While the Greens acknowledge that the Committee report concluded that the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020 (RWR Act) supersedes the Product Stewardship Amendment (Packaging and Plastics) Bill 2019 (the bill), we fundamentally disagree with the Committee describing the RWR Act as a ‘comprehensive suite of legislative and policy reforms.’ This Greens bill would have legislated critical bans on single-use plastics, mandated into law strong targets for reducing plastic packaging waste, and created a circular economy.
The report also stated, ‘The RWR Act is landmark legislation for Australia’s waste management system and recycling industry.’ Such descriptions of this legislation do not acknowledge that the RWR Act barely scraped the surface of a massive problem. It is anything but ‘a range of transformative policy initiatives.’ We strongly disagree with the characterisation of the RWR Act as comprehensive.
Senator Whish-Wilson, Greens spokesperson for Waste and Healthy Oceans, introduced the bill on 11 September 2019. Elements of the bill were based on years of Senate work including three Senate inquiries:
The inquiry into container deposit schemes;
The inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia; and
The inquiry into the waste and recycling industry in Australia.
The bill was strongly supported by key waste and recycling industry stakeholders, environment and community groups, and local governments.
In the last sitting week of December 2020, Parliament passed a suite of legislation that repealed the Product Stewardship Act 2011 (PSA Act). The provisions and functions of the PSA Act were subsumed into the RWR Act making the Greens’ bill legislatively problematic without significant amendments or a complete rewrite of the bill to amend the new RWR Act.
After multiple Senate inquiries investigated waste and plastic pollution in Australia, it is no coincidence that the Government swung into action to reform waste management after the introduction of the Greens’ bill a year earlier in 2019. Unfortunately, their legislative reform included no measures to reduce the production or consumption of harmful plastics entering our ocean, arguably one of the fastest-growing pollution issues facing our planet.
At least eight million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the world’s oceans every year, totalling 80 per cent of marine debris. Plastic is now found in plankton in the Antarctic. Studies forecast that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. The World Economic Forum heard that, ‘In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).’
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2019, Prime Minister the Hon Scott Morrison MP said, ‘Australia is committed to leading urgent action to combat plastic pollution choking our oceans.’
This followed the Prime Minister’s own acknowledgment that the need for action on marine plastic debris was due to pressure from kids, including his own: “There are few issues that are raised more with me by kids, than plastics in the ocean,” the Prime Minister told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday. “I know mine do, on a daily basis almost.”
Had the Government accepted Green amendments, which were in large part based on this private members bill, to the RWR Act when it passed the Senate in December 2020, the Prime Minister could have proudly reported his government had taken action on this pressing and pervasive environmental issue. Instead, the Government voted against any action toward building a circular economy and reducing the toxic tide of plastic pollution choking our ocean, creating a massive missed opportunity for our oceans as well as green jobs and investment in recycling and innovation.
The bill would have limited the production and sale of the most harmful single-use plastics and established a mandatory product stewardship scheme, therefore locking in strong targets for recycling and composting to effectively reduce exactly the kind of harmful plastic packaging we see in our oceans. It would have provided a solid policy framework and legislative backbone for building a true circular economy.
Ms Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) has said of these targets: 'Currently, there is no regulation requiring manufacturers or the packaging industry to achieve these targets or penalties if they don’t. This is far from equitable.'
During a hearing for this inquiry, these sentiments were echoed by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) when Senator Whish‑Wilson questioned them about voluntary targets:
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Back in 2005 the 2010 target for all packaging was 65 per cent recycled. What's the current recovery rate for all packaging in Australia?
Ms Donnelly: The recovery rate is 49 per cent.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: So it's fair to say that in 2020, 15 years after these targets were set, the Packaging Covenant has failed to meet even its 2010 targets.
Ms Donnelly: That would be a fair assessment, yes.
Given APCO’s voluntary targets have been ineffective for 25 years, making these targets into law is a vital step that the Government again avoided in the RWR Act. Unfortunately, Australia went from legislating the ‘biggest reform to waste management in decades’ to passing laws that reflected the ‘biggest missed opportunity to act in decades.’
The vote to amend the government’s own waste legislation was a tied vote, but ultimately failed to pass the Senate by a single vote. Even though these Greens’ amendments which underpin this Private Member’s Bill failed, they were supported by three of the four key stakeholder groups in this national debate.
The Australian Greens will continue to pursue elements of this bill. We believe an independent expert advisory group should be established under legislation to provide advice to the Minister regarding products that should be included on the Minister's priority list. We will continue to prioritise this and stricter controls on single-use plastics.
The best way to reduce the impact of the single-use plastics choking our oceans and killing our marine life is not to produce or consume them in the first place. The European Parliament took the approach of simply banning the 10 most common single-use plastics found on their beaches. Australia should do the same.
While many Australian states are following the EU lead, a federal coordinated approach to banning problematic single-use plastics would be much more effective and is supported by stakeholders. Bringing APCO's National Packaging Targets into a mandatory product stewardship scheme would address these problematic single-use plastics.
WWF-Australia recommends utilising the mandatory product stewardship provisions to phase out the most problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics and says:
While we have seen encouraging progress on single-use plastics from many states and territories, the inconsistencies between regulations and the lagging of some of the most populous states calls for federal direction on single-use plastics.
Boomerang Alliance said of the RWR Act:
One of the items that should be added to this [RWR] bill, to give effect and reflect what the community wants, rather than the government at a national level falling behind where the community and business are, is to take very strong action on these single-use items and put legislation in or use the bill's provisions to enforce the packaging covenant targets—targets that, really, are only a few years off being implemented. We don't want to get to six or 12 months before the end date when we decide, 'Oh dear, the voluntary program has failed again.' Given the accumulation of plastic in the environment at an increasing level each year, we really need to get on top of this.
The Greens plan to have this Private Members Bill redrafted and submitted to the Senate again should it become clear that the packaging industry and this Government will not meet their existing voluntary commitments such as 70 per cent of all plastic packaging in Australia being recyclable or compostable by 2025.
The Government and One Nation chose to vote against our amendments of the RWR Act, voting with big corporate interests in the packaging industry instead of with the community. Essentially, they voted against investing in upgraded recycling around the nation, regional jobs, and small business. It is worth noting that the second largest donor to the Coalition in the last financial year was packaging and recycling giant Visy.
The Greens will continue to try to legislate the establishment of a mandatory product stewardship scheme for packaging and plastics that will achieve the 2025 National Packaging Targets, including the phase-out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics.
Reflecting on this missed opportunity, it is clear to the Greens that new opportunities will emerge in the 46th Parliament. We will continue to fight to fix recycling and prevent harmful single-use plastics entering our oceans.
Senator Peter Whish-Wilson
Senator for Tasmania