Speech: the Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020
I rise to speak on the Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020 and associated bills, and I want to associate myself with the remarks made by my Greens colleague Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who has been a longstanding, passionate advocate for waste reduction and recycling. I have a strong commitment to moving us towards zero waste and a circular economy. I've had that commitment for a long time through my work in the New South Wales parliament and before that in my role as environmental manager in local governments.
While this bill in front of us bans waste export, which is really good, this bill is nowhere near enough to deal with the mountains of waste that we produce. The truth of the matter is that we should never have been exporting waste in the first place. I think many Australians were alarmed when they found out about this. If waste is produced here, it should be dealt with here. 'Out of sight, out of mind' is not going to cut it anymore. If the government is really serious about addressing the waste crisis, these bills are not the solution; they are just window-dressing for the problem. Banning waste exports is not going to help us crawl out of the mountains of waste that we produce and neither is recycling by itself. Being serious about waste means starting at the top of the waste hierarchy by avoiding and reducing waste, then moving on to reuse and repair, and then recycling and so on. The least preferred option, of course, is disposal. These bills do nothing to reduce waste. These bills do nothing to make product stewardship mandatory, nothing to ensure that the producers of the waste have the responsibility for it and nothing to address the problem of plastics pollution.
Before I say a little more on these issues, I want to highlight the size of the problem that we face. To start the story of waste, let's get a snapshot of what we produce, recycle and dump. Australia produced about 76 million tonnes of waste in 2018-19. That's at least five million full garbage trucks every single year. To enable you visualise that, Madam Deputy President: if those trucks were lined up they would form a queue of about 40,000 kilometres, which is well over the length of the whole coastline of Australia. That's the extent of the problem that we are facing. According to MRA Consulting, between 1996 and 2015 our population increased by 28 per cent while our waste generation increased by 170 per cent. That's a compound growth rate of about eight per cent a year.
Our waste habits also have a significant impact on the climate crisis, first through the use of energy and material to satisfy our appetite for production and consumption and then through the methane that is produced from landfill when we bury our discards. Methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. That only exacerbates the climate emergency that we are already in. While there is no doubt, when you look at the numbers in our state of the environment reports, that the rate of recycling has definitely increased over the years, the total amount of waste has also increased, and that is the crux of the problem. We can't keep on producing more and more, throwing it out and then hoping to recycle our way out of this mountain of rubbish.
Waste and recycling was brought into the public focus just a few years ago with a Four Corners expose, aptly called 'Trashed'. The program told us some things that we knew and some things that came as quite a shock to many of us, especially the revelation that possibly half of all the waste that we thought was being recycled was ending up in landfill or as stockpiled material in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. We found out that what we were diligently separating for recycling at home wasn't being recycled at all.
It is deeply concerning that, rather than focusing on the root causes of waste and how to manage it, governments have decided to go down the path of unsustainable, polluting alternatives like waste incinerators. In New South Wales alone there are proposals for five waste incinerators. If built, these garbage incinerators will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, poisoning our air with dioxins, furans, heavy metals and fine particles such as PM2.5 and PM10, putting in danger the health of communities living in their vicinity. There is a real concern that these waste burners could effectively monopolise waste disposal as well. What might end up happening is that material that could be reused or recycled is burnt in incinerators instead. To meet the appetite of these burning machines, more waste will be produced, not less. These incinerators have absolutely zero social licence. They have been thoroughly rejected by the community. When I was in the New South Wales parliament, I was part of a massive community campaign to push back on the gigantic world's largest toxic waste incinerator proposed for Eastern Creek in Western Sydney. Because of the courage of the community, it was knocked back by the department of planning, the New South Wales EPA, NSW Health and the parliamentary inquiry that I sat on. The Independent Planning Commission drove the final nail in the coffin of this waste burner. Melinda Wilson, spokesperson for Western Sydney Direct Action, was recently reported as saying:
Why and how can a project already rejected by the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) come back again, five-fold? Why did the Minister not accept the IPC's advice and reject these incinerators once and for all?
She's right. The risks to human health and the environment are serious and irreversible. These incinerators are no solution to the waste problem. Energy from burning rubbish is not renewable, clean or green. These big, dirty waste polluters have recently been banned in the ACT, and rightly so. The federal government should show leadership and at least stop any public funding going to these waste incinerators. This legislation is an opportunity to do that.
While we are talking about ways in which the federal government can show leadership, let's talk about plastics. One hundred and eighty million plastic bags find their way into the environment every year, and microplastics have been found in the majority of drinking water supplies all around the world. Conservative estimates have stated that there are currently five trillion pieces of plastic on the surface of oceans and an additional eight million tonnes of plastics entering oceans every single year. This is the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic every minute of every day of the year. Australia alone produces over 2.5 million tonnes of plastic per year. That's a huge addition to the global plastic pollution problem. In 2018-19, nine per cent of plastic was sent to be recycled, while a whopping 84 per cent was sent to landfill. A worrying amount of this waste ends up on our streets and in our waterways.
The impacts of plastics are devastating to our marine life, such as seabirds, dolphins, seals and turtles. I want to thank the wonderful people who work at facilities like the Australian Seabird Rescue in Ballina, where they rescue and rehabilitate marine animals and seabirds that have usually been injured after ingesting plastic. They also educate schoolchildren to reduce the use of plastics.
The 2015 Senate committee report into the threat of marine plastic pollution stated that there are worrying gaps in our knowledge about the effects of marine plastic pollution. This includes the impacts on population levels of native animals, the effects on human health of plastics in the food chain, as well the short- and long-term effects of microplastics. If the Prime Minister really wants to tackle the plastic pollution problem—and he should do this with gusto—then this bill must be amended to address plastics. I know that some state governments are moving to ban single-use plastics. But right here, right now, the federal government has the opportunity to show some guts. Let's not let this chance slip away from us. At the end of the day, we need to urgently reduce production and consumption, and make big strides away from being a throwaway society. Instead of starting at the bottom-of-the-waste hierarchy with landfilling, burning waste and recycling, why not start at the very top, with waste avoidance? Even better, let's look at it from the perspective of material and resource management rather than waste management. On the other side of the waste coin is the unbridled use of precious natural resources like our forests and water. There are many tools available for us to do this. For example, approaches like mandatory extended producer responsibility—which makes producers of goods responsible for their full life cycle—have been quite successful in reducing material use, extending a product's life and making it easier to reuse, repair and recycle. Basically, the attitude of the industry must be to design for the environment. If it can't be fixed, reused or recycled, don't make it. The repair economy is also something really worth investing in.
Waste is a hot topic at the moment, and we should reignite the conversation about drastically reducing and eliminating waste. While the idea of zero waste can be daunting, according to the Zero Waste International Alliance:0
Zero Waste is a goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water, or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health
That's what we all should be trying to do. There is an overwhelming appetite in the community to reduce waste, but we need the government to step in and step up—to play a role. Local councils are at the forefront of waste management but need the state and federal governments to come to the party with funding, support and policy that signals a shift to the words voiding, reducing and reusing waste This bill should not be a wasted opportunity. The time to act is now.