Never waste a crisis: the waste and recycling industry in Australia

The federal government’s senate committee from last year’s inquiry into waste and recycling has released its recommendations, which includes mandatory product stewardship schemes, a ban on petroleum-based single-use plastics and the hypothecation of landfill levies.

The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, Never waste a crisis: the waste and recycling industry in Australia, was released this week, detailing 18 recommendations and a full report. 

The inquiry followed a contentious Four Corners report into the waste and recycling industry, with the federal government announcing a senate inquiry to investigate issues that emerged from the program.

It asked industry to make submissions ranging from issues related to landfill, markets for recycled waste and the role of the federal government in providing a coherent approach to solid waste. Public hearings were held in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane, with a number of companies and industry associations giving feedback, including the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council in Melbourne and MRA Consulting, SUEZ and the Waste Management Association of Australia in Sydney. Industry representatives canvassed their views on the inquiry topics to a committee of federal government senator’s, including Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson and Liberal Party Senator Jonathon Duniam.

In November, the senate granted an extension for the committee to report on the findings until June, 2018. It’s now up to the federal government to respond to the recommendations.

Notably, the committee called for the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the original 2009 National Waste Policy, which will be updated before the end of this year. It also recommended that the federal government prioritise waste and recycling above waste to energy, and seek a commitment through the meeting of environment ministers to follow the waste hierarchy.

Some recommendations were reminiscent of this year’s April state and territory meeting of environment ministers, including prioritising a circular economy.

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In the area of plastics, the committee recommended state and territory governments agree to phase out petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023, which it notes will require careful consideration through the meeting of environment ministers. The committee recommended the federal government establish a Plastics Co-Operative Research Centre to lead research into reducing plastic waste and finding end markets for it. At the same time, it called for the federal government to implement the recommendations of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia.

In recycling, the committee recommended mandatory targets by the federal government for recycled materials bought directly or provided by private contractors.

“The committee recommends that state and territory and local governments also pursue sustainable procurement policies to ensure strong domestic markets for recycled material,” the report recommendations highlighted.

On container deposit schemes and product stewardship, the federal government recommended a national container deposit scheme and that product stewardship schemes under its Product Stewardship Act 2011 be mandatory. It recommends mandatory schemes for tyres, mattresses, e-waste and photovoltaic panels.

The committee recommended that the Product Stewardship Advisory Committee be re-established and that they be tasked with recommending products for listing under the Product Stewardship Act.

On landfill levies, it recommended that the federal government support state and territory governments by fully hypothecating landfill levies towards measures that reduce the creation of consumption and waste and boost recyclables.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, welcomed the report, but called for immediate action on the growing problem of stockpiling.

“I commend the committee on its extensive work and thorough report which highlights the current recycling crisis in Australia partly resulting from the China waste importation ban. The report’s headline recommendations to ban single use plastics by 2023 and to call for a national deposit container scheme are commendable but a solution is available right now to reduce stockpiles,” she said.

As detailed in the UNSW Sydney submission (number 62) to the Inquiry, its SMaRT Centre scientifically developed technology enables waste streams like plastics and glass to be reformed into valuable resources as inputs for manufacturing of existing and new products, and at remote and regional locations where the report calls for special attention on waste stockpiles.

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