Is recycling a solution to the infrastructure conundrum?

How can it be, according to recent mainstream media reports, that there’s a “shortage” of aggregates in an infrastructure boom? Short supply, yes, a “shortage”, no!

The Age reported that the cost of Melbourne’s Hoddle Street traffic streamlining project could balloon by 80 per cent in a year, due to “shortages of sand, stone and concrete”.

The “shortage” prompted the Victorian Government in the May state budget to allocate $14 billion to the Earth Resources Regulator (EER) from 2018 to 2020.

In line with its 2016 Extractive Resources Strategy, Victorian Resources Minister Tim Pallas said the government is working with regional councils on geoscientific investigations to identify more high quality reserves.

He conceded that if the EER could assess applications more quickly, building costs would decrease. Perhaps that’s a recognition historically that governments are guilty of inadequate resource planning but it inspires little confidence.

While it’s true sand reserves globally are diminishing (a report in a recent issue of New Scientist, in February this year, is recommended reading), the media’s portrayal of other quarry products being in short supply is predictably inaccurate.

The reserves are there, it’s the “substantial and genuine environmental issues” (to quote Pallas) causing delays. According to Natasha Reifschneider on page 28, applicants need to work with local councils to offset delays in the dual approvals process.

{{quote-A:R-W:300-Q:"The mainstream media’s portrayal of a “shortage” of quarry products is predictably inaccurate."}}The extractive industry and governments must also improve their communications. Across New South Wales and New Zealand, proponents are encountering an upsurge of grassroots antagonism to applications – further delaying approvals and limiting supply.

Worryingly, the narrative (why communities need construction materials) isn’t cutting through.

The industry may even have to rethink its story. Will regional communities ever accept the argument that reserves should be extracted to fuel capital city construction booms? Can they be persuaded of the local benefits from opening quarries in their districts?

Residents generally view extractive operations as disruptive inconveniences, a perception that’s difficult to turn around.

Perhaps a solution to this infrastructure conundrum is to raise investment in recycled products.

Pallas told The Age – as if it were new – that Victoria’s “concrete shortage” is so great “companies are crushing rock to make sand”. Producers have done that for decades, because of sand reserves regulations – or location.

Further, companies like Delta Group and Alex Fraser have for three decades processed construction and demolition (C&D) materials into manufactured sand and recycled concrete products to rigid road authority specifications. These products have all assisted road and infrastructure projects.

Governments Australia-wide must promote the recycling of C&D materials. Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT lead the way but the other jurisdictions are laggards.

Further, quarries may have to diversify their business interests. Where now an operator may request an expansion of a brownfield site, it may be more economical in the future to invest in a recycling/waste stream.

Not only could recycling be a sustainable solution to the “shortage”, it could promote how “green” the industry is. Communities could be assured that the industry poses no threat to their living standards.

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