Over coming days, recycling carefully separated from other rubbish by Warrnambool residents may be dumped into landfill at great cost.
Wheelie Waste, a Warrnambool-based recycling contractor that employs 150 people across regional Victoria, said it was faced with little choice after talks with the state government broke down late on Thursday.
The state’s recycling industry has been in crisis after a change in China’s policy earlier this year saw it significantly restrict its importation of recycled materials such as steel, aluminium, paper and plastics.
Last month, Visy, one of the main companies that accepts recycling from contractors and exports it to China, told Wheelie Waste it would no longer accept collected co-mingled recyclables.
Wheelie Waste collects more than 40,000 tonnes of recycling each year from 11 regional Victorian councils, including Warrnambool City Council.
The company has continued to collect kerbside recycling, but has been forced to look at options such as putting it into landfill or finding other markets at a much greater cost.
Wheelie Waste managing director Gary Barton said he was “bitterly disappointed” with the state government, who he believed would free up hundreds of millions in cash from a landfill levy to provide a solution to the crisis. The company first met with Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio on Friday February 2.
“After seven days of meetings and negotiations, Minister D’Ambrosio has not been able to provide any solution and or assistance to local government,” he said.
“We have effectively lost seven days of looking at other options with the state government while we could have been finding other work for our staff. Wheelie Waste is committed to working with council to provide a collections services and to find a financially viable recycling option.”
Mr Barton said if a solution was not found, 150 full-time jobs across regional Victoria would be at risk, and decades of education to ensure residents sorted out and recycled materials would be wasted.
Mr Barton said councils and his company needed the state government’s help because they were not in the financial position to deal with the blow. He said they could not have foreseen China’s decision.
“It’ll make a significant difference to the rates – the rates have got to go up because of it,” Mr Barton said.
“We’ve got a whole heap of rubbish here – what are we going to do with it?”
The state government said the talks were ongoing.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the situation had come about through a market failure.
“As a matter of urgency we are working with industry, local councils and other governments to find the best way to manage our recyclable materials in the short-term while other longer-term solutions are identified,” she said.
Warrnambool City Council chief executive officer Bruce Anson reassured residents that recycling collections from Warrnambool households would continue.
“It is now well-known that we have an issue with the processing of our community’s recyclable materials,” he said.
“Our kerbside collection contractor, Wheelie Waste, will collect recyclables while we work through the processing issue. The company that had been processing our recyclable materials, Visy, abruptly changed the conditions around the acceptance of recyclables from Warrnambool and several other Victorian municipalities.”
Mr Anson said Warrnambool residents did a great job separating rubbish and recyclables.
“We’re looking to the Victorian government to assist us to resolve the issue,” he said. “This could include using the EPA landfill levy to ensure our recyclables are processed sustainably.”
Opposition environment spokesman Nick Wakeling said Premier Daniel Andrews had “cruelly” refused to provide any assistance to solve the crisis.
“Because of Daniel Andrews’ inaction, potentially 150 jobs could be lost as recycling businesses face closure, and uncollected recycling will pile up in Victorian properties,” he said.
South West Coast MP Roma Britnell echoed his sentiment.
“The state government collects hundreds of millions from local governments each year in waste management levies – rather than spending it on new parks for metro Melbourne and solar powered trams – it’s time this money was used to support south-west coast councils and waste management businesses to cover the huge cost increases they are now facing,” Mrs Britnell said.
Moyne Shire environment and regulatory services manager Robert Gibson said councils had been briefed on Friday afternoon, and the Municipal Association of Victoria was still in discussions with the state government. The shire’s recyclables are not collected by Wheelie Waste.
Mr Gibson said kerbside collections would continue in the shire and everything was still being recycled as it should be.
“We’re all hoping for a resolution in the very short term but we’re going to need some government support to do that,” he said.
A Corangamite Shire spokesman said the council was still waiting to have further talks with Wheelie Waste, which is its recycling contractor.
Visy did not respond to The Standard’s request for comment and information.