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Ipswich Mayor Cancels Recycling & is New Pin Up for Teflon Politics

Ipswich Mayor Cancels Recycling & is New Pin Up for Teflon Politics

Andrew Antoniolli auditions for Utopia & nails it

Looking at Ipswich Mayor Andrew Antoniolli, strategically positioned beside his Advance Queensland, made for innovation sign, you could be forgiven for thinking that surely here is a man with a laser focus on positioning Queensland as a leader in innovation.

But he's actually just a guy strategically positioned beside his Advance Queensland, made for innovation sign.

This week the Ipswich Mayor created a firestorm in public trust with some of the best Utopia style political manoeuvring, which was of course needed to justify a whole bunch of incompetent management. And in the process, recycling in Ipswich stepped back 20 years, and apparently there is real potential for others like him to use similar lines & follow suit.

What happened?

On 17 April, 2018, the mayor of Ipswich announced the cancellation of the Ipswich community recycling program. He then went on to admit that council had actually been sending recycle waste to landfill for the past month, but had not informed the community.

Why was the Ipswich kerbide recycling program cancelled?

According to Antoniolli, the program was cancelled because of the Chinese ban on contaminated plastics. In turn this meant that apparently Ipswich can not afford to pay local recyclers the extra $2 million in fees to recycle locally. 

Has China only banned plastic from Ipswich?

Duh. No. 

Have other councils cancelled their recycling programs?

Duh. No. (But in all fairness to Mr Antoniolli, others are grand standing on the point and threatening.)

What is different about Ipswich? A contamination rate of 54%.

Now you are asking the right question!  In essence, Ipswich recycle bins are closer to clean-ish landfill bins than recycle bins. The Ipswich recycle contamination rate is 54%. For context, the Brisbane area contamination rate is 7%. Getting the picture? 

Here are some basic facts on recyclables processing:

  1. Councils don't run recycling plants. They contract their recycling to companies who specialise - firstly in sorting the recyclables into different waste streams (think cardboard, plastic, metal, glass).  Once in streams, the waste is then taken away by specialist recyclers for its next life. 
  2. For the purposes of their contract, the company who sorts the materials into waste streams sets a limit on the amount of 'contamination' in the recycle bins you push out to the curb. (Contamination is essentially things that are in your recycle bin that shouldn't be there.)

    You can understand the reason for this. People actually have to sift through your recycle bin and sort it out, so the 'cleaner' it is, the less labour required to sort. And of course the more contamination, the more labour.
  3. The generally accepted upper limit on 'acceptable' contamination for contracts is 15%. 
  4. The Chinese have cut acceptable contamination on plastic they are prepared to buy back to 0.5%.

You do the math. The facts are that the contamination level in Ipswich Recycle bins is out of control by any standard except landfill. 

Here's where Utopia meets Yes Minister

Here's where you just know Rob Sitch could turn this into a whole new season of Utopia.

When Antoniolli decided to simply divert recycle trucks to landfill for a month without telling the community, he actually justified his decision by citing the community's high contamination levels, making the point that contamination was so high that the bin contents might as well have been going to landfill anyway.

Next, he showed his concern for his community by saying that the ongoing cost of $2 million to process their contaminated waste was unacceptable.

After that, he shifted the blame to the State & Federal government for the entire disaster because apparently they should have to done something about the Chinese ban on contaminated plastic waste in the first place.

And in a final 'look over there' manoeuvre, he implied that many other councils would follow Ipswich's lead, just to scare the crapper out of everyone and get some headlines. (And in all fairness, if he didn't do that directly, he was well aware that the media would take care of that little detail.) 

Questions for Mr Antoniolli

While shifting the focus elsewhere has some useful benefit short term, it doesn't solve the broader issues - of local education and solving the recycling problem. I am pretty sure no one in Ipswich wants to be a recyling pariah just to support Mr Antoniolli's 'look over there' case. 

How is it possible that Ipswich has such a ridiculously high level of contamination compared to other councils & could look to other councils for initiatives?

Mr Antoniolli ran for Mayor on the strength of the fact that he was a councillor for years before becoming major. So it's not as if the recycling issue is news to him, is it?

There are 120,000 dwellings in Ipswich. If the cost really is $2million, that's about $16.50 each house in rates. Maybe I am missing something.

What is being done to teach locals how to recycle properly?

Where do we go from here?

What is undeniable in all this, even if Ipswich does its bit and gets contamination down to realistic levels, is that there is a much bigger problem in play. Australia has to solve the broader issue with the shift in Chinese policy.

China used to buy our waste and these funds were partially used to subsidise local collection services. Now funding of $523 million has not only evaporated, we also have to get rid of the waste ourselves.

Clearly this is a huge issue as infrastructure that doesn't exist has to now be built. There is after all a huge community commitment to recycling.

The truth is that we weren't really recycling were we?

Shipping your crap to another country and getting it recycled there is not really the best way to develop any kind of solution because no one learns.

If we were actually recycling everything here, a real industry, more knowledge and commitment to better management would be in place today. 

This point reflects both community attitudes to what goes in bins as much as the entire supply chain of what happens after something goes in a bin.

Everyone is going to feel the pain. The Chinese ban, which will be fully implemented early next year, affects an annual average of 619,000 tonnes of materials that has to be re-homed, recycled somehow. 

Update: 20th April, 2018

Ipswich Mayor has today reversed the decision on sending recycling to landfill. According to Mayor Antoniolli, the back flip had nothing to do with public feedback and everything to do with... something else. To be honest, I am a bit confused.

Here's what he had to say.

  1. Despite having sent his community's recycling to landfill for four weeks prior to the announcement, he said:

    "We have been upfront with the people of Ipswich, and we have proudly sparked a national debate on council waste management practice. This is an issue of global significance, and our position is strong," he said.
  2. On the subject of his community's extraordinary level of contamination in recycle bins:

    "At present there are quite simply too many pizza boxes, plastic bags, burger wrappers and other items not fit for recycling." Mayor Antoniolli said the council would run a campaign to better educate residents about what items can and cannot be recycled.

The Politics

I think I detect a note of 'circular' in this and it's not the economy.

Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) president Mark Jamieson said in a statement that while it was also pleased the Council had come up with an interim solution, there needed to be a more comprehensive, state-wide solution to manage the waste stream.

Queensland Environment Minister Leanne Enoch said in a statement she was pleased the Ipswich City Council had found an alternative solution to their waste management issue. "That is why I wrote to the federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg last month and again this week, to communicate the urgent need for action and I am looking forward to discussing this issue at next week's meeting of environment ministers," she said. 

"Our Government has established a stakeholder advisory group that is assisting in the development of a comprehensive waste strategy, underpinned by a waste levy, which will encourage investment and innovation in the industry." Guess who is paying the waste levy? Business.

‚ÄčImage: Ipswich Council / Utopia 
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