National Waste Policy consensus hits stalemate

After the Federal Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy issued a statement indicating a consensus was reached on a national action plan for the National Waste Policy, Environment Minister Melissa Price issued a statement claiming state and territory ministers “walked away from solid targets on Australia’s recycling and waste”.

It comes after the end of year Meeting of Environment Ministers as part of the Council of Australian Governments, which expected to reach agreements on updates to the National Waste Policy. The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council had called for a National Waste and Resource Recovery Commissioner responsible for ensuring the policy is implemented, facilitating collaboration, regulatory reform and encouraging investment from all levels of government.

According to the ministers official statement, Australia’s state and territory environment ministers agreed by their next meeting to work towards developing a national action plan for the National Waste Policy with appropriate funding, robust targets and milestones.

The ministers agreed to strengthen the national action plan to address plastic pollution, a national approach to waste policy and regulation, including cross border transportation of waste, consideration of proximity principles and a coordinated approach to waste levies. It also committed to increasing demand for recycled materials through procurement.

Ministers agreed to review the targets and milestones annually to ensure priority actions stay focused.

Environment ministers also agreed to consult on new draft guidance on PFAS for an updated PFAS National Environmental Management Plan.

However according to a media release from Environment Minister Melissa Price, state and territory governments “walked away from solid targets on Australia’s recycling and waste”.

“The Federal Government expected to formalise the targets, after months of negotiations and consultation and endorsement at state and federal official level,” she said.

“Instead the state and territory governments refused to endorse aspects of our national waste policy.

“This is an incredibly disappointing outcome for the nation that simply deprives Australia of a policy that would ensure we have a responsible and environmentally sensible approach to managing waste in the future.”

The minister went on to say that the Federal Government will continue to press forward with an action plan on reducing waste and increasing recycling.

Australian Council of Recycling CEO Pete Shmigel spoke to ABC News about the outcome.

“What we have on the table right now is one statement from the meeting of ministers saying we’ve agreed and we have another statement from the federal minister saying that the states have not agreed, so which one is it?,” Mr Schmigel told ABC News.

He said there was a real risk that kerbside recycling services could come to a halt with commodity prices falling dramatically as a result of exports of materials into China, noting those restrictions had now spread to other markets such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

“If ministers don’t recognise that these are new threats to the system, they are being naive,” he continued.

ACT Government Member of the Legislative Assembly Chris Steel told ABC News that the Federal Government had failed to provide a robust action plan.

“It is disappointing that the Commonwealth failed to provide a robust action plan that would allow us to move together, all states and territories and the Commonwealth towards defined targets under a National Waste Policy. This has been in development for well over a year. The Commonwealth hasn’t done that work prior to the meeting and that’s why we weren’t able to agree on national waste targets,” he said.

NSW Government Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton told ABC News efforts were made to achieve further action.

“As a group…we did push for more. Waste is a critical issue, we need action. We need more than a policy and so what we secured an agreement for was a national action plan with targets to be worked up, to address some of the priorities which can’t be swept under the carpet any more,” she said.

In response to the December 7 meeting, the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) welcomed the statement but said it was concerned at what seems like a lack of real action. WMAA CEO Gayle Sloan praised the consensus on harmonised waste levies and a national proximity principle.

“However, the lack of short-term actions that should have been the minimum commitment out of Friday’s meeting will prove problematic,” she said.

“We are coming up to a year since China rolled out its National Sword policy and still, there are no priority actions that will create demand for the resources we manage in order to alleviate the significant pressure our essential industry is under and in the medium-term, create jobs and boost the Australian economy.”

“We may have a shared vision to transition to a circular economy and while we congratulate ministers on adopting the 2018 National Waste Policy which includes circular economy principles, and we acknowledge that ministers have voiced the need for the urgent development of an action plan, this simply does not go far enough, quickly enough.

Ms Sloan said that as a start, there is not one action in the statement that would drive investment in the industry and the concern is that ministers are simply kicking the can down the road considering there are two significant elections coming up in 2019. She said there needs to be some real action in the form of a roadmap, targets and policies backed by funding as opposed to statements about committing to commit.

“We need to ensure that the 2018 policy does not end up amounting to nothing very much like the 2009 iteration,” she said.