Committee view and recommendations
Australians love their recycling. Through their use of kerbside
collection services, transfer stations, and product stewardships schemes,
households and businesses have diverted significant quantities of waste from
As a result of this support, the waste management and resource recovery
industry is no longer just an essential service; it is now a significant
contributor to Australia's economy, with an annual turnover of
$15 billion, and 50,000 full time equivalent employees across the country.
But the recycling industry is in crisis. This crisis has been
bought on by recent decisions of the Chinese Government to restrict the import
of waste materials. But it follows years of failure across all levels of government
to make the policy decisions required to put the industry on a solid footing.
As a result, the future of the industry in Australia is in grave danger.
Australia's recycling industry has become reliant on the export of large
quantities of low quality recycled material to overseas destinations such as
China. From collection through to sorting, there has been a focus on quantity
rather than quality. The increase in recycling rates, as measured by weight,
have masked the underlying problems associated with this approach and the
increase in waste generation.
While the increasing rates of recycling reflect the community's
commitment to 'do the right thing', this willingness to participate has not
been matched by the implementation of comprehensive waste management policies,
a sustainable domestic recycling industry, or a reduction in the generation of
waste and consumption of raw materials.
An industry in crisis
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Standing Committee on
Environment and Water developed a comprehensive National Waste Policy in 2009.
The failure to fully pursue the aims of this policy has left Australia's
recycling industry vulnerable to volatility in global markets, and without a
diversified and sustainable recycling sector to meet current and future demands
The underlying problems in the recycling sector can no longer be
ignored. With the 2017 announcements by China that the imports of 24 types of
waste will be banned, and the introduction of stringent contamination controls
on imports, the Australian recycling industry has been thrown into crisis.
Enormous quantities of recycled material, particularly materials collected
through kerbside recycling, are now being stockpiled at great risk to the
health and safety of local communities. Moreover, quantities of otherwise
recyclable material are being sent to landfill.
This crisis has arisen because Australia has grown complacent. In the
early years of kerbside recycling, the need for high quality material, and low
levels of contamination, was critical to ensuring that the nascent industry
became established. Local government, who bore a lot of the risk for the sale
of kerbside material, dedicated significant energy to educating households on
how to recycle properly.
But increases in commodity prices during the 2000s, combined with
weight-based diversion targets, landfill levies and reporting at a state level,
shifted the focus from quality to quantity, and shifted the risk from local
government to contractors whose business plans were predicated on this
There has also been a failure to adequately invest in recycling
infrastructure and technology, develop robust and sustainable domestic markets
for recyclates or provide appropriate regulatory frameworks to ensure the
future of recycling. It is clear that even without the catalyst of changes in
the international market, Australia's recycling industry has been facing
difficulties for a number of years.
Australia is lagging far behind other jurisdictions which have developed
policies and made investments in infrastructure and technology to establish
circular economies which ensure that materials are used, collected, recovered,
and re-used within a country. Circular economies achieve much better social,
environmental and economic outcomes than linear economies and it is clear that
Australia's failure to invest in the development of such an economic model is a
significant policy error.
National Waste Policy and the circular economy
The committee is of the view that the Australian Government must act
urgently to transition away from a linear economy to a circular economy which
prioritises the collection, recovery and re-use of products, including within
Australia. This transition must include a suite of regulatory and policy changes
aimed at influencing behaviour, as well as investments in infrastructure and
The committee accepts the evidence that there is a need for the
Australian Government to demonstrate leadership through the implementation of a
National Waste Policy, which includes strategies for the establishment of a
circular economy. The committee notes the commitment made by the Meeting of
Environment Ministers on 27 April 2018 to update the National Waste Policy to
include circular economy principles.
However, the committee notes that the 2009 National Waste Policy:
Less Waste, More Resources (National Waste Policy) is a comprehensive
document that established 16 key strategies, agreed to by all state and
territory governments. Despite this, there has been little action by the
Australian Government to implement these strategies.
The committee is of the view that the failure to progress the
implementation of the National Waste Policy has exacerbated the effects of
changes in the global market for recycled material. It provides benchmarks
for the states and territories and provides an overarching policy framework.
The committee accepts the evidence that if strategies established under the
National Waste Policy had been implemented then the Australian recycling
industry would not be in the depth of crisis that it currently is in as it
would not be as reliant on global trading markets, and would have an
established an approach that more closely resembles a circular economy.
The committee is also concerned that, instead of seeking to address
policy failures in relation to recycling, state and federal governments are now
signalling their support for waste-to-energy as a primary solution to the
current crisis. Energy from waste is an ambiguous term that refers to a number
of quite different processes, some of which are inherently more environmentally
beneficial than others (for example, methane capture from organic waste).
