Waste export bans alone won’t drive resource recovery

Waste export bans won’t deliver the National Waste Policy Action Plan resource recovery targets unless recycled materials are used in packaging, products and infrastructure, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.

Led by the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, state and territory environment ministers agreed at their recent meeting on a timeline for COAG’s waste export bans and signed off on the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

The proposed waste export bans in large are being introduced to reduce harm to human health and the environment overseas. But the likelihood of them delivering the 80 per cent resource recovery target by 2030, or the 70 per cent plastics recovery rate by 2025 on their own is low.

To achieve these resource recovery targets, the demand to use recovered materials locally needs to be fast tracked.

The environment ministers commitment on the 8th November to identify significant procurement opportunities such as major road projects that could use recycled material is a good start. As is prioritising work to develop specifications and standards for the use of recycled materials in building, construction and infrastructure development.

However, this will only increase demand for glass and crumbed tyres. It won’t increase the demand for recovered plastic, paper and cardboard locally.

What is needed to create markets for plastics, paper and cardboard is legally requiring packaging companies, manufacturers and retailers to increase the proportion of recovered materials in packaging put onto the Australian market, including imports, as most of these materials come from overseas.

Some may say that manufacturers have already committed to this. But evidence to date suggests this is limited to one or two global brands that cover less than 40 per cent of the packaging market.

Likewise, none of the major supermarkets have committed to increase the proportion of recycled content in the packaged products they sell. Nor is there any commitment to indicate the level of recycled content on packaging to give consumers the choice to buy recycled.

On the phased timings proposed to implement the export ban:

The NWRIC considers the timeline for mixed plastics is insufficient for industry to purchase and install equipment, especially as there are limited markets.

The timeframe should be extended to match the 2025 APCO recycle content target. If the government wants this to progress more quickly, manufacturers should be required to meet specific plastic recycled content targets sooner.

The NWRIC also does not support the banning of single resin/polymer plastics that have not been processed (e.g. cleaned and baled PET), nor the banning of baled paper and cardboard. Both these recyclates have legitimate overseas markets, clearly demonstrating they are value added products that will not have a negative impact on human health or the environment.

To give government confidence that there will be no harm to human health and the environment overseas, exporters should be able to verify their downstream pathways and material recovery rates with the aid of third-party audits.

Submissions in response to the government’s discussion paper on implementing the banning exports of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres discussion paper are due by 3 December 2019.

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MEM sets waste ban timeline, but several “missteps”

Waste glass, mixed plastics and whole baled tyres will be banned over the next two years following the final Meeting of Environment Ministers meeting for the year.

The National Meeting of Environment Ministers in Adelaide on Friday reached an agreement to ban the export of particular categories of waste from 1 July 2020 with a phased approach.

Ministers have agreed waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres that have not been processed into a value-add material should be subject to the export ban.

The phase out plans to be completed by the following dates:

  • All waste glass by July 2020
  • Mixed waste plastics by July 2021
  • All whole tyres including baled tyres by December 2021
  • Remaining waste products, including mixed paper and cardboard, by no later than 30 June 2022.

In response to the move, the Victorian Government urged the Federal Government to provide capital investment in waste and recycling infrastructure to ensure the fast approaching ban does not result in stockpiling.

The Queensland Government is similarly calling on the Federal Government to increase their investment in the recycling and resource recovery industry.

Commenting on the ban of exporting waste tyres, Tyre Stewardship Australia (TSA), urged all governments to advocate for increasing tyre-derived products in Australia.

The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) said MEM’s decisions on the COAG ban on waste exports and the National Waste Policy Action Plan are several good steps forward, but there were some missteps too.

Among the other decisions from the MEM meeting are the adoption of broader waste minimisation targets in the National Waste Action Plan such as 80 per cent resource recovery and halving organic waste by 2030.

Likewise, the meeting committed to a greater commitment to recycled roads as an important solution, with the Commonwealth to play a leading role.

