Report: ‘From Rubbish to Resources’

Published on Wed 9 December 2020 10:28am

It is worth starting, when we look at this area understanding the state of play, we do have a waste crisis in this country. Other countries have decided in the last 18 months or so, perhaps a bit longer than that, that they’re not going to accept waste from Australia and that’s forced us all, and particularly the general public, to realise that we’ve been kidding ourselves a little bit when it comes to how we deal with waste and resource management to a significant degree.

Mr Wilson (11:30am) – Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I’m glad to make some remarks on the Tabling of the report titled ‘From Rubbish to Resources: Building a Circular Economy’ by the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources. And I thank the committee, the member Higgins and other members of the committee for their work, including the deputy chair, the member for Cunningham, the member for Morton.

It’s true to say that reviewing the operations of what is a $15 billion industry in this country is no small job. It means considering how we deal with some 70 million tonnes of waste per annum and how we deal with that much better for our environment and much better for our economy than we do currently.

I do want to acknowledge the stakeholders who are part of the inquiry process, because I know that the waste crisis in Australia has meant that all those involved in waste and resource management have been under significant pressure. And they’ve also wanted to contribute to how Australia does a better job of dealing with dealing with our waste and the resources that they represent. So I’m sure that there are members of the industry that would be forgiven for having a little bit of sort of inquiry fatigue, just because they participated in a number of reviews recently, and also, in the process that has led to the government’s legislation that has just passed the Senate this week.

It is worth starting, when we look at this area understanding the state of play, we do have a waste crisis in this country. Other countries have decided in the last 18 months or so, perhaps a bit longer than that, that they’re not going to accept waste from Australia and that’s forced us all, and particularly the general public, to realise that we’ve been kidding ourselves a little bit when it comes to how we deal with waste and resource management to a significant degree.

Rather than having a genuine recycling and reprocessing to manufacturing type of system, we’ve had a collection and transport system, we’ve sent a significant amount of recycled material overseas. If you take plastic, plastic is one of the most pernicious categories of waste; we barely recycle 12% of plastic, and in fact the latest numbers are even more disappointing than that. But to the extent that we did recycle 12%, more than half of that was being sent somewhere else so the amount of actual recycling that happens in Australia is very little indeed.

On the whole we recycle about 58% of waste, the target is to get to 80% by 2030. The way things have been going in recent times doesn’t give us a huge basis for confidence in that. We do need to keep making changes, this is going to be a reform effort that takes ongoing energy and sort of the follow through from government that we haven’t seen a lot of.

I do want to just refer to the most recent numbers that came through the ABS waste survey. They showed that we we’d gone from 67 million tonnes annually to 76 million tonnes annually, which is a sort of 13% increase. That’s running in the wrong direction. The National Waste Policy target was to get from 67 million, to get a 10% reduction on that by 2030, to actually reduce waste overall to probably around 60 million tonnes, well we’re out to 76 million tonnes already. Plastic has actually gone down from its already poor rate of 12% recycled to 9%. And we are now at the point that there is a that is essentially three tonnes per member of the Australian population produced annually. So up from 2.7 million to 3 million tonnes. And when you think that only a little bit more than that, is recycled that that means that the equivalent of a sort of a small to medium sized car worth of waste is going into landfill, at best, for every single one of us every single year. And that’s something we need to do something about.

And it’s got a lot to do with much better environmental outcomes but it actually has to do with much better economic and job outcomes, as well, because if you think about sustainability as a whole, what we currently do in Australia, and most other parts of the world, is very much this linear economy. We take limited resources, we turn them into things that we often don’t use for very long and then we throw them away. And that is that is literally unsustainable;  we are depleting resources that a rate that cannot continue and then the way that we dispose of that that material is taking a toll on the environment and the best example is in marine plastic. Something like 10 million tonnes of plastic goes into the ocean each year, it’s accumulating at a faster and faster rate, there are lots of very scary measures of what that means in the future. The estimate that by 2050 there will be as much plastic by weight in the ocean is there currently is fish. Add to that the fact that global plastic production is expected to triple by 2040. You know, this is a massive environmental and human health problem. And so far, we are not doing enough to combat it.

 I want to go to some of the recommendations in the report that I think are particularly valuable. Recommendation three talks about the need for the Commonwealth, through the National Waste Policy, to lead a strategic approach to the transportation and infrastructure requirements; I think that’s really important. We are, at the moment, trying to grade up our recycling infrastructure, because what’s there is so poor, we have less infrastructure capacity for reprocessing plastic in Australia today than we had in 2005. And yet we’re now at the point where we cannot export our recycled plastic, so that needs to really grow. As it grows, we need to make sure it’s distributed fairly and strategically; Australia is a continental landmass with significant cities dotted here, there and everywhere, you’re not going to get infrastructure at scale everywhere. So, we need to consider carefully and government needs to lead the process by which we get that infrastructure where we need it and we consider what the transport arrangements are going to be where you’ve got a jurisdiction, it could be Western Australia, or it could be Tasmania, it could be far north Queensland, where transport, some kind of export, in a sense, within Australia is still going to be needed.

Recommendation five recommends that the Minister for Environment report annually to parliament on progress through the National Waste Policy action plan. I think any greater transparency and reporting in this space is really valuable. We haven’t unfortunately over the last seven years seen the minister come and make that kind of report to Parliament, and that would be one of the reasons why we’ve seen so little progress and so little action on that front.

Recommendation 12 suggests that the Commonwealth design and implement a national public education and awareness campaign, I think there’s some value in that, too. There’s probably a few things that go underneath that around harmonisation of the approach to waste. It’s very hard to have a national campaign when things are so different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with different container deposit schemes, different municipal waste collection arrangements, but that would certainly be valuable because at the moment, to some degree, what people think of with respect to our way system is disconnected from the reality. You know people, with all the best will in the world separate, clean, sort their recyclables, put them in the yellow bin; there will be some disappointment I think if householders were to reflect, over the last couple of years, on what the reality was in terms of how much it actually got recycling, particularly how much of it got reincorporated in that true sort of circular model because the reality is very little. Plastic packaging is a good example. We have a target to 50% recycled content in packaging by 2025. With plastic it’s currently at 2%. So, of all the plastic stuff that we use and throw away only 2% on average across the packaging field incorporates recycled content and that is not enough. We need that demand, we need that pull through in the manufacturing if we’re really going to get circularity.

The final recommendation I’ll point to is recommendation 15, which just talks about coordinating a national assessment of capacity and potential in rural, regional, and remote communities. I think that’s really important. The disadvantage that faces rural, regional, and remote communities with respect to waste is like the disadvantage they face in many other areas of Australian life. I met with representatives of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council last week; they represent 15 Island communities. You can imagine what a challenge it is for them in terms of waste and preventing waste from polluting their environment. So, we need to think about how we can better support those communities.

Finally, Deputy Speaker I just say, the areas that the government has talked about and is yet to show much by way of achievement are procurement, producer responsibility, and labelling; procurement in particular. The National Waste Policy action plan says that the Commonwealth will provide clear procurement guidelines for the purchase or incorporation in tendering processes of recycled material by the end of this year. There’s only a few days left. We haven’t seen that yet. The Prime Minister promised it at the Plastics Summit in March. And we’re still waiting.

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