Protecting our oceans from plastic

Published on Thu 24 June 2021 9:57am

The export ban on 1 July means that up to 75,000 tonnes of low-quality plastic waste will need to be dealt with in Australia. That’s where it should be dealt with. But in the absence of appropriate infrastructure and the absence of end market and end market for recycled material it’s hard to see how that plastic will not be stockpiled or landfilled. And unfortunately those two basic conditions are not met at the moment. We don’t have the infrastructural capacity for the reprocessing of low-quality mixed plastic waste and we certainly don’t have the end market pull-through.

Mr Wilson (10:25am ) – I’m glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021 and I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that after eight years this Government has yet to deliver any reforms to Australia’s waste sector that have resulted in clear improvement to the health of our environment or significant progress towards a circular economy”.

Labor supports this bill. It makes changes to our domestic law that are a necessary consequence of our participation in the Basel Convention, whose purpose is to control the transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous waste. As a signatory to the convention, Australia is required to implement changes made to the agreement, which, of course, occur through a process in which we participate, and all such changes aim to strengthen the way that dangerous waste is regulated, especially in relation to its movement between countries. What is significant about these changes is that, for the first time, they extend controls to cover unsorted plastic waste and plastic waste that contains hazardous substances. It’s taken us a long time, as a global community—and in Australia it’s taken us too long—to start acting to address the scourge of plastic waste. While the changes in this bill make little practical difference to the way that plastic waste is controlled in Australia, especially now that countries have moved to reject the importation of low-quality mixed plastics and we’ve moved to ban its export as a result, it is important nevertheless that we properly meet our international obligations.

On average Australia exports just over 60,000 tonnes of hazardous waste per year, most of it in the form of lead-acid batteries and mental scrap. This is regulated to make sure the environmental outcomes are appropriate and acceptable. The fact that the movement of hazardous waste to and from Australia is comparatively small shouldn’t obscure the gravity of this issue and the value of our active participation, indeed our leadership, in this space. Incidents, when they occur, can have a severe, widespread and lasting impact on human and environmental health, and often the impact of such disasters will affect several nations and disparate ecosystems. Just as an example, last month a vessel travelling from India to Singapore caught fire due to a leakage of nitric acid used in manufacturing fertilisers. On board the ship were 26 tonnes of plastic pellets that unfortunately entered the marine environment, eventually littering beaches across the shoreline. Other materials lost overboard included caustic soda, lubricating oils, aluminium byproducts, polyethylene, cosmetics and even food items. Local fisheries in the immediate area have been ruined as a result and the broader environmental impacts, which cannot yet be calculated, are likely to be horrendous.

I note that in addition to its central focus on plastic, the bill achieves some worthwhile tidying up via the Regulatory Powers (Standard Provisions) Act to adopt some standardised powers and other forms of best-practice regulation.

The bill also improves information sharing between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments, and introduces new record-keeping requirements. Both these changes are welcome.

I do want to raise an issue with the way that the government has staged our progress towards these new regulatory settings, both in the case of this bill and of course in regard to the export ban legislation that we dealt with at the end of 2020. I am sympathetic to the concern expressed by those in the waste and resource management sector, who are dealing with a series of changes, each of which comes with new administrative arrangements and requirements. The details and administrative arrangements themselves generally turned up pretty late in the piece. For a government that makes a lot of noise about red tape, and often lectures those of us on this side of the chamber about it, it certainly would have been better to have got some of this done earlier and more clearly.

In the course of the Senate inquiry into this bill, some industry stakeholders raised concerns about the additional regulatory burden the changes would impose. They noted that when coupled with the waste export ban on mixed plastics which commences on 1 July—a little bit more than a week away—there’s the risk that exporters seeking an exemption to transport plastics will be required to complete two separate, yet similar, administrative processes. Labor senators did seek an explanation from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, which advised that an integrated process to capture both regulatory requirements was in the process of being designed. Needless to say, it would always be preferable if such integrated or streamlined systems were set up in advance rather than coming late on the heels of two sets of changes which, initially, will lump relevant companies with two sets of new administrative obligations.

