Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Statements by Senators
Waste Management and Recycling
[by video link] It has been nearly 10 years since I gave my first senator's statement in this chamber. The most important thing I talked about that day was one of the key reasons I came into parliament, which was to tackle what I think is one of the largest pollution issues on the planet—plastic in our oceans. Throughout the last 10 years, we've made great progress right around the country at a state level and at a federal level. I was actually the first person, according to Hansard, to speak in the Senate about plastic pollution, which is quite extraordinary when you think about what a big issue it is now. Unfortunately, we've still got a long way to go. It is almost exactly a year ago today that this chamber had a colossal debate about fixing the waste crisis, when the government brought their waste reduction bill to the Senate. The Greens proposed two significant amendments to that waste reduction bill, which the government claimed was the biggest reform to waste policy in this country in a generation.
The Greens amendments were based on two very big Senate inquiries, each of which ran for about 18 months. The first one was to ban single-use plastics, and the second one was to mandate packaging targets for the big packaging companies around the country. Under the Australian Packaging Covenant over many, many years in its various forms, voluntary targets were set and, of course, were never met. In fact, the Packaging Covenant failed miserably to increase recycling rates, compostability or recycling content—a number of key things that we need if we are to address the waste crisis.
The Greens worked with environmental groups, social groups and a whole range of other stakeholders around the country. We had nearly two million Australians lobbying their local MPs last year to support the Greens amendments in this chamber. It was a very significant campaign to actually take some solid steps to fix the waste crisis in this country. Our message was very clear. We said: 'The time for voluntary targets for big packaging companies is over. This is a significant opportunity to mandate the kinds of recycling targets that we want to see if we're actually going to fix the waste crisis in this country.'
We'd had a short, sharp Senate inquiry into a Greens bill prior to that, which our amendments were based on. We received evidence from the Packaging Covenant Organisation, from companies like the big retailers, like Woolworths, and from the Australian Food and Grocery Council that they were confident that they would meet their 2025 targets and that they didn't need mandatory targets. I thought we had the Senate's support to amend the government's legislation and send it back to the House, but, as they so often do, One Nation backflipped at the last minute. It was a tied vote, and our amendments went down.
One year later, I could say, 'I told you so.' Just in the last week we've received a report from APCO, entitled APCO Collective Impact Report, which revealed their progress towards their 2025 targets. I was hoping to talk with APCO this morning before this speech, but for technical reasons I was unable to. I plan to speak to them in the next few days. What is very clear is that APCO is struggling to meet its 2025 targets under the current voluntary arrangements. APCO is part of a collective approach to managing packaging through the covenant. These 2025 targets were set some time ago. This 2021 report has highlighted a lack of progress in some very significant areas and some very significant challenges. APCO themselves clearly state:
There are still significant gaps to achieve the 2025 Targets for recovery and recycled content.
… … …
The current trajectory indicates that without further intervention, not all of the 2025 Targets are achievable by 31 December 2025.
We're not clear what that further intervention actually is.
Some of the specific gaps they identified in their 2025 targets include: uncertainties about the compatibility of packaging items with current and future recovery systems; recyclable materials that are lost in the sorting system due to size or format type; loss of recyclable materials due to poor source separation by households and businesses; inconsistent state definitions, policies and product scope undermining investment confidence; and capital costs of new processing equipment when changing materials. Part of the government's overall approach to their waste reduction bill was to introduce a number of funding platforms to try to solve these problems, but clearly progress hasn't been made, which is very disappointing.
APCO do put this down to a rise in consumption during COVID in 2019-20, especially with takeaway containers; however, while they don't explicitly obviously call for a mandatory program in the future—because remember APCO and others lobbied very hard not to get mandatory schemes put in place—they have raised the prospect of limited mandatory targets if industry fails to achieve targets through voluntary commitments.
The Boomerang Alliance, who I've worked with over many years—and I know you have too, Acting Deputy President Faruqi—represent over 50 community organisations around the country. They issued a very strong statement. Jeff Angel wrote:
The report is a shocking indictment of the voluntary nature of the targets which are to be met by 2025 and reinforces our call for mandatory targets. This is the only rational response to the revelations that recovery of plastic packaging will miss the 70% goal by a large amount; and recycled content of plastic packaging is 3%, way below the 20% target—
which is what these companies had set themselves.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society also issued a statement. They said:
The evidence is clear, voluntary targets are not working. Without real incentives and clear penalties, it is too easy for companies to put this in the too hard basket.
