There is growing recognition that waste has value. Discarded material from households, commercial premises and industrial sites is not merely considered rubbish but a useful resource that can be turned into new components, products and energy.
In Australia, waste is collected and processed by the waste management and resource recovery sector; an industry which contributes over $15 billion a year to the Australian economy, and employs 50,000 people.
In 2016-2017, Australia produced an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste, which equates to roughly 2.7 tonnes of waste per person. Of this 67 million tonnes, 58 per cent was recovered (either through recycling or energy recovery) and approximately 40 per cent was sent to landfill.
While rates of recycling and resource recovery in Australia are increasing, and the amount of waste generated per person is decreasing, overall waste in Australia is increasing. This is largely the result of population and economic growth.
Improving Australia’s rates of resource recovery and recycling is fundamental to improving economic, social, health, and environmental outcomes. This is particularly evident when considering that for every 10,000 tonnes of waste that is recycled, nine jobs are created.
Changes to Australia’s waste management and recycling landscape have combined to create new opportunities for industries to innovate with waste. A national ban on waste exports, the global shift to a circular economy and the redefining of waste as a resource has highlighted the latent potential of our industries to do more with waste.
On 17 October 2019, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, asked the Committee to inquire into and report on innovative solutions in Australia’s waste management and recycling industries.
Specifically, the Committee was asked to focus on opportunities presented by waste materials, including energy production, innovative recycling approaches and export opportunities, and to consider current impediments to innovation. A copy of the Terms of Reference can be found on page xiii.
The Committee issued a media release on 25 October 2019, announcing the inquiry and calling for submissions. In total, 236 submissions and two exhibits were received. A list of these submissions and exhibits can be found in Appendices A and B.
The Committee held 13 public hearings, and conducted one site visit. Details of these meetings can be found in Appendix C and transcripts for all public hearings can be found on the Committee’s website.
The Committee’s public hearing and site visit program was significantly interrupted by COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions across the country, as well as changes to the Parliamentary sitting calendar. As a result, the Committee was unable to travel interstate for public hearings or visit waste management and resource recovery facilities. It was also unable to travel overseas to examine initiatives and infrastructure in other countries. This limited the Committee’s ability to receive in-person and on-site evidence.
All public hearings were held in Canberra, and in most cases, by teleconference. The Committee held one site visit at the Woodlawn Eco-precinct in Tarago, New South Wales, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.
Commonwealth waste management and recycling reforms
The Committee’s inquiry progressed as a series of Commonwealth policies, strategies, and investment funds to support Australia’s waste management and resource recovery industries were developed. The most significant of these announcements included:
National Waste Policy Action Plan
Australian Recycling Investment Fund
National Plastics Summit
Response strategy to implement the COAG waste export ban
Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines
Recycling Modernisation Fund
Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill
Product Stewardship Investment Fund
The Committee notes recent Commonwealth reports which have examined aspects of waste management and recycling. For example:
In June 2018, the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications released its report into the waste and recycling industry in Australia, Never Waste a Crisis, which made 18 recommendations.
In July 2020, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment released its first review of the Product Stewardship Act 2011 (Cth), which made 26 recommendations.
In October 2020, the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications released its report into the Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill 2020 [Provisions] and Related Bills which made four recommendations, including that the bill be passed.
Several submitters drew the Committee’s attention to the similarities between these reviews, recent work by state and territory governments, and the Committee’s inquiry. In particular, submitters encouraged the Committee to consider the body of work already completed and any relevant recommendations and findings.
For example, the Western Australia Local Government Association noted in its submission, dated November 2019:
There is a considerable amount of activity at a National level currently. The National Waste Policy Action Plan was recently released, there are two Senate inquiries and a Discussion Paper on Export Bans currently out for comment…it is imperative that any changes need to be progressed in a cohesive way to avoid fragmentation and duplication of effort. Clear leadership from the Federal Government, working with States and Territories and Local Government will be essential.
The Commonwealth Government’s recent policy announcements and initiatives are part of a broader plan to transform Australia’s waste and recycling industries. This plan involves supporting industry and households to transition to the waste export bans, better manage the increased volume of waste, and maximise the opportunities presented by waste as a resource.
The Committee acknowledges a degree of overlap in these activities and the inquiry. Namely, in the stakeholders who contributed to the different reviews and consultations, the themes and issues raised, and in the many identified actions, strategies and policy changes required to support change. It is likely that this overlap contributed to some stakeholder fatigue, duplication of ideas, and similar recommendations.
Notwithstanding the work currently underway, the focus of the Committee’s inquiry was on innovative solutions to waste management and recycling. Much of the evidence presented to the Committee related to current impediments to innovation. It emphasised the policy and systemic settings needed to better support innovation in waste management and resource recovery, and in particular, to upscale and commercialise facilities and operations. It is this theme that is central to the Committee’s report.
Structure of the report
This report is structured into nine chapters:
Chapter one is this introduction.
Chapter two provides a brief overview of the waste management and recycling industry, and introduces two key concepts — the waste management hierarchy, and the circular economy.
Chapter three discusses the role of the Commonwealth Government in waste management and resource recovery and its recent policy announcements.
Chapter four sets out key impediments to innovation. In particular, it discusses system and policy issues identified by stakeholders to better support innovation.
Chapters five to eight focus on specific areas of interest including waste-to-energy technology, rural and regional Australia, and the textiles industry. Other areas examined include waterways and oceans, food and garden organic waste, medical waste and solar panels.
Chapter nine summarises a group of submissions that predominantly highlight practical ways for people to reduce, reuse and recycle domestic waste.
Case studies of waste management and recycling innovation are included throughout the report.
The Committee would like to thank everyone who provided written submissions, appeared at public hearings and briefed the Committee for its inquiry.