Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources; Report
I rise to commend the handing down of a very important report called From rubbish to resources: building a circular economy. In recent decades Australians have progressed in leaps and bounds in understanding, educating and actioning recycling principles and consciously working to make sustainable choices in our daily lives. Any member of parliament knows, when they go to a local school, how great kids are at recycling and getting on board with this issue.
However, there is still much work to be done. Currently, just over half of our waste is recycled. We can do better and as a nation we want to do better. Going forward we need to have more efficient, effective and sustainable ways of dealing with the rubbish we create. It's good for customers, but it's also good for the planet. This requires a rethink of material management as cyclical, not linear. This requires a complete shift in the mindset of waste—in fact, not seeing waste as waste at all but more as a resource that can be used again and again. Hence, the name of this important report: From rubbish to resources. The Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, on which I sit, has considered this dilemma and handed down some important recommendations in our report titled From rubbish to resources: building a circular economy. I encourage all members of parliament to read this important report.
Achieving a circular economy will require a coordinated and national approach. This will require the Commonwealth government to work with our state and territory counterparts to develop a pathway to a national circular economy with consideration for, firstly, the design and composition of products that allow better recycling, and, secondly, regulation incentives to encourage recycling. A national approach will be required particularly for things like transport and infrastructure to manage waste across the states and territory borders. In fact, we heard during the inquiry of businesses that were shipping waste across jurisdictions to take advantage of nonstandardised government incentives. It's very important that we work together as a country on this important issue. The National Waste Policy Action Plan should be updated to include this issue. Further, waste management and resource recovery is a serious intergovernmental priority, and that is why it should be included as a standing agenda on the National Federation Reform Council's agenda.
Accountability and transparency will be key to achieving a national circular economy. The From rubbish to resources report recommends that the minister responsible report annually to parliament on the progress of the targets and actions set out in the National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019. Likewise, recipients of Commonwealth waste and recycling funding should be required to report on their outcomes as a result of the funding so we can track what is working and what is not. It is, of course, most important when you give out funding to make sure people are transparent and accountable about the way they spend it. It is no secret that making it easy to recycle will make it easier to achieve a national circular economy. This will involve working with states and territory governments to improve container deposit facilities and collection points. It was clear in our inquiry that these sorts of successful initiatives should be shared across the different states. This should be alongside good public education and awareness campaigns that emphasise avoiding waste, the impact of waste and how consumers can better manage it. Like Norm's 'Life. Be in it' advertising campaigns of my childhood, we really want campaigns for kids of today with messages such as 'Trash is treasure'.
Technology, not taxes, is key to meeting and beating our international climate change goals. Innovating our waste management and the recycling industry supports these goals. As the Prime Minister has said, it's our waste, it's our responsibility. But we can go further. Energy from waste is the treatment of residual waste to harness energy from material that would otherwise go to landfill. The energy created by either processing waste at high temperatures and using the heat to make steam or digesting organic material to produce gas can be used for fuel, electricity generation or heat. Again, the inquiry heard some amazing technologies that were innovating in this space. We know this is happening around the world. During this inquiry we heard how small- and large-scale anaerobic digestion technology has been developed across Australia and makes a meaningful contribution to resource recovery and renewable energy generation. Right here, that is the way of the future. We should work with state and territory governments to ensure national consistency across planning approval and operational processes to support this exciting and promising work.
As a medical professional, I know the massive amount of waste that hospitals, clinical practices and medical facilities produce. In the past, this was key for infection control. However, it is clear now that we should undertake further research into improving waste management and resource recovery in the medical sector. The inquiry heard of the massive amounts of waste that are occurring in hospitals around the country and the desire of medical practitioners and medical administrators to do something proactive about this. There were many pilot trials undertaken, and we heard from many who were working in this exciting area. I commend the people who are taking the initiative in this way. One aspect could involve establishing a unit similar to that of the National Health System in England, the Sustainable Development Unit, to harmonise Commonwealth, state and territory regulation, as we heard during the inquiry.
