It slipped by reasonably quietly amid the Covid-19 chaos, but earlier this month the Coalition government received something it has found hard to come by in its nearly seven years in power – praise on an environmental issue.
By Adam Morton
The praise was qualified, and could yet be retracted. It followed the environment minister, Sussan Ley, announcing the government would spend $190m on new recycling infrastructure, saying it would help divert 10,000 tonnes of plastic, paper and glass waste from landfill.
The funding is expected to be matched by the states, though the breakdown of that is yet to be explained, and by the waste industry, forming a $600m “recycling modernisation fund” to help build infrastructure Australia needs to sort rubbish so that it is not contaminated and can be turned into useful products.
The government also said it planned to change laws covering “product stewardship”, which are meant to ensure manufacturers and retailers take responsibility for the products they sell once they become waste.
It said companies that failed to comply would be “named and shamed” and it would become easier for consumers to recycle electronic goods. Grants were promised from a $20m fund to help businesses take greater responsibility for products across their lifespan.
Waste and recycling organisations and environment groups agree these were significant steps towards addressing what is widely agreed to be a crisis within the industry. They also agree it will fall short of what is promised unless the government ensures there is much greater demand for recycled material.
The Boomerang Alliance of 52 environment and community groups wrote to Ley and the assistant minister for waste reduction, Trevor Evans, welcoming the move to legislate, including a suggestion that new laws would introduce potential jail terms for companies that breached the government plan. The centrepiece of the plan is a staged ban on exporting waste glass, plastic tyres and paper. Advertisement
But the alliance’s director, Jeff Angel, said the measures needed to go further, including powers for the minister to make the use of recycled content in packaging compulsory, rather than relying on the goodwill of companies. The most recent official data suggests only 16% of plastic packaging is recycled, with the rest going to landfill.
He also called for honesty in labelling “so that packaging products labelled as reusable, recyclable or compostable actually are reused, recycled or composted – something obviously still not happening”.
“We look forward to legislation meeting the challenge of stopping waste and setting Australia onto the path of much higher levels of recycling,” Angel wrote. “Undoubtedly greater employment, new manufacturing industry and improved environmental performance of our economy will follow.”
Australia caught unprepared
The seed of the government’s recycling announcement was planted more than two years ago, when China introduced what, by Australian standards, was an unattainable limit on the level of contaminated material it would accept in shipments of foreign plastic waste.
It threw the global waste and recycling trade into chaos. Australian companies redirected recyclable material to south-east Asia, but in 2019 more countries began turning back containers of recyclable rubbish, declaring they would not be dumping grounds.
Australia was caught unprepared. Compared with other developed economies, it generates more waste than average and recycles less. Australia had exported about 4.5m tonnes of waste to Asia each year, mostly to Vietnam, Indonesia and China. As waste companies struggled to find new buyers, the Victorian operator SKM went into administration and warned up to 180,000 tonnes of recyclable material would go to landfill.
Scott Morrison responded last August with a promise of a ban of his own. Speaking after a meeting with state premiers, he said too much rubbish was ending up in the oceans and promised Australia would respond by stopping the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres “as soon as practicable”.
The pledge became the centrepiece of an address to the UN general assembly in New York when, facing criticism over his government’s intransigence on the climate crisis, he declared Australia was “acting to protect our oceans” and leading on practical research and development into recycling. Experts said this was not yet true, but welcomed the intent.
Responding to the government’s funding announcement, the Australian Council of Recycling, which represents about 70 companies, said it was a “massive milestone” that would help transform recycling. But its chief, Pete Shmigel, says dealing with soft plastics – the type you can crunch up into your hand and that are collected at supermarkets – remains a major challenge.
He says there are likely solutions for some recyclable material – technology could be attached to paper mills to help deal with contamination from paper clips, nappies and plastic bottles, for example – but there are few plants to deal with soft plastics and little-to-no market for them once recovered. He says this could be addressed by requiring the use of recycled material not just in packaging, but also road building and major construction projects.
“The truth is we have virtually no market for it. We need to create infrastructure to turn the soft plastics to resin and come up with places that will use it,” he says.
“If we did two major road projects in every constituency across the country we could double the percentage of soft plastics being recycled and reduce oil use. Obviously, that would be a good thing.”
Make it mandatory
Shmigel says companies can be encouraged to boost recycling content in a number of ways, citing Britain and France’s use of tax credits for those that use recycled goods. He suggests a different approach for Australia: a declaration that recycled goods would be used to build one multibillion-dollar piece of infrastructure, such as the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro development or the western Sydney airport.
“They could just say ‘this is where we are going to demonstrate how easy it is to use recycled material’,” he says. “If you did that, then other states and local governments would have an example and see it wasn’t so hard.”
The industry argues heading down this path makes sense both economically and politically. Shmigel says there are three times as many jobs in recycling as in landfill for the same amount of waste, and suggests the success of the ABC documentary series War on Waste demonstrated people want to do more. “It’s popular. If voting wasn’t compulsory more people would recycle than vote,” he says.
But he says individuals also have a responsibility – that people need to move from just thinking about recycling after they use something to thinking about whether they are buying recycled goods when they are shopping.
Angel says the goal must be a circular economy, a term still little used in Australia but common in the European Union, with all parts of the community and economy headed in the same direction. He warns against this including plans to burn more waste to create energy, a path he says creates pollution and greenhouse gas and is little better than sending it to landfill.
He says it requires the government to introduce mandatory procurement of recycled goods by its departments and agencies, and notes state and federal environment ministers have previously suggested they may make action mandatory if the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, representing more than 900m companies, did not show it could meet recycling targets.
The Morrison government is resisting, preferring – as it does on climate change policy – taxpayer-funded incentives over compulsion. It says businesses and households will not accept greater regulation, particularly during a recession.
Angel believes this does not bode well. “The problem with the current approach is you end up with pilots and case studies, you don’t end up with markets,” he says.
“There is a reason we have container deposit schemes that are mandatory. It’s because all the decades of voluntary schemes failed.”
Adam Morton is the Environment Editor of The Guardian australia.
First published at The Guardian Australia – Sunday 26 July 2020. See; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/26/australias-recycling-crisis-is-the-governments-190m-on-new-infrastructure-worth-it?CMP=share_btn_link