Recycling and Waste Reduction Bills 2020

Published on Thu 22 October 2020 10:02am

It’s easy to pretend that waste is not a massive environmental problem and a massive market failure. And to pretend that in any case, we’ll deal with it by a few nifty innovations, by asking business nicely, and perhaps, in some cases, treating business to a few stern words of encouragement. But we also know what’s hard. And what is hard is to plan and deliver serious and meaningful progress through reform on a national scale, because that requires leadership and action at the national level. And it means substantial change to the way we do things now.

Mr Wilson (10:02am) – Thank you, Deputy Speaker, I’m glad to make a contribution to the debate on the Recycling and Waste reduction Bills 2020 and to move the second reading amendment as circulated in my name.

Deputy Speaker, in essence this package of legislation formalizes the state of affairs triggered by the China Sword policy and subsequent developments that have meant countries in our region, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as China will not receive Australian waste for recycling in future. But Australia does need to go much further than that if we are to take full responsibility for our waste, reduce its serious and unsustainable impact on our environment, make use of it as a valuable resource and show leadership in our region.

These bills establish a framework for the phased ban on the export of certain waste materials and they also absorb the regulatory framework previously contained in the Product Stewardship Act 2011, while making some minor substantive changes to product stewardship.

There’s little doubt that one of the reasons for the export bans we’re required to put in place is that the waste material we’ve been exporting was relatively low quality and involved relatively high rates of contamination. What’s worse, while we assumed the material was going offshore to be recycled, the reality is that, in some cases, the rubbish was being burned or buried or thrown into rivers. It would rightly appall people in our communities to think that the plastic they were putting in yellow-top bins for recycling was being bailed and transported to another country, where in fact, the rubbish contributed to local environmental damage, and perhaps even became marine plastic that found its way to our part of the world. And as we put in place new export ban arrangements, I think it’s fair to observe that it is the decisions taken by other countries that have forced us here in Australia to recognise the what we call our waste recycling resource management system has, to a considerable degree, been a collection and transport system, and our achievements when it comes to the key measure of a more sustainable approach, namely, to avoid creating disposable products, to reduce waste material, to reuse as much as we can, and to recycle what can’t be directly reused, our achievements against those measures have so far been fairly slight.

To take plastic as an example, because it represents a particularly harmful fugitive and long lasting material. We generate on a per capita basis, more than 100 kilograms of waste plastic each year. And yet we recycle barely 12%. Globally, we know that 10 million tonnes of plastic go into the ocean each year, and that’s expected to triple by 2040, not least because global production of plastic is galloping ahead. Global production of plastic has increased 20-fold since the 1960s. It’s going to triple again by 2040. Micro plastic is already accumulating in fish and birds. And there’s evidence that in some parts of the world its accumulating humans.

That is very, very far from the expectations of the Australian public. As a nation, when it comes to waste, we’re still a long, long way from the expectations of our community, especially young people. And we’re a long way from supporting the ambitions and the efforts of innovative companies and switched on community enterprises, and forward-looking local governments around Australia. We also have no strong basis currently for hoping and expecting that other countries, including developing countries now region will make dramatic progress to reduce plastic pollution when a developed country like our own is performing relatively badly.

Deputy Speaker, let me be clear in saying that Labor supports the passage of these bills because of the common sense and the necessity of the export bans, but we wish that this legislative package had taken the opportunity to do substantially more than that. I do take the opportunity to thank the Assistant Minister for his active and constructive engagement on the legislation. While I have a strong view that more needs to be done, it needs to be done differently in a number of respects, I recognise that the member for Brisbane has a long-standing and a genuine interest in this area of policy and he wants to see change. I’m grateful that we’re able to achieve agreement to a number of amendments, which will be proposed and considered in due course, of course, I wish we’d been successful in getting a few more changes over the line.

It’s right that this legislative framework should be subject to a five-year statutory review period rather than 10 years initially proposed. Let’s not forget that the statutory review period of the Product Stewardship Act, which has been subsumed within this package, that review fell due in 2016, it wasn’t delivered until this year. And as we remember that, a number of the key waste targets we have before us fall due in 2025.

I’m glad amendments will be proposed that make the process of granting exemptions to the export license requirements more transparent. I’m particularly glad that the consultation requirements with respect to the minister’s priority list will be strengthened and expanded the scope.