APCO were a little more upbeat, as you would expect. They said:
The core message of this report is clear—if we are going to achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets, we all need to do more and the time to act is now. We have seen fantastic progress so far towards the Targets, but we must accelerate our efforts if we are to be successful by 2025.
I found out at the last Senate estimates that APCO have applied to be voluntary product stewardship scheme accredited under the new act. Once they become accredited—and I'm hoping to follow up that progress with them and with the department—the minister, which in this case is Minister Evans, can put them on a priority product list if they're not achieving their voluntary targets. Once they have been on that priority list the minister can then legally implement mandatory product stewardship schemes to make sure that they do meet their targets and, if they don't, they will face severe penalties.
There has been over 20 years of collective failure under this plastic-packaging covenant. Some of the biggest companies and corporations on the planet that make very significant profits have failed to come anywhere near their promises for recycling. This is a significant matter of public interest. Only the parliament can solve this problem. Every time I talk to people about any environmental problem I say to them, 'First and foremost it's a political problem,' because only parliaments can actually fix these systemic issues.
We have a lot of Australians out there trying to do the right thing and putting all sorts of packaging in their kerbside bins at home. We have states now rolling out container deposit schemes—and I'm very optimistic that my home state of Tasmania will have a container deposit scheme legislated by the end of this week, if state Labor stop playing political games with it and get behind the community and the environment. We're also seeing bans on single-use plastics at a state level. A lot of this leadership has come from this Senate and from the Greens in the Senate working with community over the recent decades. I'm very proud of what we've achieved so far, but we can't fall at this final hurdle. Without mandatory product stewardship schemes that hold big packaging companies to account—especially those packaging companies that are free riders, or other companies that are doing the right thing within the covenant—without strong incentives from government, without strong regulation and penalties we will never fix the waste crisis in this country. I think that would be letting down the millions of Australians who deeply care about this issue. We have got a long way to go. The Greens will be bringing legislation before this parliament to fix the crisis if the minister won't do this.
I'm pleased to speak today about one of Australia's traditional strengths and that's the forestry industry, an industry we as a country should be very, very proud of with regard to the men and women right across this country that work so hard, so honestly and at the cutting edge of innovation and technology. It's an industry we need to do more to support, I think, to ensure that it has the bright future I believe it can have. As they say: wood is good, and it's the ultimate renewable. Trees grow. You cut them down, you use them for beautiful products like the ones that adorn this chamber, another tree is planted in its place and the cycle continues. Along the way, of course, it abates carbon. It absorbs carbon. It is a big part of the answer to the issue we as a globe face, as a planet, and that is offsetting our emissions. The forestry industry will play a huge role as we move forward, and that is on top of the fact that we produce these quality products and, of course, in this country, we do it to world's best standards—something I will come back to a little bit later on.
For context, here we are in 2021 with unprecedented demand for timber products, for housing and construction, for appearance grade products, for furniture. For all manner of timber products we have got unprecedented demand, in part because of that fantastic scheme, the HomeBuilder program that was announced during the pandemic to stimulate the housing and construction sector and, boy, has it done its job. That demand is set to quadruple by the year 2050. That is something we need to cater for and plan for and that is what we are in the process of doing.
As a government we contributed $150 million to support this industry, that's on top of what industry itself has done and what state and territory government have done with regard to that need to grow and plan this great industry. Federally we've removed impediments when it comes to accessing carbon credits for new plantations through the Emissions Reduction Fund, by amending the water rule. We've provided support for industries that were hit by the bushfires. We've backed in the regional forestry hubs, which are doing a great job of focusing that industry in parts of Australia where it thrives, where the right conditions exist, where we have processing capacity and also logistic support for the industry. To keep ourselves at the cutting edge—a space where a lot more work can be done—we invest heavily in research and development and we'll continue to do that into the future.
Obviously, though, we face significant challenges in this industry. In terms of growing the plantation estate we compete against other land users. Farmers, graziers, recreational pursuits, urban development—all of these things compete for that finite resource, which is acreage to be able to plant out trees. The bushfires of 2019-20, the Black Summer bushfires, had a massive impact on the forest estate, both plantation and native, putting further pressure on our capacity to meet demand.
