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Australian food organic waste target abandoned by the federal government

ABC News (AU) logo ABC News (AU) 30/11/2022
Food waste costs the economy about $40 billion a year. (ABC News: Hugh Sando) © Provided by ABC News (AU) Food waste costs the economy about $40 billion a year. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Australia has abandoned its goal of collecting food organic waste in kerbside bins by 2023, now aiming for all metropolitan households and businesses to be able to put food in their green bins by the end of the decade.

The latest figures reveal only one-in-four Australian councils allow residents to mix food and garden waste for kerbside collection, despite the significant environmental benefits it can have and the demand for the compost.

Food waste is a major problem in Australia, accounting for about three per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions and costing the economy about $40 billion a year.

On an individual level, the federal government said about one in every five bags of groceries families bought ended up in the bin.

Under the 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan, homes and businesses were supposed to have food and garden organic (FOGO) collection by 2023.

But in the updated version of the plan, which was released in October, the target has been pushed back to 2030, and now only includes metropolitan areas.

Despite spruiking the benefits of recycling food waste, federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the goal, set under the former government, could not be met by the end of next year.

"Under the previous government, there were some ambitious recycling targets at the Commonwealth level, but sadly no leadership, so a lot of those targets haven't been met and are unlikely to be met," Ms Plibersek said.

Department for Environment figures show 139 of 537 local governments currently have FOGO collection in place, even though it is a key part of Australia's strategy to halve food waste by 2030.

While the national plan outlines a target, it is state and territory governments that manage food and organic waste, with some setting their own FOGO mandates.

"We'd like to see a lot more effort from councils and state and territory governments to improve kerbside collection of food and organic waste," Ms Plibersek said.

"Wherever we can see that accelerated, we would like to see that timeline accelerated."

Ms Plibersek hoped the measures would eventually divert 3.4 million tonnes of food and organic waste away from landfill.

"That's the same as taking about half a million cars off the road or planting an extra 23 million trees, so if we get food and organic collection right, we can have a huge environmental impact," she said.

What is FOGO?

FOGO bins allow people to put food and garden waste in their green bins, which are then collected by local councils and sent for compost processing.

Many councils have also handed out kitchen caddy bins and compostable bin bags to residents to further encourage them to put food waste in their green bins.

The rollout of FOGO bins varies significantly around the country.

What's the key to success?

Jessica Wundke from Green Industries SA said the state had been leading the way in FOGO for years, with about 80 per cent of residents able to access it.

She said the rollout had been successful because government engaged with the composting industry early to establish best practice for waste processing.

Ms Wundke said the high demand from the food and wine industry for the end-product was also critical to the program's success – a fault exposed in the recent collapse of soft plastic recycling.

"At times of the year, the demand for the compost exceeds supply," she said.

Upping green waste collection

Holdfast Bay council, which includes the Adelaide coastal suburbs of Brighton, Glenelg, Seacliff and Somerton, has recently started emptying green bins weekly and landfill bins fortnightly.

Ms Wundke said results from an earlier trial showed the amount of waste recycled by local residents, across all waste streams, had risen from 58 to 76 per cent.

"It's quite an incredible jump that can be achieved by going from fortnightly organics collection up to weekly," she said.

She said the weekly collection helped to overcome barriers, such as smell, that some residents experienced with food waste sitting in their green bins for two weeks.

Ms Wundke said South Australians put about 95 per cent of garden waste in the green bin, whereas food recycling was much more variable, with an average of 12 per cent.

While fruit and vegetable waste was often placed in the right bin, Ms Wundke said there was still some community hesitation about putting cooked food in the bins.

Australian Local Government Association President Linda Scott said local councils were supportive of FOGO bins, but were in need of more support from state and federal governments.

She said other limitations were also at play.

"The tyranny of distance in remote Australia through to the enormous cost increases we've seen in the waste industry, generally, continue to be challenges for Australia's local governments," Ms Scott said.

The Australian Government is spending $67 million establishing a Food Waste for Healthy Soils Fund designed to divert the waste away from landfill and towards composting.

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