Waste and recycling may not be the sexiest topic under consideration in this place, but it is importance, both now and in the future, cannot be understated. I actually believe that there are a lot of waste warriors out there in Australia and I know they care about this topic deeply. As the Prime Minister said recently, it is our waste and it is our responsibility, and I do believe Australians back that in. I commend this inquiry to the House. I ask that the House take note of this important inquiry. As a country, let's ensure that we can turn our rubbish into resources to help keep our planet safe and our people prosperous.
I'm glad to make some remarks on the tabling of the report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, Fromrubbish to resources: Building a circular economy, and I thank the member for Higgins and other members of the committee, including the deputy chair, the member for Cunningham, and the member for Moreton, for their work. 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 in a way that is much better for our environment and much better for our economy than we do currently.
I want to acknowledge the stakeholders who were 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 our waste and the resources that they represent. I'm sure that there are members of the industry that would be forgiven for having a little bit of inquiry fatigue, because they've participated in a number of reviews recently and in the process that has led to the government's legislation that has just passed the Senate this week.
When we look at this area, it is worth starting by 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—or perhaps a bit longer than that—that they are not going to accept waste from Australia. That's forced us all, 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 have had a collection and transport system. We have sent a significant amount of recycled material overseas.
Plastic is one of the most pernicious categories of waste. We barely recycle 12 per cent of plastic. In fact, the latest numbers are even more disappointing than that. But, to the extent that we did recycle 12 per cent, 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 per cent of waste. The target is to get to 80 per cent 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 the sort of follow-through from government that we haven't seen a lot of.
I want to refer to the most recent numbers that that came through the ABS waste survey. They showed that we've gone from 67 million tonnes annually to 76 million tonnes annually, which is a 13 per cent increase. That's running in the wrong direction. The National Waste Policy target was to get a 10 per cent reduction on that 67 million 2030—to actually reduce waste overall to around 60 million tonnes. We're out to 76 million tonnes already. Plastic has actually gone down from its already poor rate of 12 per cent recycled to nine per cent. We are now at the point where there are three tonnes of waste per member of the Australian population produced annually—up from 2.7 million to three million tonnes. When you think that only a little bit more than that is recycled, that means that the equivalent of a small- to medium-sized car worth of waste is going into landfill for every single one of us every single year, and that's something that we need to do something about. It has a lot to do with much better environmental outcomes but it actually has to do with much better economic and job outcomes as well.
If you think about sustainability as a whole, what we currently have in Australia and in 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. That is literally unsustainable, and we are depleting resources at a rate that cannot continue. The way that we then dispose of 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 will mean in the future. The estimate is that by 2050 there will be as much plastic by weight in the ocean as there currently are fish. Added to that is the fact that global plastic production is expected to triple by 2040. 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 3 talks about the need for the Commonwealth, through the national waste policy, to lead a sort of 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. In Australia today, we have less infrastructure capacity for reprocessing plastic than we had in 2005, yet we're now at the point where we cannot export our recycled plastic. So that capacity needs to really grow. As it grows, we need to make sure it's distributed fairly and strategically. Australia is a continental land mass with significant cities dotted here, there and everywhere; you're not going to get infrastructure at scale everywhere. So we need to consider this carefully. Government needs to lead the process by which we get that infrastructure where we need it and consider the transport arrangements where we have a jurisdiction—it could be Western Australia, Tasmania or Far North Queensland—where some kind of export, in a sense, within Australia is still going to be needed.
Recommendation 5 states:
The Committee recommends that the responsible Minister report annually to Parliament on the progress of the targets and actions set out in the National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019.
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. 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 are 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 and different municipal waste collection arrangements, but that would certainly be valuable.
At the moment, to some degree, what people think of with respect to our waste system is disconnected from the reality. People, with all the best will in the world, separate, clean and sort their recyclables and put them in the yellow bin, and there would be some disappointment if householders reflected on the reality over the last couple of years in terms of how much actually got recycled and particularly how much of it got reincorporated in that true circular model, because the reality is very little. Plastic packaging is a good example. We have a target to get to 50 per cent recycled content in packaging by 2025. With plastic, it's currently at two per cent. Of all the plastic stuff that we use and throw away, only two per cent on average across the packaging field incorporates recycled content. That is not enough. We need that demand—we need that the pull through—in the manufacturing, if we're really going to get circularity.
