Every month, a semi-trailer worth of crushed beer cans and glass bottles is picked up from a sorting center in Katherine and driven south — as far as recycling goes in the town, that’s about it.
- Katherine will receive the biggest single investment in recycling infrastructure in the NT
- $7.2m will go towards building a materials recovery facility to address the imbalance of recycling opportunities
- While residents welcome the funding, kerbside recycling is still on the top of their wish list
Residents toss everything from milk bottles and plastic packaging to newspapers and food waste into one green bin.
That is, unless they sort and store what can be recycled until they next make the 300-kilometer journey north to the nearest collection facility in Darwin.
In the remote communities surrounding Katherine, recycling opportunities are even more limited, with almost everything going to landfill.
But that could soon change.
The Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, has announced $7.2 million to fund a materials recovery facility (MRF) in Katherine to “ensure people have access to recycling facilities, particularly, in this case, for glass, tyres, plastic and paper”.
As part of the $190 million Recycling Modernization Fund, the NT government has deemed it the biggest single investment in recycling infrastructure in the Territory to date and a key initiative of its draft Circular Economy Strategy.
Mayor Elisabeth Clark said plans were in the works to overhaul how Katherine dealt with its waste.
Outdated and nearing capacity, the current landfill site needed to be closed and covered within five years, Ms Clark said.
She said the council was planning to build a new landfill site south-west of the town at Manbulloo and a new sorting center to recycle tyres, car batteries, scrap metal, e-waste and drums.
“We had plans that were a few years down the track … this funding will accelerate those plans.”
And possibly expand them.
The council says an MRF is a critical first step to establishing a red, yellow and green bin kerbside rubbish collection, which it says is a possibility in the future.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Katherine,” Ms Clark said.
“People have always wanted recycling — with all of the products we have these days, they want to see them recycled.”
Diverting waste in remote Australia
Surrounding Katherine, more than 20 remote Indigenous communities, including Barunga, Kalkaringi, Ngukurr and Borroloola, could also benefit from the new recycling site.
The Katherine council is embarking on a study to examine the volume of waste going to — often unlicensed — landfill sites in these communities and the logistics of bringing what can be recycled to town.
And the NT government has recognized there is a major waste gap that is not only hurting the environment, but also thwarting opportunities to turn waste into valuable resources.
“We need to keep waste off country — we are managing to do this in the Top End region and Alice Springs region, however we need to assist in the Big Rivers region,” NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler said.
“We want Territorians to recognize and capture the currently unrealised value of materials that are routinely discarded into landfill or dumped in an uncontrolled manner in our environment.”
She said that while the MRF in Katherine was still in the development stage, the hub would help “grow the waste industry into a $100 million industry which will create more jobs”.
Turning trash into treasure
With no kerbside recycling, and residents desperate for it, Katherine was forced to think outside the box.
In 2019, the local Girl Guides set up their own recycling drop-off point accepting everything from printer cartridges to light bulbs, cans and toothbrushes, but it has been disbanded for the moment amid a lack of volunteers.
And every year for the past decade, the town’s annual grassroots festival has challenged residents to turn trash into long-term treasure like sculptures and fashion.
Junk Fest organizer Jacinta Mooney said the festival was launched from frustration at the lack of options to keep waste from landfill, feelings she said still stood today.
“I live on a block so I compost out there; I have chickens and I find myself sorting by rubbish, but then come bin day everything goes in the one bin. We don’t have any separation,” she said.
“It’s very limited.”
Michael Knight began Katherine’s recycling efforts in 2012 when he created Cash For Containers, a scheme now diverting eight million containers from landfill every year and putting $800,000 back into the community through the 10-cent refund.
He said it was a great first step for Katherine but more needed to be done.