Additionally, it was recognised that brands and packaging supply chain members need to make clear their ‘buy recycled’ commitments. The meeting committed to harmonising container deposit schemes and recognising the need for infrastructure investment for domestic sustainability, decisions all welcomed by ACOR.

ACOR noted it was concerned with a failure to enact an immediate ban on baled tyre exports as there are readily available markets for the material and serious environmental impacts from its continued export for two more years.

It is also concerned with further indecision on funding for time-critical infrastructure especially for mixed paper decontamination and plastics reprocessing capacity, as well as a continued lack of substantive progress on the product stewardship agenda, including batteries.

ACOR CEO Pete Shmigel said it’s hard to understand why banning baled tyres has not been prioritised as ample evidence was produced on the environmental impact of exports, the existing domestic capacity for reprocessing, and the legal avenues available.

“If one or two jurisdictions blocked this, they need to state their reasons so they can be addressed, and so the ban date can be revisited and expedited at COAG itself. Otherwise, other jurisdictions should just start now via regulations as there is minimal risk in doing so,” Mr Shmigel said.

“On the other hand, it’s good to see more commitment to recycled roads as a practical, no/low cost solution for domestic sustainability. There is evidence that specifying recycled content in even 12 major projects around the country can double our plastics recycling rate, and we should move forward faster on that front, including at COAG where we look forward to the Prime Minister’s continued leadership on recycling,”
he said.

Ministers also agreed to write to the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) to set out their expectations with respect to new packaging targets.

APCO CEO Brooke Donnelly, tasked with supporting the delivery of the National 2025 Packaging Targets, applauded the ministers for agreeing on the National Waste Policy: Action Plan 2019.

“APCO was involved closely during the consultation and evolution of this approach and is proud to be identified as a key delivery partner for a range of actions moving forward. In particular, we look forward to working with Planet Ark to develop and launch the Circular Economy Hub online platform and marketplace,” Ms Donnelly said.

“We acknowledge the support of ministers as we strive to be more ambitious, and in particular work with industry and key stakeholders to develop a revised target for the use of recycled content in all packaging. In practical terms, today’s announcement reinforces the collective efforts of the entire supply chain, including APCO’s Members, to deliver a truly sustainable packaging system for Australia, as we continue the transition to a circular economy.”

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Fuelling the market

Waste Management Review speaks with key industry stakeholders about the potential tyre-derived fuel flow-on effects of the Council of Australian Governments’ proposed export ban.

In early August, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) released a communique detailing its decision to ban the export of waste materials including plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

Specifics of the ban have not yet been released, with government stating that it would develop a ban timeline and action plan in due course. Despite this, industry responses have been swift and overwhelmingly positive, with particular focus given to the potential waste-to-energy flow-on effects of a ban on tyre exports.

Gayle Sloan, Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) CEO, says Australia has a robust and sustainable non-baling tyre recycling industry, which processes roughly 23 million used tyre units per annum.

“A ban on the export of whole-baled tyres will further drive the industry, which will create Australian jobs while ensuring human and environmental health are protected,” she says.

Pete Smigel, Australian Council of Recycling CEO, says consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable end-of-life disposal and recycling of products that offer sustainable environmental and human health outcomes.

“Australia has a great opportunity to develop a strong, sustainable and profitable tyre recycling industry that delivers significant environmental benefits and as well as job creation across the new manufacturing industry,” Pete says.

“It’s imperative this is supported by responsible government policy, and the COAG communique is a great step towards that.”

Tyrecycle, one of Australia’s largest collectors and recyclers of end-of-life tyres, operates numerous collection and processing facilities across the country, including Australia’s largest crumbing plant based at Somerton in Melbourne. It also has full chain-of-custody reporting.

Jim Fairweather, Tyrecycle CEO, says COAG’s signalled intention to ban the export of waste tyres is a win for the environment and the circular economy.

“The proposed ban presents the best opportunity to turn all end-of-life waste tyres in Australia into value-added commodities such as rubber crumb, rubber granule, tyre-derived fuel (TDF) and high-tensile steel, creating more sustainable jobs in Australia,” he says.

