Do all you can to eliminate or minimise risks to the environment and human health, Victorian businesses in the waste and recycling sector are being urged.  

Speaking at a webinar presented by the Ai Group Environmental Connect network last week, Lee Miezis, Chief Executive Officer at the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Victoria, said prevention was key to new laws introduced this year. 

“As a regulator, we really want to see Victorian businesses innovate and prosper and take advantage of new market opportunities, and we want to see that occur while enhancing the protection of our communities and of our environment,” Mr Miezis said. 

“The centerpiece of the new Environment Protection Act are preventative duties relating to environmental protection. In particular, what’s known as the General Environmental Duty (GED), which is a duty to proactively identify and manage environmental risk. It’s a shared responsibility of all Victorians. Not just Victorian businesses but all Victorians.” 

The Act, which came into effect on July 1, represents the biggest changes to environmental protection in Victoria for more than 50 years, Mr Miezis said. 

“It really does fundamentally change how we regulate,” he added. 

“Key to the new laws is that businesses must find and assess the risk of harm to human health and the environment from all activities. Use suitable risk control measures, respond quickly to EPA’s advice and suggestions, and make any changes when needed.” 

In an Australian first, the GED is criminally enforceable. 

“If you conduct activities that pose risks to human health and the environment, you've got to understand those risks,” Mr Miezis said. 

“You've also got to take reasonably practical steps to eliminate or minimise those risks.  

“There are a range of duties and responsibilities introduced in the Act in the accompanying regulations, particularly for the waste and recycling sector, as well as anyone generating industrial waste. These duties are about putting in place common-sense approaches to prevent harm to the environment and to human health.  

“Think about the way your business goes about the protection of your workers, your customers and your community under the OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) framework.” 

The Act gives the EPA enhanced powers and tools to prevent and minimise risks of harm. It also provides the EPA with the ability to pursue stronger sanctions and penalties to hold environmental polluters to account.  

“The new EPA includes important changes and compliance obligations for how waste and resource recovery facilities and companies transport waste so they can legally operate,” Mr Miezis said.  

“A key requirement of the Act is that all industrial waste is deposited in a place that is lawfully able to receive it. Under the new laws, EPA will issue licences, permits and registrations, which establish a lawful place.”  

The Act requires that waste producers take all reasonable steps to ensure waste arrives at such a location.  

“If you create, transport or receive waste, you must make sure that it ends up at a lawful place,” Mr Miezis said.  

“This requirement helps to avoid land and groundwater contamination, stockpile fires, abandoned waste and illegal waste sites.  

“The nature of your activities determines if you need a permission and the level of controls that need to be put in place. 

“A key message is to always work with reputable contractors and companies when transporting and disposing of waste. Anyone handling waste must manage it in accordance with its risk and in accordance with those specific duties and responsibilities that relate to that waste type.”  

Mr Miezis said the Authority would continue to work with companies to ensure their activities complied with the new laws.  

“Although we have a zero tolerance for deliberate and illegal non-compliance, we recognise that despite best efforts, honest mistakes can and will occur,” he said. 

“We’re going to be practical and outcome-focused in our regulatory approach, really using the breadth of the regulatory tools that we’ve got at our disposal.  

“While we want to see compliance with the new duties from day 1, we know it’s going to take time and effort to get things 100% right.  

“It’s about understanding and controlling your risks. That’s key to compliance with the new laws. EPA will continue to work with you to help you comply with the new laws.  

“If we do see non-compliance, our response is going to be measured and proportionate. Deliberate and criminal non-compliance will be taken seriously.” 

In the lead-up to July 1, the EPA engaged with more than 3000 organisations to support the transition to the new laws.  

Since that time, the Authority has conducted more than 430 inspections.  

“We’ve onboarded 91% of target businesses to our waste tracker system,” Mr Miezis added. 

“We’ve started more than 80 investigations and we’ve recorded more than 160 contaminated land reports. Our Central Dispatch Team has also received and reviewed more than 3000 pollution reports and we’ve assigned more than 700 regulatory responses to our frontline regional teams.” 

Tim Piper, Ai Group’s Head of Victoria, said while many companies might find the legislation difficult to deal with initially, it was essential they complied with the Act.  

“We need to be knowing more about it and we need to be taking it even more seriously than some are, at the moment,” Mr Piper said. 

“Being aware of it is a really important part of this.”  

Guests at the webinar heard how the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) manages to divert from landfill nearly 80% of the 2000 tonnes of waste generated at the venue.  

Peter Wearne, General Manager – Facilities, Melbourne Cricket Club, said that in 2018, the venue had close to 3.5million visitors yet recorded its lowest waste generated in the previous five years.  

“Back in 2008, we were only recycling about 22% of our waste,” Mr Wearne said. 

The MCG also became the first sports venue in the world to close the loop on organics recycling. 

Organic waste (turf and food materials) is processed in an onsite dehydrator and turned into a soil additive.  

More than 150 tonnes of organic waste was processed during 2018, creating 42 tonnes of soil food. 

“One of the advantages of this is that we’re no longer transporting by vehicle any of our green waste offsite,” Mr Wearne said. 

“That means we’ve reduced our CO2 emissions just by doing that. We hope other people can have a look at what we’re doing to see if it’s scalable or something they can look at.” 

To learn more about Ai Group’s Environment Connect network, click here. 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.