Nonetheless, energy-from-waste is next to last on the weight hierarchy. And the
particular form of energy-from-waste which is being touted as a
solution—incineration—is particularly problematic.
Burning recyclable material is not a solution; it is surrender.
Incinerators only make use of materials for their calorific value. They are not
compatible with the objectives of a circular economy. Further, as an energy
source, burning waste is not renewable and it is carbon intensive. Having spent
decades rolling out infrastructure and educating communities about recycling,
and having earned the public's support for recycling, government needs to
ensure that recycling is maintained as a policy priority.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government prioritise the
establishment of a circular economy in which materials are used, collected,
recovered, and re-used, including within Australia.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government show leadership
through the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the
National Waste Policy.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government prioritise waste
reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy, and seek a commitment through
the Meeting of Environment Ministers of all levels of government to the waste
As noted above, waste reduction is the most preferable tier of the waste
hierarchy and is inherent to a circular economy. It is also the most difficult
component of the waste hierarchy in that it directly confronts the use of
materials and its role in our economy. The committee did not consider the
possibilities regarding waste reduction in detail. However, a consistent theme
amongst submitters and witnesses was that the development of a truly circular
economy necessitates a reduction in the generation of waste. By extension, this
is about reducing the consumption of materials.
The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee’s recent
inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution highlighted the particular
problems associated with the proliferation of plastic and the impact that this
is having on the marine environment. This inquiry also heard evidence of the
difficulties that persist with plastic in the waste stream, particularly in
relation to the absence of uniform labelling and the physical difficulties with
collecting and sorting thin film plastics.
The enormity of problems created by plastics requires a holistic
approach, one that a commitment to a circular economy would help bring about.
However, the committee is of the view that more direct measures are needed to
help tackle this problem more immediately, and to respond to community concern
about plastic in our environment.
The committee recommends that the Australian and state and territory governments
agree to a phase out of petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023. The scope
of this commitment would require careful consideration and should be developed
through the Meeting of Environment Ministers.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a
Plastics Co-Operative Research Centre (CRC) to lead Australia's research
efforts into reducing plastic waste, cleaning up our oceans and finding
end-markets for recovered plastic.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government commit to
implementing the recommendations of the Senate Environment and Communications References
Committee inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia,
particularly in light of the need to improve plastic resource recovery.
Investment by the Australian
The recycling industry directly employs over 20,000 people and
indirectly employs almost 35,000 people. There are significant economic and
employment opportunities to be realised in expanding the industry. For every
10,000 tonnes of waste recycled, 9.2 jobs are created.
Recycling infrastructure and programs have traditionally been managed
and financed by industry, and state and local governments, however it is clear
that there is also a role for the Australian Government. The recycling industry
is too important to fail and as such, investment in innovative technology and
improved infrastructure is critical to improving environmental and economic
outcomes for Australia's recycling industry.
The committee was interested to note the work being undertaken by the
University of New South Wales in developing microfactories capable of creating
'reforming' waste into new products. The committee is of the view that such
innovative technological solutions will be crucial to the future of waste
management and recycling in Australia.
The committee also considers that recycling could provide significant
economic opportunities for regional Australia. Not only would this lead to
employment benefits, it would allow regional communities to access recycling
facilities and thus address environmental problems such as excessive landfill
and illegal dumping.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and
territory and local governments to assist recyclers to increase the diversion
of material from landfill; improve the quality of materials recovered through
collection programs; improve the sorting of materials at recycling facilities;
and assist manufacturers to increase the amount of recycled material used in
Saving the recycling industry from its current state of crisis requires
increasing the demand for recycled products. It is not enough to simply improve
the quality of material being collected and sorted so that it can be exported;
domestic markets for recycled material must also be developed.
Increased Australian demand for recycled content in new products would
reduce the reliance of the industry on export markets. The development of
domestic markets will result in better environmental and social outcomes (local
jobs, and reduced transport impacts), as well as reducing the risk associated
with exposure to international commodity markets. The increased local
manufacture of products with significant recycled content is an important goal
Governments at every level must lead by example through a commitment to
sustainable procurement processes and policies. The Australian Government's
role as the largest office employer in the country, and its funding of
large-scale infrastructure projects, provides it with considerable influence in
relation to the procurement of recycled content materials. This includes
government procurement of paper and other office equipment, hospitality and
cleaning contracts, and civil engineering.
