Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2018


Environment and Communications References Committee; Report

5:49 pm

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

On behalf of the Chair of the Environment and Communications References Committee, I present the committee's report on the waste and recycling industry in Australia, and I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I'm very pleased to speak to this report today, Never waste a crisis: the waste and recycling industry in Australia. I haven't been on a committee, or been chair of a committee, that's had such unanimous support from stakeholders for something like leadership on an issue, especially an environmental issue, since I've been a senator. Today, I'm very proud to say that, in a rare moment of consensus and tripartisan support, we have a report here before us on what has been, and still is, a crisis in our recycling industry in this country.

There are a number of key recommendations here. There is no dissenting report. Labor have put some additional comments in, but they're very supportive of the report. I'm very proud that, as a Senate, we've been able to do some fantastic work at a time when it was critically needed.

I would like to say that I initiated this inquiry after the Four Corners episode mid-last year called 'Trashed'. I'd like to pay my respect to the journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna, who did a fantastic job of uncovering illegal dumping of waste across states and, of course, the presence of dangerous stockpiles that have been building up in a number of waste streams around the country. While the inquiry was underway, looking at, for example, how we might get some national standards in place for things like dumping of waste and landfill levies, we had the China Sword policy enacted.

The Chinese government decided that they would stop taking Australia's contaminated waste streams, which they've been doing for a number of years. This led to a crisis in this country, because suddenly the rug was pulled out from underneath the feet of the recycling industry. Of course, this went all the way through to local governments and, ultimately, to consumers. For many years now, Australians have relied on selling our waste, whether it's cardboard or soft plastics. Very little glass actually goes to China, but other waste streams do. The contamination in these waste streams has been very high. The Chinese have been taking our waste for some time but they've decided to set a new policy where they'll only take virtually uncontaminated waste from countries like Australia.

Our system is not set up to deal with the contamination issue at this point in time, so we had a collapse in commodity prices for things such as soft plastics, cardboard and newsprint. And, of course, suddenly the industry was no longer viable. The MRFs—the material recovery facilities—couldn't onsell the product that they were taking from transport companies and local governments. We had contracts being breached all around the country and we had state governments pumping in emergency funding, at least to try to keep the system going. And while this was happening we were lucky enough to have our federal inquiry in place.

We took evidence all around the country, especially in Brisbane, New South Wales and Victoria. Of course, we also received evidence from South Australia and witnesses from Western Australia. We have a series of recommendations here before us that the industry, industry associations and a number of other stakeholders—local government and local government associations and environment groups—believe can actually fix the waste crisis. More importantly, as the title of the report suggests—'Never waste a crisis'—we can turn this towards opportunity. We can become self-sufficient, recycle our own waste in this country and reprocess that into better products. We can actually solve an environmental problem while creating thousands of new jobs.

The recycling and reprocessing industry in Australia employs nearly 50,000 Australians, more than the mining industry, and yet we've been sending a lot of our high-value waste overseas because it's been easy to do so. Well, it's no longer easy to do so. Although other countries have taken waste and stepped in where the Chinese government have stopped taking our imports, it's not going to be a long-term solution. We actually need to fix it by investing in our recycling industry here in Australia and by putting in place new processes for sorting of waste and, of course, ultimately, for recycling and reprocessing.

I'll just very quickly read out some of the key recommendations. First, I want to also thank the committee for their hard work—the committee staff and, of course, senators from all political parties who participated in this series of recommendations. There are 18 key recommendations, including:

The committee recommends that the Australian Government show leadership through the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the National Waste Policy.

The National Waste Policy was put in place in 2009 by the Labor government. Unfortunately the 16 key strategies in that policy haven't all been implemented—in fact, most of them haven't. Labor did do a lot of work around the Product Stewardship Act, but, sadly, even this chamber recently scrapped the Product Stewardship Advisory Group that was working to make sure that we saw a cradle-to-the-grave approach, or a circular economy approach, to various waste streams.

The committee also recommended:

… that the Australian Government prioritise waste reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy, and seek a commitment through the Meeting of Environment Ministers of all levels of government to the waste hierarchy.

We are very concerned that the federal environment minister and even the Prime Minister have been flagging that somehow the solution to our waste crisis is to burn waste in this country. The waste hierarchy suggests to us very strongly that it's right down the waste hierarchy. It's maybe slightly above landfill, but it's not the solution to a waste crisis—nor is it a solution to the crisis of litter that we have in this country that is polluting our oceans.

Another key recommendation is:

… that the Australian and state and territory governments agree to a phase out of petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023. The scope of this commitment would require careful consideration and should be developed through the Meeting of Environment Ministers.

This is to bring us into line with what the rest of the world are talking about doing—removing single-use plastics. It's not going to happen straightaway, but we absolutely need to commit to it and put in place a plan. Part of that—another recommendation—is to immediately set up a cooperative research centre, with federal funding and industry participation, to look at how we're going to replace single-use plastics with other more sustainable products. We can look at all sorts of different kinds of single-use plastics, like straws and balloons. There are a whole range of things we need to get rid of. I can see Senator Moore nodding her head; she's been a big advocate of banning balloons. This is happening all around the world now because we realise what damage these plastics are doing when they make their way into our waterways and ultimately our oceans. I think a plastics cooperative research centre is absolutely critical. It can create jobs. It's about research and development. It's about innovation. It's about investment in rebooting recycling in this country.

I'll just read out a couple of the other key recommendations—and refer the Senate to the other ones:

The committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory and local governments to assist recyclers to increase the diversion of material from landfill; improve the quality of materials recovered through collection programs; improve the sorting of materials at recycling facilities; and assist manufacturers to increase the amount of recycled material used in production.

Then there is recommendation 8:

8.36 The committee recommends the Australian Government set mandatory targets for all government departments in relation to the recycled content of materials bought directly or provided by private contractors.

8.37 The committee recommends that state and territory and local governments also pursue sustainable procurement policies to ensure strong domestic markets for recycled material.

This was one of the key recommendations—for more stakeholders—from 2009 that was never implemented and that must be committed to by governments. Government needs to be the market for these recycled products and to ensure that we build a demand for these products as well as look at investing in the supply side of the industry.

There are a whole range of other recommendations here that I would ask senators to have a look at. They all make perfect sense. They all go back to a plan that's nearly 10 years old that we've never implemented in this country. Had we implemented this plan nearly 10 years ago in 2009 we wouldn't be in the crisis that we're in now. Australians are good recyclers, but they've been let down by local, state and federal governments. All participants in the inquiry said they wanted the federal government to show leadership on this issue. This is an issue that cuts across all the political spectrums. Everybody likes recycling. They all take it seriously. They don't expect to be let down by the government. This is a plan, a blueprint, to reboot recycling in the country. I ask everybody to get on board.

Question agreed to.