“A ban on the export of waste tyres should include both whole-baled tyres, which are sent unprocessed to countries such as India and Malaysia, as well as casings from old truck tyres sent into overseas markets for use as seconds or in retreading.”

Jim says these elements go hand-in-hand, given the ban on whole-baled tyres will require the establishment and growth of new markets for re-purposed tyre-derived products.   

Australia currently exports approximately 70,000 tonnes of whole-baled tyres per annum, which are then used in open burning as a fuel to heat drying kilns and in low-grade pyrolysis plants.

Rob Kelman, Australian Tyre Recyclers Association (ATRA) Executive Officer, says operations like this are controversial, do not comply with environmental, health and worker regulations and are associated with high levels of pollution.

ATRA members agreed to ban the practice of exporting whole-baled tyres in 2014, due to poor environmental outcomes and a direct association with water borne diseases.

“The World Health Organization specifically identifies international movement of whole tyres as a key factor in the increase in Dengue incidence,” Rob says.

Australia’s tyre recycling sector is largely dominated by traditional recycling methods, which use a series of shredders, screens and granulators to separate waste tyres into commodities.

Jim says these commodities, which are valued commensurate with their level of refinement, are used as raw material in the manufacture of new products such as soft fall surfaces and asphalt, as well as civil work applications such as roads and infrastructure.

“Waste tyres are also used in TDF – a globally traded commodity, which fuels sophisticated, high-energy manufacturing environments and power generation plants overseas,” Jim explains.

“The technology is proven, and TDF has excellent environmental credentials that include a reduction in landfill, improved emissions and reduced use of fossil fuels.”

Jim adds that for every tonne of TDF used, one tonne of CO2 is displaced.

“It burns cleaner than coal and has twice the energy value of brown coal,” he explains.

“The global TDF market, which includes South Korea and Japan, is hungry for more and could easily consume all of Australia’s waste tyres as TDF, but there should also be a gradual push to increase the domestic uptake of TDF, most likely in cement kilns.”

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ACOR report examines recycled roads

Australia can significantly boost domestic recycling by replacing virgin resources with recycled materials in road construction, according to a new report from the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR).

Undertaken by MRA Consulting for ACOR, the report shows that by using recovered soft plastics, secondary glass cullets and passenger tyre crumb in asphalt and/or road base, Australia could double the amount of soft plastic domestically recycled, increase tyre recycling by 50 per cent and help eliminate unused glass cullet stockpiles.

According to ACOR CEO Pete Shmigel, roads are Australia’s largest single asset, and by building them with recycled materials, Australia can deliver the goal of domestically sustainable recycling.

“Our message to governments who build roads is; use recycled content to keep valuable stuff out of tips, deliver value for money to taxpayers and generate more jobs,” Mr Shmigel said.

Mr Shmigel said the report examined 12 roads including Sydney’s Westconnex, the Bruce Highway Upgrade in Queensland and the CityLink Tunnel in Melbourne.

“In reality, some 10,000 kilometers of new roads are being constructed; so regular use of recycled material in roads according to a new standard would be a road-led recycling revolution for regional jobs and environmental benefits like greenhouse gas reduction,” Mr Shmigel said.

“It’s important to recognise that recycled roads – compared to virgin roads – are cost competitive and comparable if not better on quality and longevity.”

Mr Shmigel said 11 of the 12 projects modelled in the report are partly funded by the Federal Government, which can require recycled content as part of funding agreements.

“That’s a great opportunity for our ‘Recycling PM’ to further deliver on his vision,” Mr Shmigel said.

“The choice is before us. Drive recycled roads into a better economic and environmental future, or drive old roads straight to the tip.”

