Recycling in the Shoalhaven is at a tipping point.
Internationally and domestically, recycling has faced serious challenges. Resulting from China's decision last year to not accept recyclables, causing the beginning of the collapse in the market.
In light of this, Shoalhaven councillors entered into a confidential session during their ordinary meeting on July 30, 2019 to consider a report on kerbside recycling in the Shoalhaven.
They approved a $55.31 per tonne increase to the gate fee paid to Shoalhaven Recycling until 2020. In the original contract, Shoalhaven Recycling was only paid $62.38 per tonne, now its waste processing fee is $150 per tonne.
During the meeting, council also approved a motion to prepare a plan to process recyclables "in house" at West Nowra and to not invite any tenders for processing recyclables after 2020. The current contract between Council and Shoalhaven Recycling ends on June 30 next year.
If Shoalhaven Recycling's contract is not renewed, it's expected up to 20 jobs will be lost from the Bomaderry facility, although the general manager at Shoalhaven Recycling Ben Hobbs said it might not be all bad news.
"The business would be just as profitable, if not more profitable, if the council decides not to renew their contract with Shoalhaven Recycling," he said.
"The economics still stack up for materials to be recycled and not sent to landfill when we consider the full life cycle of a product.
"To respond to the new product quality standards, Shoalhaven Recycling has invested heavily in new equipment, processes and additional sorting staff to achieve this outcome."
But the situation isn't all positive for Shoalhaven Recycling. Council sources have asserted Shoalhaven Recycling has experienced financial difficulties.
The South Coast Register has learned of several fines issued to Shoalhaven Recycling from the NSW Environmental Protection Authority and a prevention notice from the EPA, both issued over the past year and a half.
Water pollution and EPA penalty notices
On December 22 last year the EPA issued a clean-up notice to South Coast Plant Hire Pty Ltd, operating as Shoalhaven Recycling. After an inspection of the site on December 14, 2017 EPA officers noticed "an odorous, black liquid" ponding near a stockpile of unprocessed glass and flowing away from the site towards Mulgen Creek.
Later analysis showed the black liquid had "contained elevated concentrations of heavy metals and elevated levels of Biochemical Oxygen Demand".
"Officers saw an area down gradient from the discharge point that also contained black liquid and a channel had been made in the surface of the land towards Mulgen Creek," the EPA clean-up notice said.
The EPA alleged Shoalhaven Recycling was responsible for the pollution incident and requested it to prevent the pollution from continuing and remove all the material causing it.
Subsequently, the EPA then issued three penalty notices to Shoalhaven Recycling. The first, on April 19, 2018 amounted to $1000 for failing to pay the fee issued with the clean-up notice. The other two were issued on May 24, 2018 for water pollution and contravention of a licence condition. Those two fines were $15,000 each.
Addressing the EPA's allegations, the general manger of Shoalhaven Recycling Ben Hobbs said the amount of liquid was small and quickly cleaned up.
"This was an oversite with a very small amount of liquid leaving the premises which was cleaned up immediately," Mr Hobbs said in an email.
"Follow[ing] this, additional equipment & procedures have been put into place which increase capacity to hold water and pumps installed with regular pump outs of pollution traps and ongoing monitoring.
"Shoalhaven Recycling is committed to upgrading the facility with an EIS [enviromental impact statement] well underway for another 2000m2 factory which will see the whole recycling process inside.
"In the past 12 months the [materials recovery facility] has been fully rebuilt from the ground up inside an adjacent building to act on the China sword issues and to be able to sell products.
"A new concrete plant and brick making machine was purchased early 2018 which once the new building is built will see Shoalhaven Recycling making glasscrete bricks along with the current aggregates and drainage mediums."
Stockpiling of glass and prevention notice
When contacted before the discovery of EPA documents, both Shoalhaven Recycling and Shoalhaven City Council said, in separate, but almost identical responses to written questions that no waste had been sent to landfill.
They did say, however, that stockpiling of various materials had occurred but most of the backlog had now been cleared.
Documents since discovered show that on May 31 this year the EPA issued a prevention notice to Shoalhaven Recycling. During an inspection on February 21 this year the EPA discovered two large stockpiles of glass containing approximately 4160 cubic metres of material, over four times the 1000 cubic metres allowed.
It was ordered to stop receiving waste on one of its lots and by October 11 this year remove all waste from the lot.
On May 8, the EPA also issued Shoalhaven Recycling a notice of variation of licence. This put restrictions on Shoalhaven Recycling to limit the amount of paper, glass and metal it could receive per month as well as requiring it to remove a significant amount of waste per month. The new conditions also required Shoalhaven Recycling to report to the EPA daily.
General manager of Shoalhaven Recycling Ben Hobbs said the glass stockpile had been significantly reduced but the company was still working on creating a larger, local market for the product.
"Our glass pile has been significantly reduced with massive capital expenditure to produce marketable products that are going into local road works and other applications," Mr Hobbs said in an email.
"All records are kept onsite of where the materials have been dispatched... we have put an advertising campaign in place along with capital expenditure to make the materials and to be able to be moved on for end use purposes"
"The glass is a national problem, not just a local one, with many companies stockpiling and warehousing."
Mr Hobbs said the introduction of the container deposit scheme had further compounded the challenges of recycling glass.
"Remanufacturing companies are choosing to accept CDS recovered glass (which is cleaner by virtue of being collected in a glass only stream) over MRF [materials recovery facility] glass which contains more impurities from the separation of glass from mixed recycling," he said.
"One of the biggest hurdles and slowest problems is changing public perspective on the uses for the product.
"As a country I believe we are making headway but are still a fairway behind which will require mandating into public works, this both saves taxpayers' and ratepayers' money for the cost of virgin materials and also slows down the consumption of natural resources."
Shoalhaven City Council's Response
When initially asked questions about recycling in the Shoalhaven and where recyclables are going, Shoalhaven City Council gave an almost identical response to the one received from Shoalhaven Recycling.
In follow-up questions about the EPA fines and if council was concerned at the conduct of Shoalhaven Recycling, Shoalhaven City Council said they were aware of external forces and how they were impacting Shoalhaven Recycling.
"Council is managing its contract with Shoalhaven Recycling in accordance with all the due processes afforded by the contract and in the best interest of the Shoalhaven Community," a council spokesperson said.
"Council can assure the community that their recyclables are being processed.
"Council can also assure our community that we have contingency plans available to us should Shoalhaven Recycling be unable to continue to operate for any reason and that these will be enacted if required."
Challenges facing recycling in Australia
The recycling industry in Australia was put in crisis in January 2018 when the China National Sword policy took effect which banned 24 types of recyclables from being sent to China. This meant over 1.3 million tonnes of recyclable waste was affected.
Scott Morrison this month also announced the federal government had allocated $20 million for recycling projects. The $20 million will be put towards projects designed to help meet the proposed ban on recyclable material being exported overseas.
The ban arose from the collapse of Victorian recycling company SKM, which forced dozens of councils to send their recyclables directly to landfill.