The final recommendation I'll point to is recommendation 15, which 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 waste is for them in terms of preventing waste from polluting their environment. So we need to think about how we can better support those communities.
Finally, the areas that the government has talked about—and where it is yet to show much by way of achievement—are procurement, producer responsibility and labelling. On procurement in particular, the National Waste Policy Action Plan says that the Commonwealth will provide clear procurement guidelines for the purchase and incorporation of and tendering processes for recycling material by the end of this year. There are 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.
I'm pleased to rise to take note of this substantial report and the recommendations in it. I want to join with my colleagues in thanking all of the members who were part of this inquiry and all of the stakeholders who contributed to the inquiry and made submissions. As we all know, this is a $15 billion industry in Australia, and we produce some 76 million tonnes of waste per annum. I was not on this committee of inquiry, but I want to speak on this report as part of urging this government, and all governments, to really put sustainability at the heart of all that we do: sustainability for our environment, sustainability for our economic growth, and sustainability for the wellbeing and happiness of our people. Really, this report and the push from the people of Australia for a circular economy are both about sustainability.
Like my colleague who spoke before me, I too am hoping that the Prime Minister fulfils the commitment that he made at the Plastics Summit earlier this year to provide guidelines for government procurement policy and recycling. It's important that governments not just talk the talk but also lead us. What governments ask industry to do, governments should also be doing. Procurement policy is a very, very powerful tool that the Commonwealth has its disposal—not just procuring Australian-made goods, not just procuring actions and activities by Australian companies and Australian workers, but using procurement policy to set the standards for the sorts of materials that we want to use. In my electorate of Dunkley, Replas—who I've spoken about before in this place—are a world leader in the recycling of plastics. Replas have recently entered into a contract with Frankston City Council and are providing footpath concrete where the aggregate is recycled plastic, and it is terrific. In Seaford, we will soon be able walk on recycled plastic. Replas have arrangements with the big retailers, including Coles, to take the plastic bags and the plastic waste, and they change it into benches and guardrails and boardwalks—all sorts of items are manufactured with recycled plastic. For companies like Replas to continue to grow and to continue to provide those goods, there needs to be demand. And this federal government, as well as state governments and local councils, has at its disposal tools to increase that demand, by saying: 'When projects are built using Commonwealth funds, we want to have recycled materials'—like those that are made by Replas—'as part of those projects.'
It is disturbing that the recent ABS waste survey identified that we have in this country gone from producing 68 million tonnes of waste annually to 76 million tonnes. It's a 13 per cent increase. We're supposed to be reducing waste, and we're increasing it. We need to meet the targets that have been set for us in this country as part of building that sustainable future. We only recycle 58 per cent of waste. We have a target of 80 per cent by 2030. Much to the surprise of most of us, 2030 is coming very soon. It's 10 years away. We set targets. We need to meet them. It's a bit like with climate change. We need to set targets, like net zero emissions by 2050, and we need to meet them. As with the Plastics Summit earlier this year, it's all well and good to have announcements, to have forums and to do media events, but they have to translate into real action. The work that was done on this report needs to be taken into account by the government in order to deliver real action, not just photo opportunities.