Findings:

Glass: 

Current recycling: 627,000 tonnes or 57 per cent

Additional tonnes from 12 recycled roads: 1.34 million tonnes

Soft Plastics:

Current recycling: 89,900 tonnes or 4.5 per cent

Additional tonnes from 12 recycled roads: 104,500 tonnes

Passanger tyres:

Current recycling: 328,000 tonnes or two per cent

Additional tonnes from 12 recycled roads: 174,000 tonnes

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Environment Minister discusses export ban with industry

The Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR) has hosted a waste and resource recovery roundtable in Sydney, with Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

According to a WMRR statement, executives from Australia’s leading waste, recycling, and resource recovery firms shared their insight with Ms Ley on current barriers to growth and success, including the lack of a nationally consistent and harmonised policy and regulatory framework.

“The minister was keen to hear about the current challenges and opportunities, and importantly, the key elements that would give the export ban, announced at the COAG meeting in August, the greatest chance at success,” the statement reads.

The roundtable was attended by executives from SUEZ, Cleanaway, Veolia, JJ Richards, ResourceCo, Tyrecycle, Visy Industries, Re.Group, Bingo Industries, Alex Fraser, and O-I.

WMRR CEO Gayle Sloan said industry certainty is lacking in Australia, due to different policies, strategies, regulations and specifications across jurisdictions, and the lack of markets.

“The goal posts are constantly changing and often, our industry is a political football which exacerbates the challenges because it causes greater instability and uncertainty,” Ms Sloan said.

“The minister listened intently and said she had a clear idea of the current landscape and need for greater harmonisation, which we appreciated.”

Ms Sloan said Ms Ley advised that the forthcoming export ban on waste paper, plastic, glass and tyres would be on the agenda at the 8 November Meeting of Environment Ministers.

According to the WMRR statement, industry leaders said they would applaud the ban if it was coupled with the expansion of reprocessing and recycling, and the development of domestic remanufacturing.

“Sure, we can stop shipping these materials, and industry does not want to export – we absolutely want to reprocess and recycle right here in Australia – but if there’s no buyback or take up of the recycled products, where does that leave us?” Ms Sloan said.

“The ban must be supported first and foremost by sustainable and mandated procurement at all levels of government, with the Commonwealth leading the way.”

In a separate statement, Ms Ley said the Federal Government would work with Australia’s leading recyclers to achieve the earliest possible export ban time frame.

“The Prime Minister has agreed with all state and territory governments that a ban will be put in place, and we want to establish a clear timetable and clear strategic priorities by working with both industry and the state environment ministers,” Ms Ley said.

“A ban on plastic exports should not lead to higher levels of stockpiling in Australia, and I will be challenging all parties, the states, the industry participants and the community to embark on genuine change in tackling waste.”

Of her meeting with WMRR, Ms Ley said it was clear that policy consistency was needed across the states.

“We need to give industry the confidence to invest in recycling and remanufacturing, and an assurance that markets are being created for their products,” Ms Ley said.

Ms Ley also meet with industry leaders at the Australian Council of Recycling in Melbourne, including senior executives from Visy, Veolia, Orora, 0-I, PACT, Sims Metal Management, Reconomy-Downer, Close the Loop and Tyrecycle.

“The clear message from this and my previous meetings is that the re-cycling industry is in no doubt about the opportunities for re-manufactured products or the ability to generate future investment for expansion,” Ms Ley said.

“Concerns remain, however, about excessive or inconsistent planning regulations that could hamper that growth and the disparate range of collection strategies across local government.”

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Waste export bans are one part of the solution

The Prime Minister’s August announcement to ban the export several waste types is a welcomed development. It has the potential to reboot local reprocessing and markets for recovered materials, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council. 

First, just the facts. As part of the Council of Australian Governments communique on 9 August 2019, the Prime Minister, along with the states and territories announced:

“Leaders agreed Australia should 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.”

Further, the communique also said:

— “Leaders agreed the strategy must seek to reduce waste, especially plastics,”

— The government will work to; “decrease the amount of waste going to landfill and maximise the capability of our waste management and recycling sector to collect, recycle, reuse, convert and recover waste,”

— “The strategy should draw on the best science, research and commercial experience, including that of agencies like the CSIRO and the work of Cooperative Research Centres.”

