Waste management and recycling in Australia involves all levels of government. Local governments are primarily responsible for household waste collection and recycling services, the management and operation of landfill sites, delivering education and awareness programs, and providing and maintaining litter infrastructure.
State and territory governments are primarily responsible for domestic policy and regulation of waste management and recycling. Each jurisdiction has its own legislation, regulatory instruments and policies which form a complex framework governing waste management and recycling in Australia.
The Commonwealth Government has two key responsibilities in this space. The first is to implement Australia’s international treaty obligations and support global environmental outcomes through cooperation and engagement. The second is to provide national leadership and co-ordination, including addressing national market failures and organising national data collection.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) is the lead Commonwealth Department responsible for waste management and resource recovery, while the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) is responsible for innovation in recycling and remanufacture.
Delivery of the Commonwealth Government’s waste management and resource recovery policies is overseen by a whole-of-government National Waste and Recycling Taskforce, which is chaired by DAWE.
Various Commonwealth agencies are also engaged with aspects of waste management and resource recovery policy, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).
Australia’s international treaty obligations and Commonwealth legislation relevant to waste management and resource recovery primarily relate to managing hazardous waste and the environmental impacts of waste. A list of these treaties and Acts can be found in Appendix D. State and territory governments assist the Commonwealth in ensuring that Australia meets its obligations.
Current Commonwealth programs
As listed in the introduction to this report, the Commonwealth Government is currently undertaking significant reform of the waste management and resource recovery sectors in Australia. Key policies and programs announced as part of this reform are described below.
Ban on waste exports
On 9 August 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed that Australia should establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres and build Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities.
The ban on waste exports is largely a response to China’s National Sword and Blue Sky policies which restrict the importation of solid and recyclable waste. Specifically, the policy sets a 0.5 per cent contamination rate on imported recyclable waste to reduce the negative impact of waste on China’s processing facilities and the environment.
The timetable for the waste export bans was initially released on 8 November 2019 and updated on 26 May 2020. Commencing on 1 January 2021, certain waste types are expected to be banned by 30 June 2022 under a phased approach.
The DAWE has established a multi-departmental taskforce to manage this transition and engage with key stakeholders affected by the waste export bans.
The significance of the Commonwealth’s commitment to ban waste exports was highlighted by Mr Dean Knudson, Deputy Secretary of the (former) Department of the Environment and Energy:
What we do know is that even signalling this commitment is a pretty significant signal into the market and a game changer for the recycling industry. What this is going to drive — and we’re already seeing it — is innovation in how we design, make and use plastics and packaging, how we turn old tyres and glass into valuable new products, and how we better manage paper and cardboard.
Mr Knudson foreshadowed the significant job creation opportunity associated with the ban. In particular, Mr Knudson told the Committee, ‘as a rough estimate, taking the 60 or 70 million tonnes that currently goes into waste, 60,000 jobs would be created’.
National Waste Policy Action Plan
In November 2019, the Commonwealth Government released a National Waste Policy Action Plan. This plan sets out seven targets and 80 actions to implement the 2018 National Waste Policy.
The 2018 National Waste Policy is the most recent policy agreed by Australia’s Environment Ministers and the Australian Local Government Association. The policy provides a ‘framework for collective action by businesses, governments, communities and individuals until 2030’.
The National Waste Policy was designed to shift away from the traditional ‘take, make, use and dispose’ approach to waste to one that maintains the value of resources for as long as possible.
The National Waste Policy Action Plan complements and supports the respective waste management plans and strategies of state and territory governments, local governments and industry. The seven targets under the National Waste Policy Action Plan are:
ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, commencing in the second half of 2020;
reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10 per cent per person by 2030;
80 per cent average resource recovery rate from all waste streams following the waste hierarchy by 2030;
significantly increase the use of recycled content by governments and industry;
phase out problematic and unnecessary plastics by 2025;
halve the amount of organic waste sent to landfill by 2030; and
make comprehensive, economy-wide and timely data publicly available to support better consumer, investment and policy decisions.