I'd like to finish my contribution by mentioning a company in Australia, which contacted me after the last time I spoke about waste, called The Plastics Circle. Trish and Murray Hyde contacted me because this is their world and their life—sustainability and the circular economy. They are an example of Australians who are committed to this idea of sustainability but also of industry and individuals who are ahead of the government in this country and are crying out for the government to be there and back them in. The Plastics Circle provided me with some statistics that are very interesting when we think about how we can encourage companies, individuals and governments to get involved in developing and building our circular economy. Forty-six per cent of plastic waste globally is caused by plastic package, and 30 per cent of that is recycled. But 80 per cent of businesses lack the metrics to understand and manage their plastic impacts. However, 23 per cent of consumers already buy based on sustainability attributes. Eighty-one per cent of consumers have said that they will buy more environmentally friendly products over the next five years, and 73 per cent of employees want their company to demonstrate ESG leadership. Businesses who have embedded environmental standards see a 16 per cent productivity lift. As The Plastics Circle says to their clients: 'You have a double imperative. You need to achieve your sales targets and also your ESG commitment.' There's no reason why a federal government shouldn't have embedded in everything they do the same mindset of ESG commitment, sustainability and the wellbeing of the people, the planet and the economy that we are all a part of.
Trish and Murray Hyde and the people that work with them are scientists, advisers, collaborators, creatives, entrepreneurs and innovators. A circular economy provides opportunities for jobs and for economic growth for people with a whole range of different skill sets, education, interests and abilities. It is good for the economy, it is good for jobs, it is good for the environment, and it is good for the wellbeing of those of us who live on this precious planet because it improves our day-to-day amenity. We do not want to have a future where our oceans are clogged with plastic and our waterways are strewn with bottles. We want to have a future where our grandchildren's grandchildren can sit on Frankston Beach and enjoy the wonder and the beauty of the natural environment without having waste washing up all around them.
This is a rubbish report. It is complete garbage. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, I'm proud to speak on the recently tabled report, From rubbish to resources: building a circular economy. The committee was asked by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology to inquiry into and report on innovative solutions in Australia's waste management and recycling industries. The focus of the inquiry was on opportunities presented by waste materials, including energy production, innovative recycling approaches and export opportunities. The report makes 24 recommendations. If the Morrison government were to accept them, they would create a pathway to a national circular economy. That would be good for the world; good for the planet; good for the wallet, in fact; good for our native flora and fauna; and good for the environment of our neighbours, where we used to dump our rubbish until very recently.
On average, every Australian generates nearly three tonnes of waste every year. Around 40 per cent of this waste will end up in landfill. For every five items of rubbish that we use for convenience, three will become an inconvenience for somebody else. So only two out of the five things that we use will actually be usefully rendered into something for people down the track. The fact that there is three tonnes of waste every year indicates that we have a waste crisis in Australia. It didn't creep up on us; we've known about it for a while. Sorting our household rubbish into colour coded bins every week just isn't enough. Australians are kidding themselves if they think that it is enough. For urban Australians, there is that smug satisfaction of putting the yellow bin out once a fortnight or once a week, whatever it is. We need to recalibrate that feeling. We can't keep digging holes in the ground and then filling them up with our rubbish because we can't keep shipping our rubbish offshore to make it some other country's problem. That is not only because Malaysia, China and others told the coalition government a little while ago that they wouldn't take Australian rubbish anymore.
The coalition have wasted seven years and, over that seven years, we've had seven years of waste accumulating. It took the ban on imports from China and other countries to get the Morrison government's attention and, finally, they decided to do something to start to address the issue. They tried to put a media spin on the rejection: 'This is an incredible moment. We're having a big plastic summit.' They were turning rejection into a media opportunity. But, basically, the last seven years have been wasted. Remember, that decision to reject Australian rubbish was made back when relations with our major trading partner were only bad, rather than dismal. Currently, they are dismal and heading south.
Australia has less capacity to recycle plastic in 2020 than it had back in 2005. That's a horrible fact. In 2005, we were better placed to recycle plastic than we are today, with all of those innovations in technology. The amount of plastic in the world's oceans is expected to triple by 2040. This is incredibly alarming. It is an issue that should be receiving urgent attention from the Morrison government. We need to change that trajectory. Rather than trying just to manage the media today, we need to change the trajectory. It is crucial and fair that manufacturers and designers of products—and, consequently, the purchasers, who are the consumers—take some responsibility in mitigating the environmental impact of their products. Their manufacturing decisions have a legacy beyond the cash register or the docking bay. Businesses should be seeking to reduce waste in their manufacturing processes and to enable re-use or recycling.
Labor introduced the Product Stewardship Act in 2011. Product stewardship is a critical element of sustainable waste management. Labor took a commitment to introduce a national container deposit scheme to the last election. Sadly, the Morrison government has not made the same commitment. The states and territories have implemented their own container deposit schemes, and I commend the Queensland Palaszczuk government for doing so, because that has changed behaviour in Queensland. National leadership would create a harmonised and coordinated national scheme, and that would bring efficiencies for people who use the end product and better marketing opportunities.
The Morrison government claims it is taking action on waste and recycling. As I said, it was happy to have a big press conference and a plastics summit. But, in what has become a common theme, they're very good with the announcement but no good with the follow-up. Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Waste Account shows that Australia's waste and recycling performance has worsened, at a time when the Morrison government claims to be showing national and global leadership. As I said, they're there for the presser but missing when it comes to the follow-up. Since 2016, Australia's recycling rate for plastics has dropped from an already unacceptably low 12 per cent to nine per cent—you can see why the Plastics Summit was needed—and total waste has risen from 68 million tonnes per annum to a record 76 million tonnes, a 13 per cent increase. That has occurred on the coalition's watch. Even worse, hazardous waste has climbed by a very concerning 23 per cent. This is on the Morrison government's watch. Personal responsibility used to be a tenet of the Liberal Party, but, for some reason, when it comes to waste, when it comes to plastics, that rule seems to have been jettisoned.
These latest figures make a mockery of the National Waste Policy targets of reducing overall waste by 10 per cent by 2030 and achieving a rate of 80 per cent average resource recovery from all waste streams by 2030. 2030 is not that far away. We need to drastically alter our trajectory. It completely contradicts the government's grandiose announcements, at the Plastics Summit and the like, about taking action on waste and recycling. There's been a lot of chest thumping, but we're not actually doing what we need to be doing. The Morrison government announced its $100 million Recycling Investment Fund back in May 2019, but, of course, has failed to deliver a single dollar from this fund. The government's light-touch approach to reforming Australia's product stewardship framework was another missed opportunity. When leadership was needed, the opportunity was missed.
Obviously, much more needs to be done and it needs to be done now. Recommendation No. 1 in this committee report is:
… that the Commonwealth Government in consultation with state and territory governments—
I understand the role of state and territory governments and local government when it comes to waste, but they need to consult with those other levels of government to—
implement a pathway to a predominantly national circular economy.
This is an important recommendation, and one that I sincerely hope the Morrison government considers acting on urgently.
Australians need to start talking about a circular economy—an economy where materials are used minimally and re-used and recycled to the maximum degree, eventually creating a closed circle. This sustainable approach is not only environmentally responsible but will create resource recovery, manufacturing opportunities and jobs. There is action that can be taken that the Morrison government needs to take right now, until we can process our waste. We need investment in recycling and reprocessing infrastructure—capital investment in terms of some of the machinery needed. Science and engineering will come to the rescue, but we need a bit of a guiding hand from government. We need to support demand for recycled materials, so that there are markets there, and ensure that producers take responsibility for the life-cycle costs of their products, which may entail consumers paying just slightly more for the fact that their product will be dealt with rather than dumped. We need to increase consumer awareness. We need to do better and we need to do it fast.
Pretending that our waste production is not a massive environmental problem is not the answer. Pretending that our waste production is not a massive market failure is not the answer. Pretending that things will instantly change if we ask businesses nicely to change the way they develop their product is not the answer either. Working towards a circular economy will take strong leadership skills. It will mean working with business to create a sustainable, environmentally responsible production line, which will create resource recovery, manufacturing opportunities and jobs.
So we need strong leadership from the Commonwealth government, and then that will flow into state and territory and local government. Businesses need this strong leadership. My community on the south side of Brisbane is ready to do more. It's hard to develop good policy reform on a national scale. It takes leadership at a national level, stepping up and having those uncomfortable conversations. What we're currently seeing is a load of rubbish—complete garbage. Let's see some leadership on this topic from the Morrison government or throw them out and give Australians a chance to do more.