A Baseline Report
As the production of hazardous waste materials threatening to both the environment of Victoria and to the regional human population of the area continues to increase in volume and toxicity, the definition, identification, and management of manifold liquid, solid, and gaseous products has become a focus of intensified scientific study, the results of which may carry significant economic, social, and cultural influence moving forward.
Contemporary analysis of Victoria’s handling of its solid and hazardous waste imperatives points to poor current management and performance in the face of increasing challenges and environmental risks. Expectations for positive outcomes in the near term appear remote.
A Review of the Literature
Australia has one of the highest rates of per-capita solid waste generation in the world, with Victoria and Melbourne ranking third as a contributor to this daunting statistic.
Historically, Melbourne has experienced dramatic periodic cycles of dramatic population growth, and is currently home to nearly five million inhabitants enjoying sustained economic and industrial expansion. Population expansion is always accompanied by aggressive infrastructure development and an accelerated consumption of resources. In Melbourne, an early failure by government to control suburban sprawl followed by recent decades of intensified urban development, neither of which occurred with any consideration given to the environmental impacts of these phenomena and which are now recognized as having contributed to a number of environmental issues, not the least of which is the challenge of hazardous waste management and disposal.
Until the late 20th Century, little attention was given to the ecological or environmental impacts of waste disposal throughout Victoria in general and in Melbourne more specifically. Waste materials were rarely distinguished beyond the definitions of “sewage”, “garbage”, and “trash”, the former generally defined as liquid organic human waste, the latter as the products of industrial production. Recycling of manufactured detritus was limited at that time to large rubber items like automobile tires or iron and steel. Everything else was simply carted off to deep landfills where presumably inert tonnage was buried and forgotten.
According to the Environment Protection Authority Victoria A Brief History of Hazardous Waste in Victoria (2010), it was not until the 1970s that authorities acknowledged a “poor understanding of the environmental impacts of disposing of hazardous waste to landfill.” Pursuant to the enactment of the Environment Protection Act 1970, governmental regulation and licensing of certain industrial activities commenced in 1972. Given that, it was not until several years later that the impact of liquid wastes upon riparian and water table resources resulted in the banning of liquid waste products from landfill sites and the establishment of “cradle-to-grave” monitoring and management of all hazardous waste.
Great public awareness of the hazardous waste management issue was brought by the issuance of more rigorous regulatory standards as detailed in the EPA’s 2000 enactment of the Industrial Waste Management Policy, which provided a system of strenuous penalties imposed upon waste disposal violators and the development of a “waste hierarchy” prescribing a reduction in waste production and outline efforts toward the effective recovery of recyclable materials.
Defining hazardous waste as “prescribed industrial waste” (PIW) generated by such activities including the manufacture of paints, plastics, engines and vehicles, and endeavors like drycleaning, medical and dental surgery, fast food production, and product packaging, the EPA actively stepped up its regulatory efforts with its Industrial Waste Resource Regulations of 2009 replacing the 1998 and 2000 legislation.
Pursuant to the Environment Protection Act of 1970 definition as was as “any matter, whether solid, liquid, gaseous or radioactive” which, when deposited into the environment causes any alteration of that environment, there are now in place PIW categories used to improve landfill practices. Among the most obvious materials of concern at the time of that legislation was the dumping of asbestos, tires, and specific chemical compounds.
Since then, the EPA Industrial Waste Resource Guidelines has set specific limits in three soil hazard threshold categories across a broad chemical spectrum ranging from arsenic to hexachlorobutadiene with “hazard characteristics” as disparate as “explosive wastes” to “wastes that liberate toxic gases in contact with air or water.” With each material thusly categorized A, B, or C, in accord with its level environmental hazard, the regulations are now uniform and easily interpreted, with enforcement no longer a matter of subjective interpretation or judgment.
The results of these regulatory efforts for Victoria and Greater Melbourne appear promising. Public and industrial adherence to governmental guidelines grows with ongoing educational and enforcement activities. The City of Melbourne actively promulgates increased public awareness via informative announcements outlining its waste disposal protocols.
