JUST when you thought it was safe to put your bin out, after the summer holiday shambles in Bass Coast, comes news of a potentially catastrophic failure with the shire’s rubbish/recycling system.
But they’re not on their own, South Gippsland Shire and dozens of other municipalities across the state are in the same mess.
Officially at least, the shire’s mayor, Cr Pamela Rothfield is “hoping for the best” but one option being considered by the shire is stockpiling recyclable waste until such time as the problem is sorted out.
At the root of the trouble is a decision by China, announced in July last year and coming into force on January 1, 2018, that it will no longer be accepting 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles.
The packaging giant, Visy, is one of the nation’s biggest recycled waste processors and exporters of such material to China but up until now they’ve accepted most of Bass Coast’s recyclables, and a significant volume of South Gippsland’s on contract to Wonthaggi Recyclers.
Visy has just announced they have suspended services for a month from this Friday, February 9. There’s no word on what will happen after that.
Authorities shouldn’t have been caught on the hop by this, but it appears that neither the Federal Government, State Government, local shires or their contractors, have put anything in place, until now, to deal with the problem despite the fact that China was accepting 619,000 tonnes of material from Australia annually.
Bass Coast MP, Brian Paynter, who met with officials from Wonthaggi Recyclers last week, says the lack of action, especially by the State Government, is a disgrace.
“They’re sitting on a $500 million Sustainability Fund, collected from local councils in landfill levies, but apart from a few Mickey Mouse projects, they’ve done nothing,” he said.
“They’ve had six months to respond to this and what have they done?”
Mr Paynter said he believed hundreds of jobs in regional Victoria, and also in metro areas, could be at risk as a result of government inaction.
The shire’s Manager Sustainable Environment, Deirdre Griepsma, is on it.
“We’ve been in contact with Wonthaggi Recyclers on a daily basis and had a meeting with them last week,” Ms Griepsma said.
“They have been notified by Visy that they intend to suspend services for 30 days as a result of the China market situation which incidentally affects not only councils in Victoria but all of Australia and the UK, America and Canada as well.
“They (Visy) have invoked the force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances) clause in their contract (with Wonthaggi Recyclers) and suspended their services.
“As a council, Wonthaggi Recyclers notified us that they were notified of the 30-day suspension.”
Ms Griepsma said that while the contracted responsibility remained with Wonthaggi Recyclers, the shire was meeting with them to see what contingencies could be put in place to provide off-site storage, or to identify other outlets for the waste.
Ms Griepsma said there had not been a dollar value put on the cost impact to Wonthaggi Recyclers at this stage, but according to Mr Paynter, it could be considerable, potentially posing an on-going threat to the service.
Ms Griepsma said the shire was waiting to see what response the government would make following its meetings with the EPA, Sustainability Victoria, the waste and recovery groups and also the waste contractors.
“The State Government has a policy around funding better uses of recyclable materials,” she said.
“They have made the statement that they want to ensure that all kerbside collection of recyclables does not go into landfill.
“We are working with our contract partners to find a solution.
Asked how much recycled waste the shire collected in a week, and therefore what size storage site might be needed, Ms Griepsma said she didn’t know those figures but that the data was available.
“That’s being worked out in office,” she said.
But like the Mayor Cr Rothfield, Ms Griepsma was optimistic that solutions would be found.
“It’s not an isolated problem. I know of four other Gippsland councils that are similarly affected and the same goes for other metropolitan and rural councils.
Asked if the shire was looking to engage with the community, Ms Griepsma said the collection of rubbish and recyclable waste would continue as usual, but she said there were ways the community could help.
“There are three main things the community can do:
“First you can look at what you are buying and the packaging that comes with it and try to cut down on secondary packaging by using Boomerang bags etc, and buying recycle products to close the loop on waste;
“Also it’s important not to contaminate the recycle bin with material that shouldn’t be in there.
“And you should rinse out containers to cut down on odours.”
This last point could be crucial if the recycled materials have to be stored for more than the 30 days so far advised by Visy.
“The shire’s contractors are still collecting recyclable materials and we are looking to the community to continue with that. We’re considering contingencies that might be put in place and we’re optimistic that solutions will be found,” she said.
“But bins should be going out as usual,” she said.
The Mayor Cr Rothfield, while concerned about the initial impact, is hopeful the change could lead to business expansion and job opportunities in Gippsland.
Such a possibility was discussed at the scheduled meeting of the Gippsland Waste and Resource Recovery Group she attended last Friday.
“There’s no change to our services and I’m taking a positive view of this, opportunities spring out of these situation,” she said.
But Cr Rothfield agreed that while the shire had a contract with Wonthaggi Recyclers and finding an outlet for the recyclable waste they collected was essentially their problem, the shire had a strong interest in finding an outcome.

At South Gippsland
Tony Peterson, Manager Infrastructure Planning, Engineering and Assets believes South Gippsland is in a better position than some of its neighbours because it doesn’t have all its eggs in the one basket.
“Under the contract Cleanaway has to take our kerbside recycling to a registered recycling facility,” Mr Peterson said.
“There’s no change to our service from a resident’s perspective and no exposure to extra cost for Council under this contract,” he claimed.
He said Cleanaway met with the shire yesterday to discuss its options.
He said the council’s recycling waste currently goes to two firms, Dasma in the Latrobe Valley (an end-to-end processor), and Wonthaggi Recyclers (therefore Visy).
But how they’ll adapt to the service suspension by Visy is not known.
CEO of the Municipal Association of Victoria, which represents local government in Victoria, Rob Spence said there was “a pressing need for market development within the local recycling industry”.
“Working through this complex issue will require the involvement of industry, all three levels of government and the community to minimise the impacts and find alternative solutions,” he said.
In a statement, the Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio said she would be seeking assurances that Victorians would not be impacted.
“I have asked for a meeting with these businesses to seek an explanation into what’s happened and will be discussing these matters with local government,” she said.