Deputy Speaker, while Labor believes there should be an independent statutory body charged with this responsibility, as the Product Stewardship Advisory Committee was previously, it’s important that the government’s new centre for excellence, Product Stewardship Centre for Excellence, be a mandatory point of reference, and it will be for the government to ensure that the centre is structured and resourced in a way that allows it to provide uncompromising advice based on independent environmental and industrial expertise.

As I say, there are other changes we believe should be considered by way of amendment, especially with respect to the issue of harmful and unnecessary plastic and packaging.

We’ll get to that.

I also repeat the broad point that Labor believes a more comprehensive reform of product stewardship regulation is required. And unfortunately, that can’t be achieved, in our view by spot fixing these bills.

Having said that, Deputy Speaker, I want to acknowledge the work of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association, ACOR, for their engagement with the Opposition, and I’m sure with the Government, on these bills and for their leadership more generally in the cause of achieving a paradigm shift in Australia’s waste and resource management industry.

This is a sector that employs 50,000 Australians, and it contributes over $15 billion annually to our economy. It’s already a significant industry, and a large employer, it’ll be better for all of us, if it grows considerably in future. I thank the Boomerang Alliance, Sea Shepherd, the WWF, and the Plastic Free Foundation for the enormous effort they’ve made and continue to make in building community support for the change we desperately need in order to live sustainably and to live without poisoning our environment.

Deputy Speaker, it’s a good thing that we’re finally looking to take greater responsibility for our own waste and, judged on its own terms, the export ban framework is broadly sensible and workable. Of course it gives an effect to an approach agreed by the Commonwealth with the states and territories. But what we need to hold on to as we make this reform is how much more there is to be done and how little has really occurred since Labor stepped into the national leadership space by creating the National Waste Strategy and accompanying Product Stewardship Act a decade ago. On that basis, I have to say it was a little bit odd to hear the Minister for the Environment, make the claim we’re introducing these bills, and I quote,

I’m incredibly proud to introduce this package of legislation representing the first time ever aCommonwealth Government has shown true commitment to taking on this important environment and economic policy reform.

That is, frankly, hard to reconcile with the fact that from 2013 to now, in the seven years of this government precious little has been done on waste and recycling. And really, we are only lucky as a community that as with climate change and renewable energy, the states and territories and even local governments have responded to the inaction of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government by stepping up their effort.

Deputy Speaker Labor went to the election last year with a commitment to introduce the national container deposit scheme. Fortunately, it’s now the case that container deposit schemes are being implemented by state and territory jurisdictions around the country. But how much better would it be if this was done, and was being done, on a coordinated and harmonised national basis?

Deputy Speaker when we talk about a sustainable approach to waste, it’s not long before we find ourselves talking about the concept of a circular economy. That is not what we have now in Australia. What we have now is a linear economy that involves an unsustainable drain on resources with a corresponding impact on our environment. What we have now is an economy that sees limited materials sunk into ultra-disposable products, many of which are used for only a few minutes before being chucked away. It is senseless and unsustainable. It is quite literally a waste.

By contrast, in a circular economy materials are seen as a resource to use minimally and to reuse and recycle to the maximum degree so that in many cases, the products we make and use a part of a closed circle. In addition to being environmentally responsible, moving to this approach holds out the prospect of creating new resource recovery and manufacturing opportunities and related jobs.

But at this stage, we have to be realistic in acknowledging that we are not very far along the circumference of that circle. Our economy is still one in which resources and materials are used and wasted in greater and greater quantities and, in some cases, are being used and wasted at a faster rate. So, in terms of our ambition to create a circular economy, taking the step of banning the export of certain materials is a relatively small one and we should hold on to that.

Beyond that step, it does get harder. First, we have to ensure the material doesn’t simply get stockpiled or put into landfill. And both have occurred over the last couple of years as our ability to export waste has disappeared and various industry players have found themselves in trouble, either financially or, in some cases, through fires that affected our already limited infrastructure.

Beyond that, we need to make pretty substantial strides in a number of areas. And I’m going to outline a few of those.

We need a large jump in scale when it comes to our recycling and reprocessing infrastructure, and that requires appropriate strategic investment. That’s number one. Number two, we need to support demand for recycled materials and related products, and that requires product procurement policy. We need to fix the market failure so that producers take responsibility for the lifecycle costs of their products, and in some cases, may be required to meet certain design and material specifications. And this can only occur through effective product stewardship regulation. Fourthly, we need to improve consumer awareness, and the means by which Australians can know and judge the recyclability and the recycled content of various products. That will enable higher recovery rates, it will mean people know what to do when they are throwing things into their into their yellow bins. And it will enable the proper disposal and sorting of rubbish in the first place, which of course makes the life of our recycling operators and their operations easier. But it also means that consumers will be able to better support products that do the right thing and producers that do the right thing. The producers themselves or the manufacturers that do the right thing, can justifiably market their genuine achievements. For all of that to occur the consumer awareness, the proper marketing the proper disposal instructions, we require a better approach to product labelling.

