Time for action not more rubbish talk

Published on Wed 26 February 2020 7:20pm

We need to move towards eliminating single-use plastics and ensure that all plastic products can be recycled. We need considerable investment in reprocessing infrastructure, and that should be done through a nationally strategic lens rather than on an ad hoc basis.

Mr Wilson (7:29pm) — Next week there will be the National Plastics Summit here in Parliament House. It was announced by the government on 30 December and, perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t catch a lot of attention at that time of the year. Any structured conversation on the question of plastic waste is welcome, but there’s a strong argument to be made that we’re well past the point of needing more talk.

There’s a waste crisis in Australia. For a long time we’ve relied on the ability to export waste in the form of recyclable paper and cardboard, mixed plastic, tyres and so on. Now that is coming to an end. It should provoke us to consider the wider shortcomings of our waste system. The fact is that, in some areas, our recovery and recycling performance has been quite poor. Plastic is one of them.

Australians should understand the basic details of our waste situation. On average, there is a bit more than 2½ tonnes of waste produced for every one of us every year. That includes 100 kilograms of plastic. We recycle or reprocess barely 10 per cent of that, and 80 per cent goes into landfill, where it of course persists forever, because plastic is not biodegradable. According to 2017-18 Australian plastics recycling survey, we only managed to recycle 9.4 per cent of the 3.4 million tonnes of plastic consumed in Australia. That’s worse than in any other year since 2014-15. The report the government commissioned over the summer on the recycling market situation found that our plastic reprocessing capability is lower now than it was in 2005. As I have said, of the three million tonnes of plastic that we don’t recycle, the best we can hope for is that it goes into landfill. Unfortunately, we know that some of it goes into waterways and ultimately into the sea.

You can go to any beach in Australia and run your fingers through the sand and you’ll find microplastic. Those flecks of blue and orange are not from nature; they’re shattered fragments of our waste, and they’ll persist in the environment forever. They’re accumulating in fish and birds, they’re killing marine animals and they include chemicals like fire retardants and colourants that were never intended to be consumed by humans, some of which are carcinogenic.

Globally it’s estimated that each year eight million tonnes of plastic go into the ocean. Between now and 2025, on current trends, the global production of plastic will double. We simply consume too much plastic in Australia. We waste too much; we recycle and reprocess virtually none. In the past, we’ve notionally reached 10 or 11 per cent of plastic recycling, but that’s only by sending mixed plastic overseas. In truth, one of the reasons the export bans have been imposed on us is, in countries like China and Malaysia and Vietnam, there were some importers that were not reprocessing plastic but dumping or burning it, and we turned a blind eye to that.

Since its re-election, the Morrison government has seized on the waste crisis, and the Prime Minister has said that reforming our waste system is an environmental priority of this government. But what has occurred so far in the face of an urgent and sizeable task?

It’s not that much—no direct funding; no national strategy to deal with an infrastructural shortfall that has been estimated at between 300 and 400 per cent; no procurement commitments; no national leadership on single-use plastics or in the form of a national container deposit scheme; and no reform when it comes to the product stewardship framework. Yesterday the Andrews government in Victoria committed to a container deposit scheme, which means every state and territory in Australia is making that reform, and yet there’s no national leadership to ensure we have a consistent and harmonised scheme.

There is plenty of evidence, there have been several inquiries and reviews, and there are numerous stakeholder companies and recycling representative groups that have been telling government about the nature of our waste crisis for years. Our national waste framework needs to be stronger, with more effective regulation of producers and a harmonised approach between different state and territory jurisdictions.

We need to move towards eliminating single-use plastics and ensure that all plastic products can be recycled. We need considerable investment in reprocessing infrastructure, and that should be done through a nationally strategic lens rather than on an ad hoc basis.

We need an end market for the products of recycling, which requires faster progress towards recycled content targets and the positive support of public sector procurement. We don’t really need a plastics summit to tell us those things; what we do need is for the government to stop talking rubbish and get on with general reform.

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