As Australia's waste movement pushes towards a circular economy model, businesses are striving to be more environmentally friendly and incorporate waste recovery and reuse into their daily operations. However, as always, waste handling, transportation and disposal requires strict compliance with the regulatory frameworks in each jurisdiction. To achieve a successful transition to a greener economy, it is paramount that waste processing technologies and advanced processes for the manufacturing of waste products comply with high environmental operating standards. This article will explore the broad range of compliance measures adopted by State and Territory governments to ensure the protection of the environment and community.

Strict frameworks regulating waste disposal

Community expectations for high environmental performance of the waste and recycling industry continue to increase, resulting in increased environmental standards and compliance action by the regulators. Tight environmental regulation and effective enforcement are key tools for preventing or addressing unlawful waste disposal as well as environmental pollution, land contamination, and associated public health issues. As demonstrated through the outcomes of waste related prosecutions and enforcement action, these regulations are in place to discourage activities such as stockpiling harmful waste or illegal waste dumping.

For example, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) relies on a suite of enforcement mechanisms to ensure broad compliance with environment protection legislation. Examples of regulatory action taken by the NSW EPA during 2021 include:

  • prosecution of an individual director who illegally disposed of asbestos contaminated soil and falsified waste disposal documents, resulting in a 12 month term of imprisonment. The offending company was also fined $450,000 for related offences;
  • an enforceable undertaking was accepted by the EPA from a developer who agreed to pay more than $1 million to clean up land that was allegedly used to illegally store hazardous construction waste; and
  • a fine of $15,000 to a waste operator for incorrect storage of dangerous chemicals and flammable liquids being directly exposed to sunlight.

The strict regulations in this space are designed to reduce risks of harm to the environment and health and safety of the community and at the extreme, to prevent significant environmental and safety incidents such as the explosion in Beirut in August 2020 due to the inappropriate stockpiling of unwanted ammonium nitrate without proper controls in place.

Similarly, on 1 July 2019, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) introduced a waste levy aimed at reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, encouraging waste avoidance, and increasing the capacity for resource recovery. Despite this, following the introduction of the waste levy, there has been an increase in illegal dumping and unlicensed waste management operations. Consequently, DES has nominated waste regulation, waste management and waste levy compliance as one of its key focus areas in 2020-2021.

While strict environmental regulations are paramount to ensure appropriate and safe disposal of waste materials, there are also enormous opportunities available for waste materials to be reused and recycled, with consequential economic and environmental outcomes.

Encouraging appropriate resource recovery opportunities

Federal, State and local governments all have a responsibility to further encourage development of the resource recovery and recycling industry through appropriate regulation, incentives and utilisation of recycled products. Resource recovery exemptions are important instruments to ensure a safe 'second life' for waste and an opportunity for product design to capture waste material reuse. For example, this is evidenced by the growing development and use of 'greencrete' by local governments, a product made available by a resource recovery exemption allowing recovered glass sand (made from bottles and other recycled glass product) to be applied to land for 'pipe bedding, drainage or for road making activities'.

Similarly, the 'end of waste' framework in Queensland promotes resource recovery opportunities and aims to transform the perception of waste from being seen as waste to being valued as a resource, however reliance on these 'end of waste' codes is also conditional upon stringent statutory controls and standards relating to the chemical composition, testing and reporting of waste. The end of waste framework was approved by changes to the Environmental Protection and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2014 (Qld). To promote resource recovery, the framework removes some impediments associated with the management of waste. One example of this, is that commercial operators dealing in an 'approved resource' under and end of waste code, may not require approvals. Importantly, the end of waste framework is outcome based, and provided a party can demonstrate that a waste can produce sustainable benefits with negligible environmental risks, there is reasonable prospects that the waste will become the subject of an end of waste code, thereby incorporating the exemptions.

Regulators must therefore ensure that these stringent statutory controls and standards that are applied to waste that is earmarked for reuse, do not limit the potential opportunities and prevent innovative initiatives for waste resource reuse outside of the exemption terms. Given the broad environmental benefits that can be achieved from resource recovery, greater collaboration between Government and industry is required to expand the opportunities for resource recovery in Australia.

Energy from Waste

In recent years there has also been a spike in 'energy from waste' proposals involving the thermal treatment of waste or waste-derived materials for the recovery of energy. These emerging technologies seek to capitalize on the availability of relatively inexpensive fuel sources (i.e. waste) whilst also generating electricity that can be used by businesses and communities. Whilst energy from waste is an important piece of the waste management puzzle, it is also coming under greater scrutiny from regulators.

On 1 April 2021, the NSW EPA introduced a draft revised 'Energy from Waste Policy' for public comment. This policy proposes to tightened restrictions 'for emissions including hydrogen fluoride, mercury, cadmium, thallium and heavy metals to meet and exceed the world's best air quality standards. It also includes the implementation of ongoing reporting requirements for energy from waste facility operators and real-time emissions data to be made publicly available online.'

Queensland implemented a similar approach with its own 'Energy from Waste Policy' in June 2020. The policy does not specifically aim to "incentivise or promote energy from waste", but instead to ensure that the facilities in Queensland meet the technical, environmental, and regulatory standards that best suit Queensland. The Policy outlines a preference for industries that produce higher value commodities such as solid or liquid fuels from waste materials, over the production of electricity and heat, to align with the Queensland Government's biofutures agenda.

This policy is another reminder that whilst the use of innovative solutions for the processing of waste is strongly encouraged by Governments, it is critical that these facilities are established to minimise environmental impacts which means that strict compliance frameworks are required to regulate waste handling and processing facilities.

Will helping the environment always fit within the rules?

Despite the growing environmental movement and waste reuse initiatives, future projects or activities that involve the storage, handling and disposal of waste are highly likely to trigger some form of environmental regulation.

For this reason, it is critical that the legal requirements to operate any waste facility are well understand and complied with. As increased efforts are made Governments, businesses and the community to engage in waste reduction and reuse, individuals and businesses should be mindful of both the efforts and opportunities in adapting their practice. The waste industry should also actively engage with regulators to develop regulations that encourage increased recycling and reuse within appropriate environmental parameters.

McCullough Robertson Lawyers have a team of highly skilled environment and planning professionals available to ensure your operations are within the rules and provide specialized advice on potential concerns or the legal requirements of transforming your operations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.