Wednesday, 21 March 2018
Questions without Notice
Waste Management and Recycling
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Energy, Senator Birmingham. Minister, in February last year China announced its intention to ban the import of low-grade recycled material. China then gave notice in WTO in July, and again in November, with the details of this ban, which came into effect on 1 January this year. Australia has exported to China annually around 60,000 tonnes of papers and plastics through—
Honourable senators interjecting—
Senator Whish-Wilson, will you please cease. Order on my left and on my right! It is very difficult to hear the question.
Senator Farrell interjecting—
Senator Farrell, I don't need comments on the way. If I need help, I'll ask for it. Senator Whish-Wilson, please continue.
Australia has exported to China annually around 60,000 tonnes of papers and plastics collected through household recycling bins, but now this material is piling up around Australia. Big recyclers like Visy are refusing to take waste. Local government organisations are officially calling it a crisis. All industry stakeholders are calling for federal intervention. Given that China lodged notice with the WTO well in advance, what steps did the federal government take to pass on this information to state and local governments? What actions did you take to prepare for the recycling crisis that is now happening?
I thank Senator Whish-Wilson for his question. I'm advised that when China first announced its restrictions, on 18 July 2017, the Australian government, through DFAT officials, immediately contacted several industry groups in the state and territory governments to inform them. Since that time, the Australian government has raised this matter with China on several occasions. Indeed, senior levels of government have engaged with China to request that the amendments be reviewed or delayed, including through representations by the embassy in Beijing and to the World Trade Organization. I am further advised that in December of 2017 the secretary of the department met with China's Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection, who provided a rationale for the restrictions but confirmed China's intent to implement the regulatory changes in the time frames notified to the WTO. Both Minister Ciobo and Minister Frydenberg wrote to China's Minister of Environmental Protection in 2017 noting Australia's concerns in relation to this matter and advising them Australia was closely monitoring China's implementation of the amendments. I am further advised that the department continues to work with DFAT and the states and territories to determine how the change will impact the domestic waste and scrap industries.
Thank you, Minister, for acknowledging that you knew about the crisis. Given there have been industry-wide calls for federal intervention into this recycling process over the last eight months, with business groups like the Waste Management Association of Australia saying that it's simply too important an industry to continue to say it's all up to the states, what action is the federal government now taking to show leadership to stop and manage the meltdown? Or will you continue to sit this out?
It is a reality that state, territory and local governments have primary responsibility for waste management and recycling. We acknowledge that this is a critically important issue for Australia, and the Australian government is identifying where Commonwealth intervention can best support states and territories in their responses, both over the short and longer terms. I've already outlined the extensive representations that Australia has made in relation to our engagement with China over this issue, and those representations and that work continue. I would also note that Australia exports recyclable materials to over 100 countries, and preliminary analysis indicates that about 70 per cent of that waste, by volume, exported from Australia in categories affected by China's waste import restrictions has indeed been sent to other nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong and Bangladesh.
Minister, we're facing the real risk of a recycling system collapse across this country. That is acknowledged by the industry and local government. Industry has said that if the government had implemented just two of the 16 policies agreed by COAG under the national waste plan, we wouldn't be in this crisis—that's a federal responsibility. Will you commit to acting on the National Waste Policy, a policy that will invest in more jobs, less pollution and provide a genuine long-term solution to the recycling crisis?
I acknowledge Senator Macdonald's interjection; I'll leave that for others to determine. Senator Whish-Wilson, I don't have advice in relation to the 16 recommendations that you say went to COAG, if indeed that is an accurate reflection. I'll happily take that question on notice and see if we can provide further information to you.