Zero waste in the sunshine state

Waste Management Review talks to Leeanne Enoch, Queensland Environment Minister, about the state’s plan to drive resource recovery through waste levy hypothecation and infrastructure.

In a submission to the 2018 Senate Inquiry into the Australian Waste and Recycling industry, one company described waste levies as a blunt economic instrument.

The idea, as expressed in the submission, is that despite principled ideals, the waste sector, like all sectors, is profit driven. Incentivising recycling therefore needs more than ethical arguments about the future of the planet.

This concept is seemingly understood by the Queensland Environment Department, which when developing its new Waste Management and Resource Recovery Strategy, positioned the waste levy reintroduction as its cornerstone.

Additionally, the strategy pledges a hypothecation rate of 70 per cent, a significant figure when compared to other state’s lack of reinvestment commitments.

Known as the sunshine state, Queensland is regarded for its beaches and natural beauty. As such, ineffective environmental management is not simply a waste of material resources, but also natural ones.

According to the states Resource Recovery Industries 10-year Roadmap and Action Plan, released May 2019 through the State Development portfolio, policy drivers to support resource recovery and discourage landfill in Queensland have been historically weak.

For instance, the Transforming Queensland’s Recycling and Waste Industry Directions paper notes that the state’s 2014-2024 Waste Avoidance and Resource Productivity Strategy failed to deliver policy or regulatory certainty.

According to the paper, this was largely due to the strategy being unfunded, while relying on sectoral plans to encourage behavioural change that were not underpinned by market mechanisms.

As a state, Queensland has consistently reported one of the worst resource recovery rates in the country – 45 per cent in 2018. Additionally, between 2007 and 2016, the state’s resource recovery rate remained virtually unchanged, highlighting a lack of action and investment in the sector.

The Resource Recovery Roadmap and Action Plan outlines four core strategies to address this via long-term market building. These are accelerating the project pipeline, developing interconnected supply chains, creating responsive policy and legislative frameworks and investing in new technologies.

Within these strategies, government will work to provide facilitation services, ensure the availability of suitable industrial land and investigate opportunities for the inclusion of recycled products in government procurement policies.

Shortly after the roadmap’s release, the Environment Department released its own complementary plan, the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Strategy.

Waste Management Review spoke to Leeanne Enoch, Queensland Environment Minister, about state government’s efforts to grow environmental health through resource recovery and industry development in October.

According to Minister Enoch, the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Strategy is designed to transition Queensland towards a circular economy through long-term targets, including a 25 per cent reduction in all household waste, a 90 per cent diversion from landfill rate and a 75 per cent recycling rate across all waste types by 2050.

The overall goal, Minister Enoch says, is to accelerate Queensland towards a zero-waste future.

LEVY LOOPHOLE

Between 2017 and 2018 Queensland produced nearly 11 million tonnes of waste, with waste generation over the last decade outstripping population growth by 19 per cent.

The cause, according to the waste management strategy, is partly attributed to growing volumes of interstate waste being transported to Queensland for disposal. Minister Enoch adds that this problem stems from low landfill gate prices and the absence of a waste levy.

In recent years, thousands of tonnes of waste generated in New South Wales was trucked into south-east Queensland for landfilling and levy avoidance.

The cross-border business resulted in lost taxpayer revenue, while also interfering with NSW and Queensland recycling data.

Minister Enoch says addressing this problem is the driving force behind the state’s new waste strategy.

The levy applies to 39 out of 77 local government areas, and covers an estimated 90 per cent of Queensland’s population.

“It sends a direct price signal that sending waste to landfill is the least preferred option and results in lost economic opportunities,” Minister Enoch says.

According to Minister Enoch, the levy will also provide a funding source for programs to assist local government, businesses and industry to fund critical infrastructure, establish better resource recovery practices, improve overall waste management performance and sustain Queensland’s natural environment.

“We have committed to 70 per cent of revenue raised from the levy going back to councils, the waste industry, environmental programs and administration of the levy,” she says.

While levies have a demonstrated landfill aversion effect, with the NSW levy sitting at $141 per tonne compared to Queensland’s $75, concerns have been raised over efficacy. The issue relates to the price disparity of the two when accounting for gate fees and operating costs.

Additionally, the Liberal Party introduced a motion in parliament in late August to repeal the waste levy, while the Australian Industry Group argued the legislation was rushed to raise revenue.

The group added that businesses have few alternatives to landfilling their waste.

“There are always challenges associated with large-scale programs of regulatory reform,” Minister Enoch says.

“The waste levy applies only to waste disposed at landfill, and is an avoidable charge if businesses reduce waste, increase recycling and divert materials to alternative uses.”

To alleviate concerns, the state government has provided funding to support communities, councils and businesses manage the transition.

“We provided a total of $143 million to councils to ensure the cost of the levy was not passed onto ratepayers,” Minister Enoch says.

She adds the levy will additionally allow markets to grow and stimulate demand for innovative products that contain recycled material.

“When you consider the success of the Queensland container refund scheme, Containers for Change, it is clear that there are amazing opportunities out there.”

In the scheme’s first 10 months, nearly 800 million containers were returned, which, according to Minister Enoch, means $80 million was returned to Queensland charities and community groups.

When asked about plans to implement specific procurement policies, Minister Enoch notes that the government has plans to review existing procurement initiatives.

The official strategy lists stimulating demand through preferencing procurement contracts for products that use recycled material as a key government action of strategic priority three: building economic opportunity.

“The Queensland Government will work with local government and the waste management sector to develop a consistent procurement contract framework for waste management and resource recovery services,” the document reads.

“Local governments should support the Queensland Government through adopting national or state standards for recycled content in procurement, stimulating demand for products containing recycled materials.”

HOLISTIC APPROACH

According to Minister Enoch, the strategy falls under her government’s wider commitment to protecting Australia’s unique environment and driving centralised waste management practices.

“There is considerable interest in waste at a national level, with the Council of Australian Governments tasking environment ministers with advising on a proposed timetable and response strategy to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres,” she says.

“The leaders agreed that the strategy must seek to reduce waste, especially plastics, 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.”

To assist this change and provide a sustained feedstock for the recycling and resource recovery sector, the Queensland Government is planning to pursue landfill disposal bans on selected waste streams.

According to the strategy, bans will be underpinned by economic modelling and market development plans for diverted material.

“The Queensland Government recognises the need to give sufficient time for industry to transition and for infrastructure to be built, so a clear implementation timeframe will be provided prior to bans commencing,” the document reads.

“The applicability of bans on a regional basis will also be considered.”

Minister Enoch says a series of smaller waste action plans are in development to address the diversity of waste streams and their individual waste management challenges.

“The next one of these is expected to be the Plastic Pollution Reduction Plan, followed by the Litter and Illegal Dumping Strategy,” she says.

“Other plans, such as action plans for priority wastes such as organics, built environment waste and textiles will follow.”

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