The current import ban has shown our inability to reprocess and recycle plastic in Australia other than on a very small scale. We need to do a lot better at every step of the waste reduction hierarchy. We need to use less; we need to re-use and recycle more. That’s going to require leadership and investment and regulatory reform.
Mr Wilson (7:30pm) — There is a waste crisis in Australia that has been brought into focus by the decision taken by China and other countries to stop receiving our plastic rubbish. The import ban has been driven by the recognition in China and elsewhere that a number of so-called recycling operations in those countries have in fact been burning or dumping a significant amount of plastic. So while the immediate alarm is about the current stockpiling of plastic here and even the prospect of seeing freight containers of plastic rubbish returned, we should be concerned that for years we have blithely sent our rubbish away to be dealt with on a very poorly regulated basis in less developed countries, almost certainly to their environmental detriment.
The current import ban has shown our inability to reprocess and recycle plastic in Australia other than on a very small scale. We need to do a lot better at every step of the waste reduction hierarchy. We need to use less; we need to re-use and recycle more. That’s going to require leadership and investment and regulatory reform. There is a great deal of community interest in seeing this occur, but it will not happen by itself. It will not happen through voluntary schemes. It’s not going to be driven by some obvious market imperative or cost signal, because they don’t exist. That’s precisely why plastic waste in particular represents a gross market failure.
On current trends, there will be twice as much plastic produced in 2025 as there is in 2019, and each year up to 15 million tonnes of plastic is poured into our oceans, with a devastating effect on our marine life. As the shadow assistant minister for the environment, I have benefited from meeting with a series of industry stakeholders, including the Boomerang Alliance and the Australian Council for Recycling, among others. There is no doubt that our recycling industry is ready, willing and able to be part of major change led by government, if government can get on that path. There are businesses already showing what is possible. The other day I had the opportunity to visit Advanced Plastic Recycling, which has developed a wood-plastic composite that can be extruded into fence posts, bollards and decking at its plant in Adelaide. Companies like this need the support of positive procurement policies to underwrite demand. At the moment, where that does occur, it’s coming from local and state government.
As in other policy areas, the Coalition government has not done enough in the last six years to build on the national waste strategy and related reforms that were commenced under the Labor government. We now confront a waste crisis, and the question is whether the government will do something about it. I’m glad the Prime Minister has declared it will be a priority, but I’m concerned about the level of commitment to getting on with meaningful reform. Just as the government has had its belated waste awakening, we did learn last week that the PM had cancelled the December COAG meeting that was supposed to reach an agreement with the states on a strategy to stop waste exports.
We know the so-called recycling investment plan is predominantly bulked out with prepackaged or repackaged funds. The hundred million dollars in the Australian Recycling Investment Fund consists of nothing more than a fresh label on existing clean energy finance moneys. The $16 million over six years for the Pacific Ocean Litter Project has been drawn out of an already diminished regional Pacific fund within our aid budget. Under the government’s plan, there is unfortunately no direct funding for recycling infrastructure and no leadership on a national container deposit or a ban on single-use plastic bags, both of which are being pursued at the moment by several state governments. There is no sign of the product stewardship scheme review, which we’ve been waiting for for some time, and there is certainly no reform when it comes to product stewardship more generally. And there is no commitment, as yet, to government procurement of recycled materials.
Since the middle of the year, tackling waste has been touted as one of the government’s signature policy objectives. That’s a good thing, but I think in the Prime Minister’s case it’s been for the sake of distraction more than anything that, on the one hand, he has claimed that combating ocean plastic is a more important and immediate issue than climate change and, on the other hand, that Australia is somehow a leader in the reduction of ocean plastic through innovation. At the moment, neither of those things are true. What is true is that, until we see an effective form of national leadership, with corresponding action, Australia will continue to lag behind when it comes to waste reduction and resource management. That impacts on our environment, and it holds us back from the manufacturing and design innovation that should be the source of new jobs and economic activity in this country. It should be the basis of regional leadership in addressing the terrible scourge of ocean plastic, and that is taking its toll on our environment. It will ultimately take its toll on our health.