It’s sad to say, but I’ve heard from waste industry folk that the paperwork for the looming export bans—as I said, the mixed-plastic export ban literally starts on Thursday of next week—alone has been very slow to appear, even though the government’s recycling and waste reform was ticked off last year. There’s also concern as to whether the government has adequately resourced departmental agencies to monitor and enforce these changes. We know that since coming to office the Liberals have stripped back funding for the environment department by 40 per cent, and there’s consistent feedback on this from industry too. Regulation is only as good as the compliance that supports it, and when you don’t have effective compliance it means essentially that those companies doing the right thing are disadvantaged because there will be other companies that are happy to get away with doing the wrong thing, to their detriment.

I’ll make two further points about the bill. The first is about plastic itself and the challenge that face all of us, wherever we’re on the planet. It has taken us all too long to recognise that plastic waste is a form of dangerous pollution. That’s just a fact. We know that more than eight million tonnes of plastic go into our oceans each year and that microplastic is now more or less ubiquitous. Nanoplastic has been identified as falling with rain in the Pyrenees and the Colorado Rocky Mountains. British research has examined tiny crustaceans from six of the world’s deepest ocean trenches, and 80 per cent of them had microplastic in their guts. Dead whales have been found to contain up to 50 kilograms of plastic and it’s estimated that the marine environment alone now contains more than 100 million tonnes of plastic—most of it on the bottom of the ocean or stranded on shorelines and beaches. The CSIRO itself undertook a study that analysed sedimentary cores of the ocean bed at six remote sites some 300 kilometres off the Great Australian Bight. Cores were taken at depths between 1,700 and 3,000 metres. On average, each gram of sediment contained more than one piece of microplastic. The analysis suggested that there could be 30 times more plastic on the ocean floor than there is floating on the surface.

Realistically, we’re only at the very early stages of understanding what it means to have microplastics and nanoplastics accumulate in living creatures, including ourselves. The fact that much of this plastic contains colourants, fire retardants and other known carcinogenic chemicals that were never meant to be ingested is a massive cause for concern. To date, we have to acknowledge that almost every piece of plastic ever produced has gone as waste into our environment—either into landfill or into the landscape and seascape at large. We hardly recycle any plastic at all—globally, or in Australia.

Even here, in a developed and relatively sophisticated country like Australia, we struggle to manage 10 per cent of plastic recycled, and we’ve only ever achieved that by exporting probably two-thirds of that plastic and crossing our fingers that it was being recycled.

In truth, we’ve come to learn that a lot of it was being tossed into rivers in countries like China, Vietnam and Malaysia or it was being burnt.

That brings me to the second point I would like to make which is in reference to our specific circumstances. I have noted that there is a timeliness to this bill. It does follow on from the government’s recycling and waste reduction reform that parliament settled at the end of last year. The RWR, the recycling and waste reform as it’s called, did put in place the framework for banning the export of various waste streams by material category, beginning with glass back on 1 January earlier this year and moving to cover unprocessed mixed plastic in a few weeks time, on 1 July, with other material categories to follow in due course. I’ll talk little bit more about that in a minute because the plastic deadline is upon us—literally Thursday next week. There’s reason for us all to be concerned about what will actually happen when we cross that line.

This is the second piece of government legislation to come through the House aimed at tackling waste and recycling in the past 12 months. These changes, coupled with the ban on waste exports for mixed plastics, are of course welcome. But no-one should think that these changes alone will kerb the alarming rate of plastic waste pollution or otherwise address Australia’s very poor performance when it comes to reducing plastic waste or recycling it or reusing it. Banning the export of plastic waste is only one part of the solution and in many ways it’s a relatively simple and superficial action to take. As I said earlier, we didn’t volunteer to ban the export of a lot of these materials. We responded to the fact that other countries simply said, ‘Hey, we’re not taking that rubbish anymore. We’re literally not taking that.’ If we are to take responsibility for the recycling of our plastic waste here in Australia we have to create capacity for recycling to occur and we must set a functional imperative for the reuse of this recycled material. We have to capture the waste, recycle it into material that can be reused and then we need to have that pull-through demand. At present there is virtually zero market demand for the types of plastic that are so difficult to recycle and yet we allow them to continue to be produced. And we allow the product manufacturers to essentially push their responsibility on to the rest of us and inevitably it means that plastic ends up in our environment.

The export ban on 1 July means that up to 75,000 tonnes of low-quality plastic waste will need to be dealt with in Australia. That’s where it should be dealt with. But in the absence of appropriate infrastructure and the absence of end market and end market for recycled material it’s hard to see how that plastic will not be stockpiled or landfilled. And unfortunately those two basic conditions are not met at the moment. We don’t have the infrastructural capacity for the reprocessing of low-quality mixed plastic waste and we certainly don’t have the end market pull-through.