There are also some things that are in the power of lawmakers across this country that have contributed to the challenges. The decisions by both the Victorian and Western Australian Labor governments are what I'm talking about here. In both those states they've made a decision to end native forest harvesting, to put an end to that industry. That's a decision I've declared is a bad one. It is a bad one because it is not based on science; it is one that is based on politics. Those who have made the decision know that. The problem is, when we draw a line under such an industry demand for the products that come out of that industry will continue. Timber, like the timber we are surrounded by here in this chamber, comes out of native forests. We need to continue to supply it. Consumers still want to buy it and they will be able to.
The only difference is, as a result of the decisions of both the Victorian and Western Australian Labor governments, people will be sourcing this material from markets that don't have world's best forestry standards. We'll be importing this timber from places offshore, overseas, where, frankly, they don't care about the environment and where standards of environmental protection are not important and where deforestation occurs—something our government, along with over 100 other countries, declared should stop. They will contribute to the deforestation problem this world has. That is the net result of decisions by these governments.
For what it's worth, though, in Australia we conduct DNA testing—and have done recently—of imported timber, to determine whether it meets the claims being made by retailers and importers. It is alarming to see the amount of wood being sold as a certain type from a certain location but is not actually that type of timber from that location and, perhaps, is illegal. Retailers should expect more of this to come. It is upon us to make sure that we source only responsibly and sustainably grown timber, just like Australian producers manufacture and provide to market here.
The Western Australian government, less than two years ago, talked up how important the native forestry sector is. On 3 December 2019 forestry minister Dave Kelly said, in reference to this industry:
The native forestry sector is an important employer and economic contributor that supplies our community with sustainable, renewable building materials and other timber products.
He went on to say:
The native forestry industry injects $220 million into the Western Australian economy each year and supports more than 800 jobs …
If we fast-forward the clock two years, apparently this stuff that was said doesn't matter. How can an industry so proud, so sustainable, bank on anything the Western Australian Labor government says?
Then we move across to Victoria, where we're in the middle of negotiating renewal of the regional forestry agreement, the agreement between the Commonwealth and state that governs how we manage this industry. Without notice—without even a hint of an announcement coming down the pipeline—they announced that they too would be phasing out this industry.
I've written to both ministers, in each of those jurisdictions, and asked them to provide me with the science that they're basing their decisions on. I've given them until this Friday. They've had a couple of weeks to provide it. It shouldn't be hard. It was there to take to cabinet, to make the decision. If it doesn't come to my desk, if it's not returned to me and I don't have that as a basis to refer to, I can only assume that there was no science behind this decision. I have a fair hunch that that is actually the case.
In terms of science and evidence, I point to the work of Responsible Wood. They are a group that are absolutely concerned. They are custodians of our forests, they certify our native forests and they have highlighted some of the concerns we have with regard to decisions being made. They make the point that all of Australia's public native wood production forests in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia are independently certified as complying with the Responsible Wood forest management standard. This means that natural and cultural values are identified and protected, with independent audits conducted annually. This is a practice we've seen in other parts of the world where they continue to harvest native forests.
… a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.
So scientists, the people who assess the numbers, who look at the facts, who do the work to understand forests, are saying that we should back this industry in.
I want to applaud one of my Labor colleagues, from Victoria, Senator Raff Ciccone. In this place, last night, he talked up the need for that industry to be backed. He made the point that in Victoria they need to reverse the decision. That is something I agree with him on: reverse the decision undermining the native forest industry. He concluded his contribution to the Senate by saying: 'I look forward to continuing to support timber workers and their communities because federal Labor is on their side.'
One senator does not make an opposition. One senator does not make an entire party. I look forward to seeing what the federal opposition say about native forestry, and forestry more broadly, in the lead-up to the next election. It's a challenge for them. In Tasmania they have form: they shut it down under the last Labor-Greens government. And we know that at the next election the only pathway to the treasury benches for the Labor Party is if they do deals with the Greens, as they did after the 2010 federal election. Heaven help us if that happens again.
So I challenge the shadow minister for agriculture, Ms Julie Collins—who has responsibility, who is a Tasmanian—to commit today to supporting forestry in all its forms, plantation and native, and to call on her state counterparts in the Labor governments in Victoria and Western Australia to reverse their decision. If she does not, it means they do not stand behind this industry. Raff Ciccone is on the right side of history, and I hope his colleagues follow him—but I doubt they will.