The Government has announced that $35 million over four years has been ‘earmarked’ to implement its commitments under the plan. The DAWE told that Committee that it comprises:
$7 million for food and organic waste;
$5.3 million for plastics and packaging waste;
$2.7 million for sustainable Commonwealth Government procurement;
$1.8 million for infrastructure investment support;
$7.9 million for waste reduction and harmonisation approaches across states and territories;
$5.2 million for product stewardship initiatives;
$3.3 million for chemical and hazardous waste; and
$1.8 million for reporting and data.
In addition to this $35 million, the Government announced $24.6 million to improve national waste data (one of the targets of the National Waste Policy Action Plan). This funding aims to create a platform on which data on waste generation, flows and fate is available to the public as well as to industry and policymakers.
A copy of National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019 can be found on the Department’s website.
Australian Recycling Investment Fund
On 15 December 2019, the Commonwealth Government announced a $100 million Australian Recycling Investment Fund to be managed by the CEFC. The fund is designed to support projects that increase recycling rates, turn waste into valuable products and encourage innovation to prevent resources from landfill.
As one of four Ministers who announced the fund, the (former) Minister for Finance, Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann said:
The Australian Recycling Investment Fund will provide the CEFC with the capacity to support waste and recycling technologies by making investments which attract private sector support and by working with strategic financing partners to attract additional investments into this sector.
Through the fund, the CEFC expects to provide ‘debt and/or equity finance to eligible larger-scale commercial and industrial requiring $10 million or more of CEFC debt or equity capital’. A key focus of the fund will be larger-scale projects which use clean energy technologies to support the recycling of waste plastics, paper, glass and tyres.
National Plastics Summit
On 2 March 2020, a National Plastics Summit was held in Canberra and hosted by the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Sussan Ley MP, and the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, the Hon Trevor Evans MP.
The forum brought together over 200 leaders and technical specialists from government, industry, research and the community to showcase and identify new solutions to managing plastic waste. The summit identified new opportunities to address the targets set under the National Waste Policy Action Plan.
It is expected that the outcomes of the summit will help inform the development of the National Plastics Plan which the Commonwealth Government has committed to delivering by the end of this year. A copy of the summit’s outcomes can be found on the DAWE’s website.
Response Strategy to COAG Export Bans
On 13 March 2020, the Commonwealth Government released its Response Strategy to the COAG export bans. The response strategy sets out the waste challenges and opportunities at a system-level and material-specific level for paper, plastic, glass and tyres. Identified by government and industry, these challenges and opportunities are designed to frame specific actions to support the waste export ban, drive long term change and build capacity in the sector.
Ten system-level objectives are included in the strategy:
address waste origins and generation;
reduce contaminated kerbside collection;
drive domestic demand for recycled products;
understand resource volumes, values and movement;
invest in new technologies and infrastructure;
coordinate regional recycling capacity;
drive international cooperation;
streamline approval processes and requirements;
consider waste levy settings; and
drive product stewardship.
Following the release of the strategy, it is expected that Commonwealth and state and territory governments will announce their own commitments and actions to complement the strategy and support the export ban.
Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines
In March 2020, the Commonwealth Government announced it will be strengthening the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and the use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money. The changes are designed to help create demand and markets for products made from recycled content, encourage industry to invest in waste and recycling, and help drive innovation as industry seeks to lower the cost of these goods.
Recycling Modernisation Fund
On 6 July 2020, the Commonwealth Government announced a $190 million Recycling Moderation Fund (RMF) to support ‘innovative investment in new infrastructure to sort, process and remanufacture materials’ including mixed plastic, paper, tyres and glass. Funding from the RMF is contingent on co-funding from state and territory governments and industry. Approximately $6 million of the RMF funding is earmarked for use in rural and regional areas.
It is expected that the RMF will generate $600 million of recycling investment. In announcing the RMF, the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, the Hon Trevor Evans MP said:
Our targeted investment will grow Australia’s circular economy, create more jobs and build a stronger onshore recycling industry.
The ACT Government is one of the first jurisdictions to benefit under the RMF with the announcement of a $21 million upgrade to its MRF.
