Brisbane City Council Recycling Art Exhibition 2017 (and a few thoughts on waste)

Brisbane City Council hosts an annual Recycling Art Exhibition which includes a series of workshops and events open to the public. There are discussions about salvaging of materials and recycling, workshops on clothing and furniture repair, and many other opportunities for the public to connect with makers, repairers and restorers who can discuss the work they do. While there is a lot of entertainment value in these events, they are also part of a serious discussion we need to have about waste and wastefulness.

We have a waste problem. The recent ABC program War on Waste1 cleverly demonstrated how wasteful we are by highlighting some of the effects of our over-consuming habits. We are producing more waste today than we ever have - as Australia's population grew by 28% from 1994 to 2015, our waste generation grew by 170%2.  Queensland's household waste is now 2.5 million tonnes per year, and while a part of our waste issue can be addressed by recycling, we are not doing that very well. Even with our household recycling bins and free drop off to council resource recovery centres for recyclables, our household recycling rates are low at 31.2% of household waste3, which means that we are each throwing 374kg into landfill each year. Other countries are taking the lead, for example, since 2000, Sweden has been working with a strict landfill reduction policy that now sees them discard only 0.7% of their household waste into landfill. So as each Queenslander dumps around 374kg of household waste into landfill every year, a Swede will throw only 3kg!

To address the growing waste, in 2011 the Queensland Government introduced a landfill levy of $35/tonne to join other states who had already had one in place for many years. Ranging from $55 (in WA) to $133/tonne (in NSW), our $35/tonne levy was low in comparison. Regardless, in a quest to "reduce green tape" and with the destructive force of partisan politics the then newly elected Newman government removed the levy. The levy had been in place for just over 6 months, but long enough to cause a positive increase in recycling rates. It is argued2 that as the levy was removed, the recycling rates plateaued. But this wasn't the only effect of this myopic policy: scrapping the levy made dumping to Queensland landfill so cheap that 15,000 extra truck trips were made along the highways between NSW and Victoria to south-east Queensland landfill sites to dump 477,000 tonnes3 of rubbish. Only when the EPA banned the transport by road of landfill further than 150km from the source, was this practice reduced, however it was not entirely mitigated as waste continued to flow into Queensland by rail.

There are many sources of our growing waste, and while many of us are working in our own small ways to make a difference, we need the support of government with a coherent, long term strategy that includes more radical approaches. We must do more than just rely on recycling - we need to design and make things of high quality and to be repairable, and we need to drastically reduce how much we purchase.

New approaches by government would be welcomed, such as the one recently introduced in Sweden to halve the rate of VAT charged on repairs. By reducing the cost of repair to the consumer, this scheme can encourage a range of sustainable practices and positive consequences. There will be more repair and less landfill, and the socio-economic impacts can include an increase in localised labour and skills development, and small business viability. The idea is that consumers will start to purchase goods based on their repairability characteristics, allowing innovations in product design and manufacturing. In this way, a repair culture is inherently valuable in building sustainable ways of living.

Another approach is in-country product stewardship policies which require product retailers to take back unwanted, broken and damaged goods, and to deal with their repair or recycling locally. While the Australian Government has a Product Stewardship Act (2011), as part of a National Waste Policy that covers mandatory stewardship of certain products, currently, much of the product stewardship initiatives we see are taken by proactive companies on a voluntary basis. For example, many furniture manufacturers and carpet manufacturers already do this in order to comply with the Good Environmental Choice Australia standards labeling scheme. But, we need broader policies that place more responsibility for the post-useful-life of consumer products on the retailer. So rather than discarding an out-of-warranty broken blender in the bin, it is returned to the retailer, who is responsible for its repair or disassembly and recycling. This way, the onus is on the retailer and more consideration may be given to the quality of the product being sold. They may also be incentivised to provide repair as an alternative to re-supply.

We need to get serious about waste. There are many other initiatives that can redirect our habits away from wastefulness.  It just requires a combination of progressive government policy, industry support, a multi-pronged attack on substandard products, and a culture of repair.

So, back to the tip shop demonstrations! I will be joined by Rebecca Barnett from Relative Creative to tackle just one of the landfill issues we have - furniture. We will run a furniture restoration workshop at each of the Brisbane City Council Tip Shops. So much furniture ends up in landfill when it doesn't need to. Luckily, some of it is salvaged from the council's kerbside collections and by people taking unwanted furniture to the resource recover centres, and from there they make their way to one of the two council Tip Shops to be sold. These centres are run by Endeavour Foundation who raise funds to support people with a disability.

There are many good quality furniture pieces that just need a little bit of care, so in the name of sustainable material culture we encourage restoring and repairing rather than replacing. Many of these craft processes are easy, and while they may be take time, the skills are valuable. We will show how to strip back and restore chairs, footstools and tables, and talk about the best materials and tools to use. We will also give some advice on what kinds of qualities to look for when purchasing furniture so that it will last and then can be restored later on - furniture against landfill!

If you have a potential restoration project and would like some help, bring a photo and we can talk about what you can do, and what materials and tools are needed.

Geebung Tip Shop demonstration:
Saturday 29 July 2017, 9am - 12 noon.
27A Prosperity Place, Geebung.
Free, no bookings necessary.
More information on the BCC website here,

Acacia Ridge Tip Shop demonstration:
Saturday 5 August 2017, 9am - 12 noon.
46 Colebard Street West, Acacia Ridge.
Free, no booking necessary.
More information on the BCC website here.

1. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (2017). War on Waste [Television broadcast]. Sydney, NSW: ABC Television
2. MRA Consulting (2016). State of Waste 2016 - current and future Australian trends. Retreived from MRA Consulting website
3. Waste Data and Reporting, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. (2016). State of Waste and Recycling in Queensland 2015. Retrieved from Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection website