House debates

Thursday, 24 June 2021


Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:26 am

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

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 metal 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 by-products, 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, as the recycling and waste reform is 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 an 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.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

The amendment is seconded, and I reserve my right to speak.

10:44 am

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I disagree with the amendment and I support the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021, unsurprisingly. I have been around for a while—but I haven't been around forever—and when I was a child, you'd go to the hardware store, you'd grab a paper bag and you'd grab the bolt nails and stick them in the paper bag. It was the same when I went to the lolly shop, in fact. Lollies didn't come prepacked; they came in bulk containers—I suppose you'd call them—and you'd get a bit of this and a bit of that.

In those days you'd go to the butcher shop and the meat was wrapped up in paper. Interestingly, the floor was covered in sawdust as well. But those times seem to have gone. Meat is now sitting on polystyrene and covered up with plastic. I guess it's healthier in the short term, but one has to ask whether it's healthier in the long term, I suppose. Packaging has changed so much. We are wont to rail at multinationals but, of course, they do respond to consumer demand. I don't think it should be forgotten that, when these changes occur, it's in with the new but it's out with the old because the old is no longer supported—and so it has been with packaging. So, presumably, in large doses, the world has got what it wanted, but it's leading to problems.

Plastic of course has been a godsend as well as a curse. I love my cling wrap, and I like to handle my food in cling wrap. When I open up the cheese I make sure it's got cling wrap on it afterwards so it doesn't deteriorate, and I do that with many other things. But cling wrap is one of the really difficult things to recycle, though it's not large. Plastic recycling basically comes in three distinct streams. There's clear plastics, which is like PET bottles. That is the top grade; it can be used for virtually anything. Then there are hard plastics. That's more like the tie around the top of your bread. Then there are soft plastics, like cling wrap.

My children grew up thinking that I was the duct tape king of the west coast. When I say the west coast, I mean the west coast of South Australia. I mean, there's nothing dad can't fix without duct tape—and I do not want to take the world back to a place without it because it will all fall to bits. But, once again, it's made of plastics. We are so dependent on it in the modern world. But it seems to be an ever-increasing stream of plastic, and we have to face up to that.

We've had a lot of changes in response to the management of rubbish, not just in the federal parliament but also right across the Australian continent, I would say. In any kind of urban or city environment now we see multiple bins—separation at the end of the first use of the plastic, if you like. Then, of course, there are sorting stations, where we all rubbish is pulled out of the bin and divided into where it should be go. Then there is the taxing and limiting of landfill. I know this is slightly off target, but I want to come back to that a little bit later because I think that has particular implications on rural and regional populations. They are an added cost. I think when we make policy, not only in this place but also in our state parliaments, some of these things could be more carefully considered before one-size-fits all legislation is passed that does not necessarily make sense in other places.

But to this legislation, in particular: the bill combines with earlier legislation that we've moved in this area, particularly the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, which bans the export of recyclable plastics. In fact, it adopts the notion that every nation is responsible for its own waste, and I think that is a pretty fair outcome to come to. And, earlier this week, in the other place, we finally dealt with the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Selection, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill. Of course, under the UN agreement there is exactly the same circumstance—that, if the waste is created in your nation, you are directly responsible for dealing with the long-term management of that waste. I was very pleased to see that bill pass on Monday night. So every nation is responsible for its own.

In South Australia, the government there has taken some proactive moves. We've begun the banning of single-use plastics. Straws, swizzle sticks and plastic knives and forks are all finished, and I suspect plastic plates and a few other things won't be far behind. We now seem to be eating off wooden forks and—surprise, surprise!—we've turned back the clock and we've got paper straws. These are, once again, somewhere near those packets of nails we used to pick up at the hardware store. Just on the hardware store, let me ask, Mr Deputy Speaker: have you ever noticed that when you go in there now you actually have to take a pair of tinsnips with you so you can open the packet on your new pair of pliers to use them? The packaging is just so robust, so strong and so indestructible. You do have to wonder whether we could change behaviour in that area. Perhaps that's something this parliament should consider another time. I know why it's largely liked: it's easy to handle and it's good to advertise on. But, it would be a fair thing to ask, is it necessary? And maybe, at another time, we might address that.

I'm grateful to the shadow minister for the environment for putting some of the numbers out there about plastic, showing why it is undeniably a hazardous waste. There are around eight million tonnes of plastic that go into the world's oceans each year and, I'm told, about one per cent of that floats. By process of elimination, I come to the conclusion that about 99 per cent of it sinks. And, of course, it continues to deteriorate and break up into microscopic pieces which are further and further infiltrating the environment. Somewhere along the line, we have to break that pipeline.

I also heard the shadow minister speaking about the amount of rubbish on our beaches. It is a concern. I go for a bit of a jog in the morning along my beach at Port Neill, which doesn't have a lot of it. When I'm running and I see a bit of rubbish, I pick it up and make sure I take it back and get it back into the waste stream. But I'd have to say that, like with some other issues, Australia's contribution to plastics finding their way to the ocean—and we're big consumers of plastic—is probably far, far better on a per capita basis than that of many other nations in the world. Australians generally are good with their plastics. In fact, I talked before about the straws and single-use plastics we got out of the road. We've also gotten rid of a lot of shopping bags in some of the precincts in Australia, including in South Australia. I think our beaches, by world standards, are pretty good.

Most of us in parliament would have had the privilege to travel, and would have had the privilege to travel to the developing world, where you see mountains of plastic and where the rivers and streams are actually being used as garbage disposal units. I suspect that's where the bulk of this eight million tonnes a year is coming from. It is right that we should be addressing our plastics stream in Australia; it is also very important that we become involved in the world conversation here and try to bring about change in the parts of the world that the bulk of the plastics are coming from. There is a very strong similarity here to CO2 reduction in the world. We can make restrictive legislation in Australia and we can tidy up what we do, but unless the rest of the world is on the same boat it will all be to no avail in the long run. So it's right that we can develop good technologies here. We can export those around the world, and so we can with the recycling of plastic.

The government has a number of grants and schemes in place to help businesses set up plastics recycling plants, processing plants, across the nation. There have been a number of councils and others that have approached me over recent months to see what we can get in our local communities to employ people in what will be this new processing stream. We've seen—in South Australia it's been there for many years, but other states are adopting it now—the container recycling legislation. While it comes at a cost, it also employs people in the stream and it leads to a great result where we end up with a very high rate of cans and bottles being recycled. People get employed and those products come back in another form. That's been quite outstanding legislation over a long time, and I'm very pleased that other states have finally got to that point.

This legislation enables the relevant body, the government's hazardous waste advisory service, to access the best information around the world, giving it more flexibility. This is a world problem; it's going to be very important that we help each other out around the world to come up with the best solutions to deal with it. Once again, it has a very similar theme to the reduction of CO2 in the world. We actually have to feed technology to develop the materials and the plant to deal with the issue in front of us so that it's not such a financial impost that we cannot handle it. Now, in Australia we will handle the impost, but I talked about the developing nations. If you're trying to feed your kids, if you're actually trying to get heating into households, this is a very low-priority issue for them. We have to make it as painless as we possibly can. If you can deliver technology that actually saves money rather than costing money, that's when you reach the perfect position.

I said I wanted to come back to regional issues. I have been concerned, particularly in South Australia—and that's the only area I have any particular expertise in—about the way that landfill and the rubbish stream has been handled. It has been handled with what I think is a very city-centric view of the world. This sees communities as far as 800 kilometres away from Adelaide having to transport their waste down to the large landfill and separation sites. On this and other areas, I have challenged a number of scientists who have come in during various Science Weeks and whom I have met over the years. We know, for instance, that methane is 28 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and not one scientist has yet been able to tell me whether, if we allow green waste to break down into methane, you get 28 times less of it than you would if you had burnt it and it turned into CO2.

That might seem to be an esoteric thing to bring into this debate, but the reason I make that point is that it's very difficult to formulate sensible policy unless you actually understand the science that underpins it. In the case of recycling, we get told, for instance, that burning plastics is a disaster, but no-one tells us why. If it's about particulate damage to those who live close to the site of burning, well, that's a very good point. But that's not the same as turning the world's atmosphere into poison. Unless we understand what the real scientific values are, and I don't pretend to—I may get shot down in flames for that statement. I don't pretend to know, but nobody is explaining to me what the differences are when we handle waste in different ways. So, to come back to that issue of mine with landfill, no-one seems able to explain to me why it is better for regional councils to have to transport their rubbish 500, 600 or 800 kilometre than to burn it on site. If they can't explain it to me, I find it very difficult to defend.

I throw those things in because there is an opportunity that maybe it might trigger somebody else's imagination, their thought processes, and we might get to a stage where we are provided with better information by the scientific community. I'm a great admirer of the scientific community. I am rather despondent that fewer and fewer people of the modern world seem to be listening to them. But good facts are good material for people like me, in this position, when I speak to the Australian public. I endorse the bill.

10:58 am

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Fremantle in respect of the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021. Industrialisation throughout the world has undoubtedly lifted living standards and created prosperity, but it has also, simultaneously, caused widespread environmental degradation from the depletion of resources through to the creation and discharge of toxic wastes, which then enter our waters, soils and air. That, in turn, directly contributes to poor health outcomes through contaminating the food and water that we consume and the air that we breathe. Regrettably, it is sometimes years later that those health effects become apparent. In the interim, people suffer and sometimes die.

All of that was so well highlighted in Erin Brockovich, the film based on the 1993 case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California. It was successfully sued for some $333 million for discharging hexavalent chromium into groundwater between 1952 and 1996. The case went to court in 1993, almost 30 years later, which just highlights how sometimes it does take years for these problems to manifest and then be acknowledged, whereby remedial action is taken or the activities are ceased, whatever is the case.

In my view, the Brockovich case is just one of countless similar occurrences throughout the world which, I suspect, have never been investigated but similarly have caused incredible suffering to the people in and around the area where those events occurred. It's happening right now, as we speak, in so many places around the world where hazardous waste is being discharged or dumped into waterways, landfill and oceans. A real concern I have is that it's happening more so in developing countries, where there is little or no oversight of industrial and mining operations and what happens with the waste that is created. It's much, much easier just to quietly bury or discharge waste into waterways, where it's supposedly never seen again. It is a cost saving to the operators if they can get away with it, and quite often they do get away with it, either because of poor oversight or because of, it is alleged, corruption within the governments of those places.

There have been serious examples of similar wrongdoing here in Australia over recent years, some of it deliberate and some of it not so. What is particularly concerning is that in most cases it occurs under the stewardship of what I would have thought were reputable companies—reputable international organisations that actually do know better, understand the harm they are doing, employ scientists and the like, but simply don't care, if they can get away with it, because it adds to their profit bottom line. These are quite often entities that, as it is, make huge profits and know exactly what they are doing and what is happening.

As I said, it's happening here in Australia. In recent years we have gone through the process of trying to determine which sites have been contaminated with PFAS. That was fairly widespread. I accept that much of that was done unknowingly, but I don't believe it's always done unknowingly, and it does occur. I've heard reports in recent times of asbestos still being illegally dumped by so-called reputable organisations—again, when and where they can get away with it. Asbestos, as we know, is very much a toxic product.

I want to talk about one particular issue because it relates to the state of South Australia and my own electorate. Only this year extensive mangrove dieback was detected at St Kilda in South Australia. It was being caused by the discharge of saline brine from neighbouring defunct salt-mining operations. These mangroves are critical to South Australia as an environmental asset. They are the state's major fish breeding grounds as well as being home to an international bird sanctuary. That is the significance of them. Years ago, because of their importance, the City of Salisbury spent millions of dollars in establishing dozens of wetlands and water-harvesting schemes, the key objective being to prevent polluted urban waters from entering the Barker Inlet and destroying the St Kilda mangroves and seagrasses, which at that point were already in decline. As a result of the water-harvesting schemes established by the City of Salisbury, the dieback was reversed. Indeed, the regrowth that had started to occur was wonderful to see. However, in the last two or three years, as the result of one single activity, we're now seeing all of that good work being lost, and the mangroves, the seagrasses and the bird and plant life are now again dying. Why did that happen? It happened because of poor oversight by state government agencies and the irresponsible practice—perhaps unknowingly, I'm prepared to say—of the industrial operator.

My point is simply this: whilst it's good to have regulations—and I might come back to this point a bit later if time permits—it's important that the state and federal government agencies that are charged with the oversight of those regulations are actually able to carry that out. There is not much point in having laws and standards if there is no-one to police them. Most of the time that comes about because governments that are trying to save money start cutting the funding of, and underresourcing, the very departments that are entrusted with that oversight. With respect to the mangroves that I spoke about just a few moments ago, I suspect that the problem was detected more by local community environmentalists than it was by the government departments themselves, which, again, is of concern because, had we not had local environmental activists in that location, the situation might have become even worse than it currently is.

We see that also with the Great Barrier Reef. In recent days, the reef has been the subject of much public coverage, with claims that it could be included on the UNESCO 'in danger' list. The reef has for years been at serious risk, and we quite often—and rightly so—point to the damage that has been caused by climate change. The scientific evidence to support that has been well and truly established. But part of the problem arises because of the polluted water run-off from land that enters the waters in and around the reef and, in turn, contributes to the damage that is being caused to the coral reefs and the like. The reef, as we all know, is incredibly important to Australia. It's a $6 billion tourism asset which, I understand, employs around 60,000 people. It's an international asset. Yet I wonder just how well we monitor what happens with respect to the discharge of water that goes into the waters in and around the reef, and I suspect that, if it weren't for some of the university and CSIRO organisations up in that part of Australia, we would have even less understanding of what is going on. Certainly it concerns me that government oversight of what is happening isn't adequate. With so many issues, that is the real problem. I said earlier on, in relation to St Kilda, that my concern was with respect to the government oversight.

My concern with this legislation is not what it does, because it simply implements the latest recommendations of the Basel Convention relating to transport, both within the country and internationally, of hazardous waste. I have no problem with that. My concern is: will the departments that are entrusted with oversight of those regulations be adequately resourced? I doubt very much that they will be. Indeed, when I looked at one of the issues relating to all this, which was to do with the hazardous waste specialist committee that was set up by the government at the time the legislation was first brought into parliament, I found it very difficult to find any evidence that that committee has even been active. I note that, within this legislation, there is a proposal to do away with the committee and simply seek expert opinion if, and when, required. I have no problem with seeking expert opinion; we should be doing that. But my concern is this: if the hazardous waste committee that was in place has not been actively doing anything, that explains why so many things have gone unnoticed. And that just goes to the point that I'm making, which is that the department is inadequately resourced. We need to ensure that the department is adequately resourced if this legislation is going to mean anything.

The other issue with this legislation, of course, is that much of the detail will be in regulations and is not directly written into the legislation itself. Again, I can understand why you might want to do that; then it could be changed from time to time and therefore it's much easier and convenient to have regulations which can be amended. But, again, it takes that part of the responsibility attached to the legislation out of the hands of this parliament and puts it into a government department.

Finally, and this has been said by other speakers: some eight million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans every year—that's what's estimated, at least—and I suspect that's doing an incredible amount of damage to ocean waters. But even the composition of that plastic—and I suppose it's why we're dealing with this legislation—literally changes all the time; what was regarded as plastic years ago is very different to the plastic that might be used today. So there has to be an ongoing change to the description of the product.

That brings me to the point about what hazardous waste is. When I looked up the definition of 'hazardous waste' it was so complex and convoluted that it would literally take a lawyer to explain to me what would fall into the category of hazardous waste and what wouldn't. Nevertheless, we could take the overarching view that all waste in one form or another can be hazardous and treat it that way—I suspect that's the intent of this legislation. Then at least we'd have a mechanism by which we might regulate the discharge of any sort of waste into our waterways, air or soils. That should be the objective of this legislation.

I believe it's a very important piece of legislation in as much as we won't have an economy or the lifestyle we have now if we destroy our environment. This kind of legislation goes to the heart of securing and ensuring that we have a sustainable environment.

11:11 am

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021. With this bill, the Morrison government advances key laws to deliver on Australia's international obligations to strengthen controls on international movements of plastics waste and enhance the process to classify hazardous wastes and treatment technologies. These amendments adopt regulatory powers consistent with Commonwealth legislation and improve compliance and enforcement measures through new penalties and information-sharing measures to improve the administrative efficiency of the act. Ultimately, this bill updates and modernises the act to reduce complexity and improve its operation, while ensuring the standard of environmental protection remains high.

I stand here as a strong voice for my constituents in Higgins, who care deeply about our waste and our international responsibilities to the environment. I am proud that the Morrison government has stepped up to ensure that, as a country, we take responsibility and lead the way in this space. As the Prime Minister has said, it is our waste and our responsibility. Anyone who has lived, worked or travelled in other countries, particularly developing countries, knows how important it is to be stewards of our own environment. Our policies are delivering real outcomes for our natural environment, but also for the world over, by mandating that we do not simply export waste without thought. This is by ensuring that it is first processed for further use and also by enhancing regulations in protecting all global systems from hazardous waste materials.

This is really a matter of leadership. As a nation we have a duty and responsibility for our own waste. We just can't pass the buck to other countries to deal with it. I'm proud to have been a strong voice in calling for a recycling and waste inquiry as a member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources. For any listeners or viewers, I recommend that you go to the From rubbish to resources: building a circular economy report. There are so many pragmatic things that constituents can do to make sure that they reduce their own waste footprint and therefore help the world to keep this place cleaner and greener.

The hazardous waste act implements Australia's international obligations under the Basel Convention. The amendments in this bill will strengthen transboundary controls on unsorted plastic waste and plastic waste containing hazardous substances. It will ensure Australia's compliance with the Basel Convention. The convention is an international treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste from one country to another, and its disposal. It seeks to manage the export, import and transit of hazardous waste to minimise the harmful effect of hazardous waste on human health and the environment.

In fact, on 1 July 2021 just this year new standards to regulate international movements of unsorted plastic waste and plastic waste containing hazardous substances were adopted under the Basel Convention. This bill delivers on these key international commitments and complements the landmark Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, under which only single polymer or resin plastics can be exported from July 2021. This is a great outcome for Australia, where we're now moving very rapidly into ensuring that we have environmental stewardship, and that is from next month. It is about solving problems now but also for the future and for the generations that follow.

In fact, it's sobering to think that only 12 per cent of the 103 kilograms of plastic waste generated per person in Australia each year is recycled, and this is mostly overseas. That's 103 kilograms of plastic waste per person, almost double each person's body weight—some exceptions in the chamber perhaps! Each year at Clean Up Australia Day I get a very big plastic bag and I endeavour to get several kilograms worth of plastic. It's very hard to fill a big plastic bag. It doesn't weigh as much as you think, so when we're talking about 103 kilograms per every individual person in Australia that's an awful lot of plastic.

From July 2022 the export of recycled plastics that have not been processed for further use will be banned. We are stepping up and we are taking action. We have a golden opportunity now to turn our recyclable plastics into resources—the title of our inquiry report is From rubbish to resourcesand play our part as global trendsetters in this space, while looking out for our international counterparts, as well as reducing our environmental impact, not just as individuals but as a country. These measures show that the government will go one step further than the rest of the world to address pollution from waste plastics.

The current requirement to seek advice on technical matters from the Hazardous Waste Technical Group does not allow the flexibility to obtain the best advice available on a range of key technical issues. The government proposes to transform the way in which guidance on whether a particular material is a hazardous waste or whether a particular waste processing technology is environmentally sound is obtained. We will do this by removing references to the Hazardous Waste Technical Group and replacing it with a new mandatory consultation mechanism that is more appropriate to the relevant decisions. This bill will make amendments to the act to establish a new mandatory consultation process that provides flexibility to consult with a range of appropriately qualified experts from government, research organisations and industry. This will ensure that the government has the best advice available when making these important declarations and that the advice is obtained when we need it.

This bill triggers the Regulatory Powers Act to adopt consistent Commonwealth regulatory powers. These powers are best practice for administering an effective monitoring investigation or enforcement regulatory regime that also provides important safeguards and protects common-law privileges. As we all know, when there's a commons we need to make sure that it's not just the good eggs that do well, but that the bad eggs are held to account. This bill will refine existing criminal offences and introduce new strict liability offences and civil penalty provisions to cover conduct relating to the export, import and transit of hazardous waste.

We want to not just encourage people to do the right thing but make sure that they are punished if they do not. Importantly, new compliance measures include record keeping, auditing and monitoring provisions. Of course, as a government, you can't manage what you're not measuring, and this is an incredibly important technical aspect that will improve the quality of the accountability of this legislation. These amendments are supported by industry and will help level the playing field for those doing the right thing by giving the government appropriate powers to act against those who are not doing the right thing. These amendments will ensure compliance with the hazardous waste act and that Australians and our unique environment are better protected from the harmful effects of hazardous waste.

Anyone who's been to the outback of Australia knows how incredibly delicate some of the ecosystems of our unique environment are. They're world beating. They're precious. In fact, I encourage tourists from around the world to come and be ecofriendly. Make sure that when you go out camping in the outback you take your rubbish with you, because there's nothing worse than going to these beautiful World Heritage sites and seeing any form of plastic or rubbish in those environments. I would welcome some of the states' and territories' acts that have been incredibly important in backing in these provisions and making sure that plastics are not getting into our precious World Heritage environment.

The amendments in this bill will give the government the authority to share information with Commonwealth, state and territory governments where appropriate. It is important that these acts, across the different legislations, are held to be consistent and that there can be sharing of information so we can make sure that state governments and federal governments are working hand in glove. This will improve the compliance and enforcement missions enacted under the regulatory powers act.

The Morrison government has led the nation in taking responsibility for regulation on waste. It's something we are deeply proud of. It is working to help make sure there is strong collaboration between the Commonwealth, the states and the territories across these different legislative boundaries, and I welcome these developments. We will work as one across the three levels of government for the benefit of Australia.

I'd like to note that the local government authority conference was this week. I've had a number of my councils, Glen Eira and Stonnington in particular, meet with me to talk about the very important issues of recycling and waste. I'm very proud of the fact that the minister—I call him 'our waste warrior'!—for rubbish reduction, Trevor Evans, has met with my councils to talk about the very important issues that face them with regard to recycling and waste. The federal government is working hard to make sure local councils can deal with their waste in a systematic and safe way.

The reforms in this bill are common sense. They will deliver streamlined, transparent, efficient and appropriate regulation. Most importantly, these reforms will protect Australians and our environment. I commend this bill to the House.

11:21 am

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the members who have contributed to the debate on the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021. There have been good contributions from all sides of the House on an important subject, and the assistant minister, the member for Brisbane, has led great consultation and communication around our waste agenda more broadly; I want to recognise that in the House today.

I want to recognise the importance for every single Australian of this government taking a proactive and committed approach when it comes to federal policy that looks after our waste, leading from a prime ministerial statement two years ago where the Prime Minister said, 'It's our waste, it's our responsibility, it's our economic opportunity.' Much of the agenda on waste has led from that statement. It's been backed in by solid commitments like our Recycling Modernisation Fund—$690 million of federal money matched by industry and state governments, so that everyone has skin in the game. We know that the projects that will be developed under the Recycling Modernisation Fund will be real, be lasting and deliver that economic opportunity and, most importantly, deliver 10,000 jobs over 10 years, many of them in regional Australia. All this leads from this government's determination to turn waste—about which, I think it's fair to say, people a generation ago said: 'Put it in landfill. Don't worry about it. It's someone else's problem', and they certainly never saw it in the context of remanufacturing, recycling, remodernising and repurposing.

The hazardous waste act implements Australia's international obligations under the Basel Convention, which controls the movement of hazardous waste between countries. This legislation aligns our laws with our international commitments and ensures we take responsibility for our waste plastic, managing this waste in a way that minimises harm to human health and the natural environment not only in Australia but also overseas. The hazardous waste act will now align with best practice regulation, and the most appropriate tools will be in place for the government to efficiently regulate the movement of hazardous waste. These changes will better protect Australians and our environment. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Fremantle has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.