How will policy transform the nation’s resource recovery sector? Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley sits down exclusively with Brittany Coles to discuss the landmark legislation that will see Australia take responsibility for its waste.
Recycling and resource recovery is taking a front seat,” Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley says.
In early October, at the time of the annual federal budget release, Ley sat down with Waste Management Review while she was in her electorate of Farrer, New South Wales, to discuss the government’s agenda to remodel waste management.
Despite the ongoing emphasis on economic recovery following COVID-19, Ley converses on the economic opportunities ahead for Australia’s resource recovery sector.
In August, the Federal Government introduced the Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020 into parliament.
At the time of the announcement, Ley labelled the bill “landmark legislation” that would see Australia take responsibility for its waste by establishing a national industry framework for recycling.
“We’re changing the focus on recycling in a way that has never been done before by a Federal Government,” she says.
The Bill brings together a number of different initiatives in pursuit of resource recovery, according to Ley.
This includes the Federal Government’s new $190M Recycling Modernisation Fund, which will generate $600 million in recycling investment and drive a billion-dollar transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity.
“The Recycling Modernisation Fund is the centrepiece in what we are currently doing in line with waste export bans,” Ley says.
“Along with the Product Stewardship Act Review, waste reduction strategy and working with manufacturers to take responsibility for the life cycle of product production, we’re bringing all these waste initiatives together to one place, in one bill. That’s why it’s such an exciting time for change in the sector.”
ESTABLISHING A NATIONAL STRATEGY
“We as a Federal Government have never had waste as a pinned area of policy ever before,” Ley says.
She credits past policy and action in the industry to state and local governments and agrees a national industry framework for recycling is well overdue.
On 9 August 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, while building Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities and associated demand.
Ley says just over 18 months ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the leadership to determine “it’s our waste, it’s our responsibility”, and announced a phased export ban approach.
“The export bans essentially drove this national legislation and brought the waste export bans to reality,” Ley says.
The disruption to domestic recycling caused by Asian restrictions on imports of waste-derived materials continues.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment commissioned environmental consultants Blue Environment to produce analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data on national exports of waste.
According to the 2018-19 annual audit, scrap plastics, paper and cardboard are the most affected materials, especially lower grade mixed products.
Indicated in the most recent data of exports of Australian waste-derived products and wastes from May 2020, Australia exported roughly 312,000 tonnes of waste, with a value of $198 million.
About 89,000 tonnes were exported in May in codes that could be affected by the COAG export bans. With two months of substantial decline, we may be seeing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ley says that after consulting with industry and as a result of restrictions related to COVID-19 impacting Parliament’s ability to pass legislation by 1 July, the ban will now commence on 1 January 2021.
“The government is on track to commence the ban on time, as of 1 January next year,” she confirms.
However, with a few months left of this pandemonium packed year, Ley agrees there is no time to waste in delivering strong environmental outcomes.
“This is about tackling a national environmental issue that has been buried in landfill or shipped offshore for far too long,” she says.
“This is a once in a generation opportunity to remodel waste management, reduce pressure on our environment and create economic opportunity, as we move to a circular economy with a strong market for recycled materials.”
LEGISLATION TO INFRASTRUCTURE
The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council considers the introduction of the Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill as a significant element of the reform process that can contribute to achieving a circular economy.
“The raft of measures and initiatives currently in play are creating much needed momentum for positive systemic change,” the Council stated.
Ley says the Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to remodel waste management.
“That is why the Morrison Government is the first Federal Government to place waste firmly on the national agenda,” she says.
Ley wants to create economic opportunity with a strong market for recycled materials, so how will the Bill achieve this?
In September, Shadow Assistant Environment Minister Josh Wilson told Waste Management Review that Australia needs national leadership through effective policy and matching resources.
“You can’t say those things have been delivered in full yet and the waste crisis is well and truly with us,” he says.
Ley says in response, “It’s in our legislative changes to transform the current waste industry.
