Monday, 26 October 2020
Recycling and Waste Reduction Charges (General) Bill 2020; Third Reading
We support the passage of this bill as part of a package of bills that will put in place an export ban in relation to waste that was previously exported to countries like China, Malaysia and Vietnam. That waste was highly contaminated and relatively low quality. Australians diligently put recyclables in their yellow bins in the expectation that that material would be recycled. Much of it was baled and sent to these other countries with very little quality assurance about what the final outcome was. Over time, it turned out that some of the material was being burned, that some of the material was being thrown into rivers and that some of the material was being dumped. When Australians go down to their local beaches and see plastic accumulating on our shores right around our island continent and they realise that microplastic is accumulating in fish, birds and, to some degree, in us, they would be horrified to know that we were contributing to that by sending off such low-quality waste.
The government will claim about these bills that they're showing this great national leadership and they're stepping into the breach in banning this waste. In reality, it's being forced on us because other countries don't want to take that waste. We've turned a blind eye to where that waste has ended up. Some of it has been burned in parts of our region and produced toxic fumes for local communities. Some of it has been dumped in the ground. A lot of it has ended up in waterways and, ultimately, in the oceans. Countries like China, Malaysia and Vietnam have said they are not having it anymore. So we deal with the consequences. The government belatedly brings along a package of legislation that progressively bans certain kinds of materials from being exported. But it's not being done out of some burning drive to take responsibility for our waste. The Prime Minister says it's our waste, it's our responsibility. Well, after seven years nothing was done on that front until other countries essentially said they're not having it.
To the extent that the bills put in place that export ban framework, we support the government. It has to be done, and the licensing declaration format that the government is introducing is adequate as far as that goes. It means that the first material will be banned from 1 January. That will be mixed plastics. We will then move through, in six months instalments, banning different kinds of material by category until mixed plastics, some single polymer, glass, paper and cardboard is progressively banned.
What this legislation doesn't do is deal with the bigger waste picture. The second part of the bill goes to some minor and relatively ineffective changes to our product stewardship rules. The stuff that is galling to hear in the community, certainly in the waste and resource management sector, is that the government is stepping into the waste space and is somehow making significant advances towards a genuinely circular economy. There is no evidence of that. The reality is that, apart from the export bans, the changes this bill makes are relatively minor.
As it stands, there is 67 million tonnes of waste annually in Australia. We recycle barely 37 million tonnes, which is 58 per cent of it. When it comes to plastic, there is 100 kilos of plastic produced for every man, woman and child in Australia every year. We struggle to recycle 12 per cent of it. So 90-odd kilos of plastic per person per year goes into landfill, at best, and we know that some of that is going directly into waterways and into the ocean. It has hardly changed at all since the turn of the century. Labor realised that when we were in government. We introduced the first national waste policy. We introduced the existing product stewardship arrangement and we started to act. We put in place a co-regulatory scheme for televisions and computers. That has been hugely effective. We put in place all the things you needed to understand how our waste system should change over time.
But those challenges were not taken up by the government when it was elected in 2013. They neglected the priority list; they took plastic off the priority list. As it stands, we have less plastics recycling infrastructure in Australia than we had in 2005. The export bans will mean that we need an increase of some 400 per cent in recycling and reprocessing infrastructure. You would think that might have been what the Prime Minister had in mind in May last year when, as part of the election campaign, the government said it would introduce its recycling investment package, that it would deliver $167 million worth of investment to start to improve our parlous waste and recycling infrastructure. Well, $100 million of that was for a new Recycling Investment Fund. That was effectively rebadged moneys within the CEFC. The CEFC already had the capacity to make those kinds of investments, and the government decided to put a sticky label on existing CFC funds and say that's our Recycling Investment Fund.
Here we are, 18 months later. How much of that recycling investment fund has been advanced? Not one single dollar. That $100 million out of the $167 million—not a dollar spent. The $20 million for product stewardship innovation—not a dollar spent. That is 72 per cent of the Prime Minister's signature recycling investment package, but not one cent has been expanded to deal with this challenge. So it's right for the community and the sector to be cynical when the government claims to be stepping into the space. I think the minister actually said 'stepping into the waste space' and perhaps could have stopped before getting to the last word. The reality is that the government has sat on its hands in relation to waste and recycling. It has chosen to be overly optimistic about producers and industry groups, which, under voluntary arrangements, have really shown no appetite for making the change that we need. The sector says that if you continue with voluntary arrangements you will just continue with free-rider problems—you'll continue with underperformance, poor recycling rates and greater waste going into our environment.
We went to the last election talking about a national container deposit scheme. Mercifully, states have made their own progress and we're not far now from having container deposit schemes in every state and territory in Australia. But wouldn't it be great if that had been done on a nationally consistent and harmonised basis. That's not just what the sector says; that's not just what kids in schools say and what we on this side of the House say. That's what the Australian Beverages Council says. In its latest report, the Australian Beverages Council says that priority No. 1 is a nationally consistent container deposit scheme. That's what we said we would introduce, and this government said that was ridiculous.
The change that will be put in place by the bills is good as far as it goes, but it leaves so much more to be done. While it was interesting to see, in the second reading debate, a higher than usual number of government members fronting up to speak, it tells you something about how they see waste and recycling as part of the national conversation. They desperately want it to be the fig leaf for their inaction on climate change. They desperately want it to be the fig leaf for their inaction on the EPBC. If my performance on environmental protection, biodiversity conservation and climate change were as nakedly unattractive as this government's, I'd want a fig leaf too. They are hoping that making a song and dance about waste and recycling will cover their blushes when it comes to climate change action and the failure of our national environmental protection framework, but we know the truth.
The truth is that the APCO targets are a long way from being met. We're supposed to get to 70 per cent recycled plastic packaging by 2025. We're supposed to eliminate all harmful and unnecessary plastic by 2025. We're supposed to get to the point of having 50 per cent recycled content in packaging by 2025. We are way off track. It's going to be 2021 in two months time. The government should admit to itself that those targets are not going to be achieved using the current methods and using the current policies. We're at 16 per cent recycled packaging. That is miles off. These bills, apart from the export bans, which we support, do very, very little to genuinely improve Australia's waste and recycling outcomes and take us to what we should be able to achieve, which is a circular economy—for our own sake, for our environment's sake and to show leadership in our region. If a country like Australia can't do better than 12 per cent recycled plastic, how on earth can we look around our region, at Indonesia and countries in the Pacific, and waggle our finger and say, 'You need to do better on waste,' when we are doing so abominably badly ourselves!
Labor supports the bills, but there is so much more for the government to do. We wish they would focus on that.