage in not pricing carbon, China would be more likely to speed up its own experiments with emissions trading schemes.