Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Waste Management and Recycling

3:30 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Whish-Wilson today relating to recycling.

Right around this country there's a tsunami of anger coming towards this federal government over the current crisis in recycling not just in New South Wales and Victoria, which has been well publicised, but in other states. One thing Australians know how to do is recycle. When you talk to people about being green, one of the first things they try to talk to you about is solar panels or renewable energy; another thing they try to talk to you about is recycling. Over decades, Australians have learnt to recycle through kerbside recycling. We put our household recyclable goods in a small bin, and then it goes into a yellow wheelie bin.

Australians around this country will realise that decades of kerbside recycling are now at risk and in total crisis, facing a complete meltdown and collapse, because this federal government has been asleep at the wheel on its federal waste policy. It admitted in the Senate today that it knew mid last year that the Chinese government was going to stop buying low-grade Australian waste. Sixty per cent of our low-grade waste is exported to China. We've relied on these exports to run our kerbside recycling industry. But China were making really clear statements that they were going to change the specifications around those exports. We didn't invest in local recycling options, and now we've got a situation where China is not going to take our waste anymore. We've got no way of cleaning the waste so that it meets their specifications. Right around the country local governments in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and even Tasmania are facing a crisis where the transport companies are threatening to not even pick up kerbside recycling from your house, and the recyclers aren't accepting recyclable materials because they can't sell them.

Unless it's properly sorted and sifted and there is a process around investing in the infrastructure that's needed to make recycling properly sustainable in this country, then there's going to be a massive tsunami of electoral backlash. I can tell you why. Australians mostly pay their rates to their councils. Those rates go towards paying for the cost of the transportation of that kerbside collection and other costs associated with it. Then councils have to pay levies in every state—except Queensland, at this stage—and those levies are actually paid for by council ratepayers. They are going to be furious when they realise that, after decades of paying their rates in the expectation that what they put in their wheelie bin will actually get recycled, it is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because of a combined failure of leadership by the federal and state governments. Those ratepayers are going to be really, really annoyed.

We're at a crossroads in this situation. We can either turn towards crisis and a complete meltdown of decades of recycling in this country or turn towards the opportunity to invest in jobs and in new industry so that we can be resilient and self-reliant in the processing of our waste.

The federal government has sat on a plan, the National Waste Policy, since it was elected and has not done a thing to meet its responsibilities in relation to waste management. This plan was put in place in 2009. Out of 16 key policies, only one has actually been brought into law here: the Product Stewardship Act. And what has happened to that? Its funding has been cut, it has barely been used and now it's up for review. The federal government has a very important role to play in national waste policy.

I'm chairing the Senate inquiry into this recycling crisis at the moment. I have never before seen industry stakeholders, every single one of them—from environment groups, local government associations, councillors, industry, transport companies, recyclers, exporters and reprocessors—singing from the same song sheet: 'We want the federal government to enact the National Waste Policy, the policies that would actually make recycling sustainable in this country.' That's going to require investment and it's going to require leadership. Mr Frydenberg has made it really clear he doesn't believe this is a federal government issue. Waste and waste management, and of course the waste that makes its way the to the ocean—one of the biggest pollution issues we are facing on the planet at the moment—are everyone's problems, and the government has a really important role to play here.

I will be following this up. If anybody is free and available this afternoon, at 5.30 in 2S3 we'll be talking to the federal environment department about their lack of action on this issue.

Question agreed to.