Every week there is a stark reminder of the crisis affecting the stuff we put in our recycling bins. A fortnight ago it was the image of a maggot-strewn container of contaminated material rejected by Indonesian port authorities. Amid the debris were the mangled remains of a City of Melton council bin, a symbol of how enmeshed local municipalities are in the issue.
It was also another clear sign that more countries are following the lead of China's National Sword policy, which banned the import of poor quality recycling last year - and at a stroke removed the floor from the market.
Then this week, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) shut down the troubled Laverton North and Coolaroo plants of SKM Recycling, an echo of the closures earlier this year.
There is a wide discussion of the issue at the moment, which many hope precedes a lot of effective action. In Victoria, much of the talk revolves around a state inquiry into recycling and waste management. It has been considering submissions from councils, waste providers, DELWP and many others.
THE EXTENT OF THE MESS
While the City of Ballarat Council has made a submission, it mostly follows the lead given by the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV). And that pulls very few punches indeed.
Among the key points in its submission are the "frustration" councils feel by a "lack of understanding within government and state of the seriousness and urgency of the challenges being faced." That is, it says, partly due to "the state having limited skin in the game in terms of cost and liability".
READ THE MAV SUBMISSION HERE
The MAV's criticisms are widespread and direct. It highlights an unwieldy governance structure with "no fewer than ten state agencies with high-profile waste-management roles". The recycling companies whose materials recovery facilities were closed earlier in the year due to stockpiling concerns "refuse to act transparently" with "an absence of regulation", the MAV says, while the EPA is under-resourced and too thinly spread to communicate effectively.
It illustrates this last point by pointing out that councils were not told about possible recycling plants closures earlier this year until the EPA served its notices. And there was no "independent source" to advise councils on when the closures would end.
Communication crops up again and again in the submission. The state failed to react properly to the National Sword policy, and did not brief councils about its "potential fallout", the MAV said. It also accused the Andrews government of failing to take a lead on education, leaving councils to struggle with the perception that recycling is just sent to landfill.
For too long the federal government has dismissed waste management as a state issue, with the Victorian government often then shrugging it off as a local government issue. This must changeMunicipal Association of Victoria
The slow progress of Sustainability Victoria's waste plan and regional groups is also highlighted, with the "ongoing lack of investment by successive state governments" at its heart - including a $511 million sustainability fund created by the landfill levy sitting unspent.
When solutions were suggested, councils at the sharp end were not consulted, their peak body said.
Their submission may sound like a long list of gripes, but it was given substantial weight by a damning report published last month by the Victorian Auditor-General's Office. Victoria has not had a statewide waste policy since 2014, that document said. It also said Sustainability Victoria - the state body designed to encourage environmental sustainability - had no clear targets, vague actions, and was not effectively implementing strategies. In short, the system is a mess.
So what's to be done? One answer, the MAV contends, is for the state to invest in urgent "contingency options", particularly for material recovery facilities (MRFs). Regional Victoria in particular is in "dire need" of local MRFs due to the costs of sending material to Melbourne.
It also argues the state government could play a role in boosting a domestic market for recycling - including possibly setting procurement targets, or giving tax breaks to companies using recycled materials.
The Andrews government should also put in plans for a container deposit scheme, the MAV suggests, pointing out that only Victoria and Tasmania have not yet committed to such a plan.
It urges "policy leadership", welcoming a state circular economy action plan slated for 2020. A consistent community education campaign would also help people recycle more effectively - with the emphasis on waste avoidance.
It's been very clear that the recycling industry was inept in many respects.Terry Demeo, City of Ballarat
While many recommendations are directed at state government, federal government is in the best place to get things done, the MAV says. "It is the federal government that perhaps has the greatest power to drive... change to avoid and minimise the generation of waste."
It describes a lack of concrete targets and timelines in the National Waste Policy as "enormously disappointing", and urges the state government to play a greater advocacy role.
The drive for better product stewardship - which would make the polluter pay - would come from the top tier of government, as would measures to change packaging rules. It too is best placed to clamp down on importing or manufacturing non-recyclables or hard -to-recycle materials, and run nationwide campaigns to help cut waste.
With the inquiry due to give an interim report next month, the state-level strategy will not be clear for a while. But the urgency to deliver has never been more pressing.
WHERE TO FOR BALLARAT?
Many of the City of Ballarat's policies chime with the MAV findings. As the council's own submission to the inquiry states, it has $5 million set aside for an all-waste-interchange in Ballarat West.
It also calls for state investment to create a hi-tech materials recovery (MRF) facility, which could receive more than 30,000 tonnes of recyclables from across Western Victoria. This was discussed in camera at this month's ordinary council meeting, with council resolving to undertake a detailed exploration and further business case.
With the council's SKM contract due to end this year, and given the issues of the past year, it would be surprising if Ballarat did not gain assistance to start work on these measures shortly.
Terry Demeo, the council's director of environment and infrastructure, said he welcomed the inquiry, which he said was overdue. "It's been very clear that the recycling industry was inept in many respects," he said, adding that the timeline for a proposed MRF was still not confirmed.
Also unsure is the issue of food organics and garden organics (FOGO) waste collection. Food waste makes up well over a quarter of landfill (27 per cent in regional Victoria and 39 per cent in Melbourne according to the Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group). Removing that from the equation would make a significant difference to the amount that goes to landfill.
READ THE CITY OF BALLARAT'S INQUIRY SUBMISSION HERE
As of a year ago, there were 14 regional councils with a FOGO collection in place, including Greater Bendigo and Warrnambool - but not Ballarat.
While garden waste is collected regularly and the council subsidises compost bins, there are no definite plans to introduce a collection. It remained a priority, said Mr Demeo, but would be a "significant change" from the current service with different technology and EPA requirements.
Another key plank in the City of Ballarat's strategy is a waste-to-energy plant, which would divert the majority of waste away from landfill and convert it to energy. Council has been considering options for several years and last year entered into a heads of agreement with Malaysian Resources Corporation Berhad. It is non-binding laying out of key terms, with the Malaysian company also undertaking a feasibility study.
The state government, however, has not yet currently articulated its stance on waste-to-energy plants. Some argue waste-to-energy would inadvertently weaken the incentive to reduce waste and undermine the circular economy.
The Victorian Auditor-General's report said a waste-to-energy policy could help attract investment and allow more effective long-term planning.
However, it cited the work of Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group in putting together a business case for waste-to-energy processing in south-east Melbourne.
"There is a risk that the technology it chooses may not be in line with the yet-to-be-developed state waste to energy policy," the report says.
Clearly many questions still remain about the right measures, costs and timings. The MAV sums up as follows: "For too long the federal government has dismissed waste management as a state issue, with the Victorian government often then shrugging it off as a local government issue. This must change."
Have you signed up to The Courier's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in Ballarat.