There are, however, serious new environmental challenges posed by changing patterns of industrial and technological development; as new consumer goods are always being produced, so too are the patterns and varieties of waste products entering the disposal process. The most rapidly expanding category of solid waste entering the never-ending disposal flow in both Melbourne and the world at large is discarded and obsolete electrical equipment (Herat).
This issue has been studied extensively outside of Australia; research conducted in the European Union a decade ago indicates the tonnage of electronic waste in Europe was then growing at 5% per year, triple the increase of other solid waste growth rates (Schwarzer). The proliferation of computer technology, the ubiquity of cellphones, the ongoing release of new mobile devices—all of which have a shrinking obsolescence cycle—is accompanied by increasing rates of disposal of these products into the environment. Unseen by the disposing consumer are the substances of which these technological products are composed, the majority of which are known to be highly toxic to the environment. There is no debate that lead, arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and a wide variety of plastic compounds need to properly handled in the waste stream. The fact that Australia’s engagement with technology and the devices required to participate in the world’s information economy is expanding at one of the highest rates in the world only supports the need for e-waste regulations.
Attempts within Australia to control the disposal of electronic waste on a federal level were initially met with little enthusiasm by the manufacturers of those products.
Ultimately, the states have taken the challenge upon themselves, yet success in meeting that challenge has proved particularly elusive in Victoria. The Victorian Auditor-General’s Report on Municipal Solid Waste Management (2011) points to “missed opportunities” on administrative, planning, leadership, and implementation levels which have resulted in systemic failures to meet the guidelines of the state’s 2005 Sustainability in Action: Towards Zero Waste Strategy. The conclusions drawn by the auditing body are highly critical, yet appear to make administrative solution recommendations that promise little in the way of effective waste management improvements.
Underlying the governmental failure to achieve hazardous and solid waste management objectives are economic and marketplace realities within the waste management industry (Messenger). With generally increasing costs of materials recovery processes and the fluctuation of recycled materials prices, major waste management providers are periodically deterred from creating the tools and facilities required for effective environmental protection from the effects of hazardous waste disposal.
As early as 2006, the Australian Bureau of Statistics was projecting, based upon rates of population growth, industrialization, and rising per capita gross domestic product that consistently imply mounting volumes of waste materials, limited future improvements in recycling protocols or in the efficiencies of waste management. The 2006 ABS projections of disposal and recycling quantities predicted more than 8,000,000 tons of municipal solids and 715,000 tons of commercial solids entering the 2012 waste stream. Remarkably, and undoubtedly attributed to expectations for increasingly rigorous governmental regulations over industrial waste output, 2012 predictions for commercial recycling exceeded municipal rates of by nearly 2,000,000 tons.
Just four years later, data provided by the ABS indicated a significant under-estimate in their earlier projections, reporting in 2010 3,500,000 tons of “controlled” hazardous waste production in the country, accounting for fully 6% of all refuse products.
The pendulum of economic incentives and governmental regulatory capacity will undoubtedly swing in perpetuity. That reality does not obscure, however, the overall trend of increased waste volumes generated by a highly industrialized consumer society. Those predictable verities portend greater future need for incentives for increased investment, efficiencies, technologies, and protocols focused upon both the reduction in waste volumes and the recovery of recyclable materials.
In spite of Victoria’s official regulatory failings, the need for improved waste management systems and their monitoring is not being ignored by an increasingly educated national citizenry.
According to data published by the Australian Government Department of the Environment, significant progress continues to be made on various regional and community fronts. The negative impacts of e-waste are now a headline items in multiple public forums with promising results; in 2014, for example, recycling expectations were exceeded nationwide by 15%, generating raw materials exports to manufacturing facilities in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, and Korea in excess of 800 tons.
Behavioral, social, and industrial compliance with the unforgiving realities of resource distribution and with the appropriate and environmentally responsible management of our material discards remains a global priority. For Melbourne and Victoria, the answer undoubtedly lies in economic incentives, which have yet to completely or sufficiently evolve.