“In partnership with the states, our Recycling Modernisation Fund is $600 million in new investments, facilities, re-processing ventures to create new industries that weren’t there before in the sector.”
Ley emphasises the tandem legislative measures with the $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund and National Waste Policy Action Plan in establishing a national industry framework for recycling.
“All these policies will help create 10,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. That is a 32 per cent increase in jobs in the Australian waste and recycling sector,” she says.
Further on matching resources, Ley says in the last decade, Australia spent 30 to 40 million dollars on waste management.
“In the next 10 years, we are spending close to $400 million. That really demonstrates our approach to tackling this priority area,” she says.
“That’s proof in the way the Federal Government is stepping up and taking leadership.”
In terms of actioning key aspects of the reform process, Ley draws an example to ongoing investment in recycling capabilities and infrastructure.
“The recent partnership between Cleanaway, Pact Group and Asahi Beverages to build a plastic pelletising facility is an excellent example of industry-led innovation and investment,” she says.
Set to open at the end of next year, the proposed $45 million facility will be located in Albury/Wodonga to service markets across the east coast and create approximately 30 local jobs in regional Australia, Ley says.
Over 900 million plastic bottles will be recycled and reused as raw material for the production of food and beverage packaging.
The partnership will see Cleanaway supplying feedstock through its collections network, with the new plastic pelletising facility processing used PET bottles into pellets then made into new containers by Asahi Beverages and Pact Group.
Ley says the major environmental benefits it will deliver include reducing Australia’s reliance on virgin plastic, the amount of plastic waste sent overseas and the amount of recycled plastic Australia imports.
“We’ve seen firsthand the importance of container deposit schemes that encourage consumers to separate recycling at the point of disposal. Industry and governments recognise the importance of investing in the local recycling economy,” she says.
“When I speak to people who have worked in waste all their life, they tell me that is the key. We need clean streams of waste that can be turned into value. Container deposit schemes are playing their part, states are playing their part. I am sure recycling manufacturing will continue to take a front seat too.”
THE AGENDA AHEAD
Ley is passionate about turning packaging into packaging.
“We had industry step up and promise investment, quite separate from government funding at the National Plastics Summit. Both industry and government know that it’s the consumers that are essentially leading this, which is the secret in our recycling agenda,” she says.
“There is no doubt that soft-plastics are a problem child to recycling capabilities. Now is the time to invest in research and development,” Ley says.
It’s about discovering new purposes for materials. For example, we’re finding new ways to use the material in outdoor furniture, roads, steel and more, to essentially close the loop for recovered materials.”
She admits that investment, research and development won’t hold all the answers to transforming the national waste sector.
“I think we have to look at all this legislation and policy as not something the government just provides for the industry, but supports and partners with industry,” Ley says.
“This isn’t about somebody doing a task to remove waste streams for the good of the environment or because we don’t want them cluttering up landfill. This is about turning our waste into a resource that has value.”
Ley says consultation with industry has determined that reprocessing innovation is a proactive goal to increase recycled content in products and packaging.
“Partnerships in new capabilities and infrastructure are being done. We’re certainly assisting industry through government leadership and kickstarting sensible processing activity for manufacturers to recycle and repurpose,” she says.
Ley pinpoints demand from consumers who are embracing a welcomed transformation of the national recycling framework.
“It’s a really happy coincidence of what rate payers are demanding, what industry is supporting and what makes economic sense,” she says.
In the immediate future, Ley says the focus is on turbocharging initiatives ahead.
“I’m very interested in product labelling to give consumers clearer information. We’ve also got a huge food waste strategy and essentially, a lot of work to do to minimise food waste following stay at home restrictions. But always – our most contaminated product, plastics, will heavily be focused on too,” she says.
“There are incredible ideas and initiatives that come from consulting within industry. The passion for resource recovery is clear and I’m excited to spearhead the move to a circular economy with a strong market for recycled materials.”