What States Can Do - Part IX: Head towards zero waste

My rationale for this series of blogs has been about how different states in different nations can learn from each other by sharing policy ideas that work. Adopting and adapting policies from other jurisdictions has certainly paid dividends for South Australia over the decades. In Australia, the state of South Australia is often seen as a policy and reform leader but for many of our initiatives we have borrowed ideas from around the world.

One of those areas of leadership is waste management and recycling. South Australia has now achieved a recycling rate of nearly 80%. This means that last year 4.3 million tonnes of materials were diverted from landfill to recycling. On a per capita basis, this was the best result of any state in Australia. In an era of climate change this is important, preventing the equivalent of more than 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Environment Minister Paul Caica recently put this achievement into context saying our recycling efforts equate to taking about 300,000 passenger cars off our roads or planting 2 million trees, in a State with only 1.6 million people.

Back in the mid 1970s we were the first state in Australia to introduce container deposit legislation. We borrowed the idea from Oregon. We are still the only state, even though it has been a spectacular success.

It is not complicated. Consumers are given a 10 cent rebate on each bottle/can/drink container they return for recycling rather than throw away into the garbage. This has stimulated a strong local recycling industry. It has also proved a popular fundraising tool for sports clubs, community organisations and charities who send members out to collect cans and bottles that are taken to depots to exchange for cash. Most importantly, these incentives have resulted in much cleaner cities, roadsides and waterways.

In 2009, South Australia became the first state in Australia to ban the non-reusable plastic bags used in supermarket checkouts. Around Australia, 3.93 billion plastic bags are used and discarded every year. South Australia's share was about 400 million.

These bags can take hundreds of years to break down and can end up in the litter stream causing harmful effects to aquatic and terrestrial animals. Discarded plastic bags are also a highly visible, ugly blight within communities. They make cities and suburbs look shabby.

Banning plastic bags is a world wide movement. On July 1st, Pasadena joined other Californian cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, in banning the bags. On the same day Seattle embraced a city wide ban on carry out plastic bags. In Canada, Toronto recently decided to eliminate its unpopular 5 cent levy on plastic bags, replacing it with a total ban from January 2013.

When I announced our ban, the retail industry piled on the political pressure. We were told it would be a disaster for shoppers and for shops. It would make it very difficult for national retailers to have a different regime in our state rather than have a uniform approach across the continent. Jobs would be lost. Consumers would be angry.

None of this happened. We went ahead with the legislation even though all other Australian states caved in to retail pressure. Given plenty of time to prepare for the day when cloth 'green bags' replaced non-reusable plastic bags, the changeover went ahead without a hitch.

I was also warned by colleagues that there would be a political backlash from South Australian voters. This didn't happen either. In fact, the ban proved immensely popular. People were proud to do the right thing for the environment. Polling shows 80% of South Australians support the ban and the figures for young people were even higher. There is also a high level of compliance by shoppers bringing their own 'green bags' to grocery stores. It has now become a habit and shoppers have proven smart at estimating how many bags they need for larger shopping trips. Stores that resisted the move now boast about their green credentials.

Electronic waste is becoming a real problem around the world. Yet much of what is used to make computers can be recycled. Around 1.5 million computers are dumped in Australian landfill each year. Their reusable material includes ferrous and non ferrous materials, glass and various types of plastic. Computer cases are 90% steel while CRT tube monitors are 95% glass. Flat screens are made of glass, plastic and metal. All this can be recycled.

In December 2011 our state government agency Zero Waste SA, in association with a group of local government councils and a major brand owner Apple, coordinated a two day metropolitan wide E-Waste collection event. 607 tonnes of E-Waste was collected from almost 10,000 participants. Zero Waste SA is now working with a large number of councils to encourage E-Waste to be recycled.

The Southern Hemisphere's first television and computer glass screen recycling and processing plant has also been established following funding from Zero Waste SA.

In 2002 South Australia's local councils diverted only about 20% of kerbside collected garbage from going to landfill dumps. Through incentive grants provided to councils by Zero Waste SA, kerbside recycling has increased dramatically to around 50% with some councils achieving much higher rates.

In 2008/09 ten South Australian councils participated in a comprehensive pilot project designed to encourage the recycling of household kitchen waste. Householders in the program were given a bench top container for food waste such as peelings, vegetables and meat scraps. These were then transferred into the garden 'organics bin' for kerbside collection and processing. The pilot achieved diversion rates of up to 71% and strong householder support for food waste recycling. The program is now being expanded to help 155,500 householders increase their recycling efforts.

Zero Waste SA, again with the assistance of local government, is also undertaking free household hazardous waste drop off days. This is helping householders dispose of unwanted chemicals that are dangerous if not stored or disposed of safely.

In 2010, the work of Zero Waste SA was commended by a UN Habitat report entitled "Solid Waste Management in the World Cities'" which examines trends in waste management. Our linking of landfill revenue to Zero Waste SA funding was described as an integrated and innovative strategy and the plastic bag ban was mentioned as an excellent example of South Australia's leadership. Our three bin kerbside collection system was also praised by international experts.

Describing our waste and recycling system as best practice, the UN said South Australia had demonstrated "a high level of political commitment to 'stick its neck out' and implement policies and legislation upon which other administrations take a more conservative position".

This Blog was published on the Center for National Policy website.

Mike Rann is Fellow for Democracy and Development with the Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C.