These developments are a decisive push in the right direction. However, there are two key elements that need to be addressed to achieve its intention of stopping waste being dumped in developing countries, and stimulating Australia’s resource recovery industry.

These two elements are: building markets at home and clearly specifying how waste paper, plastic, tyres or glass must be processed to become a resource suitable for manufacturing.

Building markets at home

In regard to building markets, two key priority materials stand out. The first is plastics. In order to use the plastics we currently export at home, we will need to increase domestic reuse of plastics by more than 180,000 tonnes per year. To use those plastics here, every Australian would need to purchase products that contain an additional seven kilograms of recycled plastic per year. This still only represents seven per cent of the total plastic waste produced by Australians annually.

Using plastics in civil infrastructure will help. Examples include street furniture, decking by local councils and railway sleepers such as the recent project by Sustainability Victoria, Integrated Recycling and Metro Trains. Integrated Recycling say more than one million railway sleepers in Australia need to be replaced, so just creating railways sleepers from mixed plastics could create a market for up to one quarter the plastics we previously sent overseas.

However, clearly higher end markets for plastics are also desirable, especially putting PET and HDPE back into packaging. These higher end markets will create the necessary pull to stimulate development of Australia’s reprocessing capacity and the collection systems to ensure quality material.

The second market is tyres. According to the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, Australians generate in excess of 400,000 tonnes of end of life tyres per year. Plenty of scope remains for creating local markets for tyre derived products. Key products produced from tyres include rubber crumb, or explosives and adhesives. Likewise, waste tyres can become high quality engineered fuels for local or export markets.

Positive procurement by local and state governments as well as businesses including the waste and recycling industry is also urgently needed. As consumers of products and materials we must match our rhetoric with action by preferentially purchasing products with recycled content.

Clear specifications and definitions necessary

Clearly, the intention of these bans is to stop the export of unprocessed waste to countries that do not have the ability to process it responsibly. So to untangle this problem, the first step is to have a clear definition of waste.

State and Territory EPAs have done preliminary work in this area as part of their domestic landfill bans, which identify certain goods and materials that should be processed and not buried. Examples include whole baled tyres, whole cars and white goods, all of which are banned from landfill in South Australia.

The next step is to define and agree nationally what minimum material specifications must be met before each waste material type becomes a resource suitable for manufacture locally or overseas.

To some this may seem simple, but in reality it is quite difficult as currently each state and territory have a different approach to this problem. For example in NSW, ‘Resource Recovery Exemptions and Orders’ are used. In Queensland, there is an ‘end of waste (EOW) framework’ of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Act 2011.

This divergence in approaches will need to be resolved urgently, as national agreement on ‘waste’ and ‘resource’ definitions will be key for the COAG’s national ban on the export of waste paper, glass, plastics and tyres is to be successful.

In closing, this approach should also be harmonised with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, which has recently expanded its scope to include various plastics. It should be noted that the Australian Government has yet to ratify these latest changes to the Basel Convention.

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MRA Consulting welcomes COAG export ban

MRA Consulting Group has welcomed the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) decision to address the many difficulties facing the recycling and waste management sector.

At its meeting of 9 August, COAG announced it would 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.

MRA Managing Director Mike Ritchie said since China’s National Sword restrictions, the recycling industry has been calling for government intervention to support domestic recycling activities.

“According to the 2018 National Waste Report, Australians generate 54.5 million tonnes of waste per year and we successfully recycle over 31.7 million tonnes of that or 58 percent,” Mr Ritchie said.

“Of that, 4.3 million tonnes is exported, primarily fibre and plastic. This 4.3 million tonnes is now subject to greater import restrictions by the Asian manufacturing nations, as they grow their own domestic recycling industries.”

Mr Ritchie said Australian needs to rebuild its own on-shore reprocessing capacity to avoid fibre and plastic going to landfill.

“That means plastic reprocessing facilities to turn used bottles into plastic pellets, and reusing fibre in recycled paper here in Australia. We know how to do it but the economics have always favoured export,” M r Ritchie said.