Submissions from industry to the Senate inquiry on this bill expressed that precise concern. But the government didn’t need to wait for the inquiry, because it had itself received expert advice that the risk of low-quality mixed plastic being landfilled or stockpiled after the export ban comes in was not low. It was a realistic risk. Unfortunately, for all the talk of building a circular economy that would address Australia’s waste crisis, and create new jobs and innovation in manufacturing, the Morrison government has significantly failed to help lead the systemic change that needs to happen at every part of the circle if we want to create that circular economy. The only clear change the government has made is the relatively straightforward framework that formalises that ban others have imposed on us.

The government hasn’t made good on its promise to ensure that Commonwealth purchasing power would help build end markets for recycled materials through improved procurement policy with solid procurement targets. They promised to do so. It’s actually listed in their own National Waste Policy Action Plan that we were supposed to have new procurement settings with targets by the end of last year. It didn’t occur, nor has the government put its hand on the scales sufficiently when it comes to product stewardship. We’ve seen enough over the last decade to know that voluntary arrangements do not work. If you’re waiting for industry to voluntarily change business as usual you will be waiting forever.

Those companies that do the right thing, as I suggested before, are exposed to free riders who are happy to stick with the way they’ve always done things. That really just cuts the lunch of companies that are making the effort and taking on the burden of being responsible and sustainable.

Last October the assistant minister for waste and recycling said that the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, or APCO, would become an accredited scheme under the government’s new waste and recycling laws, because APCO hasn’t moved far enough and fast enough. Well, it’s seven months later and nothing has occurred. During the most recent round of Senate estimates departmental officials were unable to say when or if accreditation for APCO would occur and couldn’t say whether the 2025 recycling targets would be achieved or not, and instead took the question on notice. That does not fill anyone with a lot of confidence.

During last year’s parliamentary debate we moved amendments to the government’s recycling bill to add plastic packaging to the minister’s priority list, but the government voted against that higher ambition and urgency because they said the APCO scheme would be strengthened through accreditation. We are still waiting for that to happen, and plastic packaging is still accumulating on our beaches, in our rivers and throughout our coastal environment. Right now, to give people in the community a sense of the scope of the challenge, recycled content in plastic packaging is only four per cent. So, of plastic packaging as a whole, four per cent incorporates recycled material—well short of the 20 per cent target, which in itself is not that ambitious, to be fair, to be reached by 2025. We are at four per cent.

Only 18 per cent of plastic packaging itself is recycled, with a target of 70 per cent to be reached by 2025. We are now in the middle of 2021 and the accreditation of APCO still hasn’t occurred, nor has anything else that would really start to push us towards those targets, which themselves are relatively modest. We know that plastics make up 75 per cent of the waste on our beaches, and most of this is packaging. At some point soon the government is going to need to acknowledge that those 2025 targets are unlikely to be met, and in so doing acknowledge that its hands-off approach is not working, and, hopefully, change course and start to put its hand on the scale. It’s desperately needed.

In conclusion, this bill is a necessary response to our participation in the Basel Convention. While it will make little practical difference to the treatment or movement of hazardous waste in Australia, it is a reminder that plastic waste is an enormous problem. It’s an acute market failure, with the cost falling on the public at large through massive harm to our environment, to biodiversity and, quite possibly—I would say, more than likely—to human health. There is no doubt that if we continue to consume, directly through food, nanoplastic that has in it carcinogenic chemicals that were never meant to be consumed by humans, I don’t think there is much doubt that that’s going to have health consequences for us. I also know that there is no doubt the Australian community, especially young Australians, are aghast at the present circumstances. They are aghast at what’s occurring. They expect governments to act. They expect governments to take big and meaningful steps, and to take them quickly. That’s not happened in the last three terms, the last eight years, of this government. They have come to this issue very, very late. They are moving very slowly.

Yes, waste and recycling has finally made it on to the agenda. But, as with so many other examples of policy focus through this government, there’s been a lot of talk, a lot of freshly named and photographed schemes and strategies and centres of excellence, but not nearly enough seriously targeted and calibrated action, and not nearly enough conviction and leadership.

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