Local industry’s view on Four Corners

Valmar client Jeff Dunn at the Tumut Waste and Recycling Centre, Gilmore. Photo Jack of Hearts Studio

This week’s episode of investigate ABC program ‘Four Corners’ focused on dodgy practices in the waste and recycling industry.

The biggest revelation was that many processing facilities truck their waste to Queensland, using massive loopholes in the legislation, to avoid paying the NSW landfill levy.

It also exposed misbehaviour by some local councils and the NSW Environmental Protection Agency, who have been facilitating illegal dumping sites for profit. However, Manager of the Tumut Waste and Recycling Centre, John Stanfield, said that the local centre operates legally and ethically.

“I would like to make it very clear, that there are no such practices at this site, such as diverting problematic recyclables to landfill or stockpiling unsaleable products,” he said. John explained that the operating facility, which employs Valmar clients to sort material, enjoys two major advantages over the large city-based recycling services featured in the Four Corners program.

“All the paper and cardboard in the waste stream (over 60 per cent by volume) is sent directly to VISY Tumut, as a premium, contamination free product, for immediate recycling,” he said.

“It is not even baled, but trucked the few kilometres to VISY in a slightly compressed state in a special purpose tip-truck.

“Secondly, all recyclables produced at the Gilmore site are “premium products” as the result of a “positive hand sort” where the recyclable products are physically taken by hand out of the commingled waste on a slow moving conveyor. This results in less than 1 per cent contamination.

“The automatic systems in Sydney that featured in the ABC program only use people to pull out the worst contamination which results in an end product with up to 20 per cent contamination.

“Due to the location of our site near VISY, and the premium products we produce through the skilled positive hand-sort of our employees, we achieve excellent results in terms of products and volumes recycled.”

Also covered in the Four Corners program was the fact that glass, which the public is encouraged to put into their recycle bins, has not been actually recycled in some cases since 2015. Instead, glass products that go through recycling centres are frequently stockpiled or landfilled.

This has occurred at times at the Tumut Waste and Recycling Centre. Snowy Valleys Waste and Environment Officer Ken Fletcher said that this is because the value of commodities such as glass can and do change.

This means that sometimes they are able to sell recycled glass to make new products, and sometimes doing so would cause them to operate at a loss.

The recycling process is actually a complex system of buying and selling materials, and centres like the Gilmore plant are beholden to the whims of the market.

“There’s a process of balancing the ideal of recycling with the economic realities of doing so,” Mr Fletcher said.

Some believe it would be counterproductive or confusing for waste facilities to constantly change whether they are telling the public to recycle, or to bin, glass. So when it is viable for centres to recycle glass they do, and when it is not viable for them to recycle glass, they landfill it. The same goes for a range of other materials.

However, Snowy Valleys Director of Strategy, Community and Development Gus Cox said that locally all glass would be recycled from now on.

“We have recently reviewed this practice and the commitment has been made to recycle the product even if it is at a loss, as Council has a social and environmental obligation to do so,” he said.

“The looming start of Container Deposit in NSW on December 1 will also work to improve the situation,” added Mr Fletcher.

“Even if the market price of the glass or any other commodity is low, the Scheme Regional Co-ordinators will be charged with ensuring that the products accepted under the scheme are recycled and not landfilled.”