“To close the loop in Australia we will need governments and businesses to preferentially purchase materials with recycled content.”

Mr Richie said government needs to introduce recycled content rules for domestic manufacturers, and have purchasing policies in place that require recycled content.

“The most obvious are converting glass bottles into sand for use in road base, and asphalt and reprocessing plastic bottles into asphalt, furniture and fuel. Governments also need to mandate the use of recycled paper” Mr Ritchie said.

“Recycling doesn’t stop at putting the bin out on the kerb, it stops when a product using recycled material is sold back into the economy. If we want to truly close the loop then we need to purchase and reuse products with recycled content.”

In 2018, The Australian Council of Recycling and MRA estimated that a one-off payment of $150 million could de-risk and on-shore Australia’s recycling sector through three actions.

Actions include $90 million to retrofit materials recovery facilities to improve sorting, a positive procurement policy to ensure products with recycled content are purchased in Australia and community education to reduce contamination in recycling systems.

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VIC allocates $11M to recycling relief

The Victorian Government will tackle ongoing waste management issues with $11.3 million in immediate financial relief to councils and infrastructure investment.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said SKM Recycling were significantly undercutting the prices of other recycling providers, and since they stopped accepting waste, many councils are paying double what they were for recycling services.

“To alleviate this financial pressure, the state government will deliver a $6.6 million package to the 33 affected councils over the next four months, providing a rebate that will cover the additional costs they are incurring to deal with their recyclable waste,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“The state government also stands ready to work with the receiver of SKM Corporate, and any prospective buyer to remove the stockpiles at SKM-managed sites and offsite storage of material.”

Ms D’Ambrosio said it had become clear that the quality of Australia’s recyclable material is compromised due to its high rate of contamination.

“To that end, the state government will also work with councils and industry stakeholders on a major overhaul of kerbside collection to improve the quality of recyclables being collected by councils,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

Council’s hoping to receive assistance will have to provide evidence that alternatives to landfill are being sought, agree to participate in collaborative procurement and provide information on current contractural rates and conditions.

The government has also announced new grants worth $4.7 million, to support projects that will improve the quality of recycled materials through better sorting and processing.

“At the most recent Council of Australian Governments meeting, the Prime Minister acknowledged that recyclable waste is a national issue, as well as an opportunity to rebuild a domestic recycling sector that can provide products to local markets,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

“To achieve this, targets will also be considered to drive investment in end uses, such as glass for road base and railway sleepers made from plastics.”

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Industry welcomes COAG recycling pledge

The Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA) has welcomed the Federal Government’s pledge to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

The decision was made at the 9 August Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, with the intention of developing Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities.

VWMA Executive Officer Mark Smith said the decision would help create market certainty among the private sector, which is the biggest investor in Victoria’s waste management system.

“For too long there’s been an air of uncertainty around Victoria’s recycling challenge, fuelled by finger pointing and short-sighted solutions, so it’s promising to see COAG agree on the urgent need for a new approach,” Mr Smith said.

“In order to successfully manage our waste needs, now and into the future, we need appropriate investment in the people, system, processes, education and engagement to drive sustainable change.”

According to Mr Smith, as the primary employer, purchasers and manager of waste and recycling assets across Victoria and Australia, business has an integral role to play in developing the sector.

Mr Smith said VWMA has long called for all levels of government to work together with the private sector and other key stakeholders on a sustainable solution to the state’s ongoing recycling challenge.

“The private sector supports more than 23,000 Victorian jobs and invests over $800 million into waste and recycling services and infrastructure annually,” Mr Smith said.

“COAG’s agreement to build the sector’s capacity to collect, recycle, reuse, convert and recover waste will be very welcome and serve as a catalyst for investment and innovation.”

Mr Smith said while it’s still early days, the COAG’s announcement is a step in the right direction.

“VWMA looks forward to continuing to work with local and state government, as well as councils and other expert bodies, to arrive at a solution that benefits all Australians,” Mr Smith said.

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