Deputy Speaker, on infrastructure, according to the report commissioned by this government, Australia currently has less plastic recycling capacity than we did in 2005. The same analysis suggested that in order to respond to the export bans that we’re now contemplating, we would need an increase in recycling infrastructure across the board of up to 400%. But even though the government knows the magnitude of the problem, it has been achingly slow to address the shortfall.

We should remember that after last year’s election in August, when the prime minister was overseas talking about Australia’s leadership on waste and ocean plastic, it turned out that the so called $100 million recycling investment package wasn’t a lot more than a sticky label affixed to existing Clean Energy Finance Funds.

When we asked about that in December last year we discovered that the ministerial direction needed to create the guidelines for the fund hadn’t occurred. When we followed up in May this year, it turned out that not a single dollar had been loaned to support recycling infrastructure through the CEFC. This week, it’s been confirmed in Senate Estimates that the CEFC funding remains untouched. It’s also been confirmed that the $20 million National Product Stewardship Investment Fund has not yet made a single grant.

So $120 million of the Prime Minister’s $167 million recycling investment package announced in May 2019 – $120 million, not a single cent has been advanced. That’s 72% of that package, which was first announced in May 2019, nearly 18 months ago.

Since then, in the middle of this year, the government’s made another announcement in the form of the Recycling Modernisation Funds. The programs do sound similar, but at some point, we have to hope they function differently. Because if you keep announcing funds, and no money flows to support infrastructure, and address the waste crisis, we’re not going to see the change that we need.

In any case, Deputy Speaker, as we now seek to increase infrastructure capacity, we must do so strategically. Australia is a large country, and we’re not likely to be able to sustain infrastructure at a viable scale in every state, and territory jurisdiction. That means governments and industry must consider planning for transport logistics and costs as part of their long-term strategy on a coordinated basis. I also say that while it’s very welcome that some large companies including companies in the beverage and packaging business have made commitments to increase reprocessing capacity, we do need government to be clear-eyed about how the system as a whole develops.

The lesson to be drawn from the current failed and broken market is that government must be prepared to shape and maintain a system that delivers on clear principles. It must be sustainable, it must protect the environment, it must protect Australian consumers. It must be fair between the various jurisdictions in Australia, and as between people in urban and regional states. And it must not lurch from being one kind of dysfunctional market to another.

On procurement, Deputy Speaker, we start by recognizing the role we can look to increase the quality and the quantity of recycled material – if there’s no market for it, there’s going to be a big problem.

Government procurement is one way of building demand. The other way is through recycled content requirements. At the moment, we’re seeing neither. In March, the Prime Minister held a National Plastics Summit with the only announcement of any substance being a promise to improve Commonwealth procurement guidelines, we’re still waiting for that to occur. It’s in the government’s national waste policy action plan that procurement guidelines with targets will be delivered by the end of 2020. It’s nearly the end of October, we’re waiting to see those guidelines and those targets, targets that should be by volume or by value or both.

Deputy Speaker, on product stewardship, we have to get a serious move on when it comes to ensuring that producers take responsibility for the lifecycle of their products, especially when they are particularly wasteful, and or environmentally harmful. That’s the essence of the broken market as it stands, those costs and that harm that comes from poorly designed products that end up in our environment and end up in our waterways and end up in our oceans, those costs are not being borne by the people who make them and who profit from them. They’re being borne by the environment, they’re being borne by all of us, it is the definition of a market failure.

In the decade since Labor created the platform for product stewardship regulation not a lot has occurred, and certainly nothing since 2013. It is currently the case that the minister updates a list of targeted products annually yet, on very few occasions have any of the several environment ministers within this government taken the opportunity to talk about product stewardship in this place.

And Deputy Speaker, the five-year review of the Product Stewardship Act, which fell due in 2016, was supposed to be providing in the beginning of 2018 actually arrived in July this year, and didn’t contain much that we didn’t already know.