This upgrade, which aims to improve separation, reduce contamination, and improve the quality of recycled products, will include:
optical scanning equipment to identify and separate different types of plastics;
better screening technology to reduce contamination in paper and cardboard recycling;
glass washing facilities to provide better quality crushed glass ‘sand’ products that can be used in a wider range of products; and
plastic washing and ‘flaking’ facilities.
It is expected the upgraded MRF facility ‘will have the capacity to improve the quality and marketability of 23,000 tonnes of paper and mixed cardboard, 1,800 tonnes of mixed plastics and 14,000 tonnes of glass from the ACT and five regional NSW councils annually’. In addition, it is expected to contribute to the ‘creation of around 100 direct and indirect jobs for the ACT and surrounding regions’.
A planned Committee site visit to the ACT MRF did not precede due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill
On 27 August 2020, the Commonwealth Government introduced its Recycling and Waste Reduction Bill into the House of Representatives. The bill has two main aims: implementing the waste export bans and replacing the Product Stewardship Act 2011 (Cth).
The section of the bill covering product stewardship is part of the Government’s response to the recommendations made by the Review of the Product Stewardship Act 2011. It largely replicates the existing product stewardship scheme, although it makes a number of changes to encourage industries to establish voluntary product stewardship schemes, to make it easier for the government to regulate schemes, and to promote the concept of product stewardship.
The bill was examined by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee (October 2020). The Committee made four recommendations including that the bill be passed, although the Labor and Greens senators included additional comments calling for the legislation to be strengthened.
The bill is currently before Parliament. Second reading speeches of Members can be found on the Parliament House website.
National Product Stewardship Investment Fund
In July 2020, the Commonwealth Government launched its $20 million National Product Stewardship Investment Fund. That aim of the Fund is ‘to accelerate work on new industry-led recycling schemes, including for batteries, electrical and electronic products, photovoltaic systems and plastic oil containers’. Applications for the fund’s first, $14 million grants round –between $300,000 and $1 million to support either the establishment of new product stewardship schemes or the expansion of existing ones – were open between July and August 2020.
In addition to these key initiatives, the Commonwealth Government has announced a number of other initiatives including:
approximately $19.85 million for nine Cooperative Research Centre Projects grants;
two challenges in the July 2020 round of the Business Research and Innovation Initiative each worth up to $100,000 initially, with the potential for $1 million more to:
develop a pilot energy recovery facility for an office building (run by ARENA); and
utilise farm crops as a renewable hydrogen source (run by the Grains Research and Development Corporation);
$4.5 million of funding for a joint research project with India to reduce plastic waste.
The Committee fully supports the programs and initiatives announced as part the Government’s plan to transform Australia’s waste and recycling industries. It welcomes the most recent announcement in the 2020–21 Budget of $249.6 million over four years to modernise recycling infrastructure, reduce waste and recycle more within Australia. This funding is expected to drive a $1 billion transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling industry, and create more than 10,000 jobs.
The Committee would like to see more emphasis on rural, regional and remote communities, and the inclusion of measures designed to improve the transportation and processing of waste within regions and across state and territory borders. The capacity of rural and regional areas to manage the movement of waste – either into or out of communities – in a way that is economically viable presents significant opportunities for employment, industry development, and improved health and environmental outcomes.
There was a degree of overlap between the Committee’s inquiry and the body of work already underway by the Commonwealth. In particular, many of the recommendations put to the Committee for supporting innovation in the waste management and resource recovery industry such as investment in infrastructure, Commonwealth procurement, national coordination and better access to data are well in progress. To ensure the momentum of this reform agenda continues, the Committee makes the following recommendations.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government update the National Waste Policy Action Plan to include measures focused on the transportation and infrastructure requirements to manage national waste across regions and state and territory borders.
The Committee recommends that waste management and resource recovery be included as a standing item on the National Federation Reform Council agenda to monitor federal and state and territory progress against the National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019 and Response Strategy.
The Committee recommends that the responsible Minister report annually to Parliament on the progress of the targets and actions set out in the National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019.
The Committee recommends that recipients of Commonwealth waste management and recycling funding be required to report on the waste management and resource recovery outcomes as a result of that funding.