It’s rightly acknowledged that the one co-regulatory scheme in existence, Labor’s National Computer and Television Recycling Scheme, has worked pretty well. It’s also recognized that voluntary schemes have been underwhelming, underperforming, and beset by free rider problems. Yet, not one new product has been listed for a co-regulatory or mandatory scheme since the government was elected, and even the accredited voluntary product stewardship schemes have fallen from two down to one. I know that’s about to change.

Deputy Speaker, it’s also worth noting that even with the computer and television scheme, there’s been a consistent issue with compliance. And that’s an important part of these kinds of regulatory arrangements. The government, unfortunately, responded by cutting the staff employed in the relevant section from seven back in 2013 to three recently.

Despite the need to improve product stewardship, and despite the long delay involved in getting us to this reform opportunity, this package of bills does not substantially change the existing product stewardship framework. Now, instead of simply updating the list, the minister will have the ability to make recommendations and outline a timeframe in which she expects those recommendations to be acted upon.

It’s an improvement, but it’s a small improvement. It’s essentially, on the face of it, a sort of a waggle your finger and tap the watch kind of mechanism.

How well that works remains to be seen.

It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence based on what we’ve seen to date.

Finally, Deputy Speaker, that the current situation with respect to disposal and recycling labels is a real mess. Nobody could argue with the results of a recent independent audit showed that 50% of products had no disposal labelling whatsoever. Only 40% had a recycling claim, though in some cases that recycling claim was unclear or wrong, and only 28% of Australian products use the Australasian Recycling Label, an initiative launched and partly funded by the Morrison government. We need to do a lot better in the labelling space. I know the Assistant Minister is focused on that.

Deputy Speaker, in conclusion, this bill puts forward a reasonable approach for formalizing the fact that other countries will no longer take care of waste for recycling and we have to shape up to the fact that we’ve drifted along for a long time with a severely underdeveloped resource management system.

The legislation is, however, a missed opportunity to do what needs to be done on a more comprehensive basis.

The government since last election has made a song and dance of its intention to do something serious about waste and recycling. I think that’s because they’re more inclined to do something in this space than in other areas of environmental importance. We know they’re not particularly interested in climate change. There hasn’t been a lot to be encouraged about with respect to the review of the EPBC Act to date. I mean, the two key recommendations of the EPBC reviewer, Graham Samuel, were national standards and a properly resourced independent agency with teeth. That second key part of the recommendations was dispensed with before the interim report the desk. So, the government wants to make a virtue of waste and recycling.

But we’re still waiting to see that change. We’re going to see these export bans, all of those other things – infrastructure, procurement, product stewardship – all those other things we are waiting to see happen, and in the meantime all the targets in the glossy strategy documents that we will read grow closer to their target dates without getting closer to achievement.

We’re supposed to see 70% of plastic packaging recycled by 2025, 50% recycled content. But on the 70% of plastic recycling by 2025, we’re currently at 16%. Now, it’s going to be 2021 in a couple of months time. We’re supposed to see the elimination, the elimination altogether of problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025. It’s very hard to see how that’s going to happen the way we’re going. And, at some point in the not too distant future, we’re going to have to be upfront with the Australian community about that.

It isn’t hard to find examples of positive action in relation to waste collection and local cleanups, it’s not hard to find examples of local businesses that are seeking to model responsible and sustainable conduct. It’s not even hard to find inventive new processes and innovative businesses that are seeking to be directly involved in the task of waste reduction, and the recycling and reuse of existing resources.

I’m certain that in the debate that follows almost every single Coalition speaker is going to name check various businesses or organizations in their electorate that are part of this effort. And they should, because those organizations and those businesses deserve recognition, but we cannot get away from the big picture and the big picture isn’t pretty.

So, we know what’s easy. It’s easy to pretend that waste is not a massive environmental problem and a massive market failure. And to pretend that in any case, we’ll deal with it by a few nifty innovations, by asking business nicely, and perhaps, in some cases, treating business to a few stern words of encouragement. But we also know what’s hard. And what is hard is to plan and deliver serious and meaningful progress through reform on a national scale, because that requires leadership and action at the national level. And it means substantial change to the way we do things now.

We’re dealing with a fundamentally broken market, and a very poor set of waste outcomes. And all the beatific statements about innovation and enterprise are not magically going to fix it. If the government can’t admit that to itself, if we can’t all admit that to ourselves and take the requisite steps to get Australia on a better path then we’ll continue to pollute our environment, we will fail to show regional and global leadership and we’ll miss out on the jobs that should be part of the circular economy.

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