The committee also notes that state and territory, and local governments
are able to provide a significant domestic market for recycled material. The
committee notes and commends state and territory, and local governments which
have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable procurement practices and
encourages the expansion of such programs.
The committee recommends the Australian Government set mandatory targets
for all government departments in relation to the recycled content of materials
bought directly or provided by private contractors.
The committee recommends that state and territory and local governments
also pursue sustainable procurement policies to ensure strong domestic markets
for recycled material.
One of the strategies of the 2009 National Waste Policy was to publish a
three yearly waste and resource recovery report (the National Waste Report),
underpinned by a system that provides access to integrated national core data
on waste and resource recovery. In implementing this strategy, the states and
territories are responsible for collecting data on the generation of solid
waste and the rate of diversion for recycling within their jurisdiction.
Accurate data on waste and recycling in Australia is crucial in
establishing appropriate policy and regulatory settings, and to allow industry
to make well-informed investment and business decisions.
The committee notes the concerns of submitters that the data around
waste generation and diversion remains notoriously poor. It particularly notes
that there is a lack of standardisation in data collection, a lack of
uniformity in definitions of waste, and ad hoc data collection
Further, the lack of granularity around data collected exacerbates the
tendency to measure the success of the recycling industry on the basis of
weight collected. A tonne of aluminium that is recovered for reprocessing into
new materials is usually measured equal to a tonne of concrete that is crushed
up for use in as aggregate in civil construction. Yet the benefits from a
material recovery perspective are considerably different, with the reprocessing
of a tonne of aluminium almost fully offsetting the greenhouse emissions
associated with the processing of a tonne of virgin aluminium.
The problems with waste data have been acknowledged and the committee
notes that work is continuing to improve the collection, standardisation and
comprehensiveness of waste data. The committee welcomes this development but
agrees with submitters that data must be published in a more timely way;
businesses cannot be expected to make investment decisions worth many millions
of dollars on data that is five years old.
The committee has also given consideration to suggestions that oversight
of data collection should be moved to an independent agency—the Australian
Bureau of Statistics—as the sector not only covers matters within the oversight
of the Department of the Environment and Energy but also the Department of
Industry, Innovation and Science. While there is merit in this suggestion, the
committee considers that it is appropriate that the National Waste Report be
produced under the auspices of the Department of the Environment and Energy.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government implement the 65
agreed improvements to the National Waste Report, and the data collection and
analysis practices, as established by Blue Environment's Improving national
waste data and reporting report.
Further, the committee recommends that the National Waste Report be
published at least biennially.
The collection method utilised is a major determinant of the quality of
recycled material and in ensuring viable markets for this material. In particular,
the quality and quantity of material collected and diverted to recycling is
affected by differing collection methodologies utilised in recycling programs,
both within and between states, and policy settings.
Kerbside collection and education
The provision of multiple kerbside bins by local government to provide
for basic source separation of waste, organics and comingled recycling at the
household level has been at the heart of the increase in recycling rates in
Australia. Householders have enthusiastically embraced kerbside recycling
programs as the large quantities of recyclable material collected demonstrate.
However, the exact nature of kerbside collection varies between
municipalities, reflecting the preferences of the local community, and the
operation of materials recovery facilities and organic recyclers. As kerbside
programs have developed and evolved, confusion has remained as to what
materials can be recycled.
As a result, the contamination of recycled material collected through
kerbside has become a serious problem. This problem has been bought into stark
relief as a result of China's decision to dramatically tighten restrictions on
The shift towards a volume-based business model has been a significant
market force behind the creation of this problem. This has lessened the need
for operators of sorting facilities to ensure low levels of contamination
through kerbside collection, including the sorting of materials by households
and the rate of compaction in waste trucks.
While many jurisdictions provide extensive education programs to inform
the community on at-home recyclable segregation, the committee heard evidence
that there has been a reduction in education to householders of how to use
kerbside collection programs
Critical to the ongoing viability of Australia's recycling industry is
that householders understand the impact that contamination can have on
recycling schemes. The committee notes the importance of education programs and
encourages state and territory, and local governments continuing to implement
The committee recommends that the Australian Government support state
and territory, and local governments in ensuring effective education programs
are available to assist the public in understanding how best to undertake
National container deposit scheme
Throughout the inquiry, the committee received evidence that glass poses
a particular challenge to the current recycling industry. Kerbside collections
systems result in a significant level of small glass fragments and contaminants
that cannot be used in recycled glass manufacturing. Co-mingled recycling
collection combined with high compaction rates breaks glass into small fragments
that cannot be extracted, and contaminates other recyclable materials.
A range of solutions were offered including the introduction of kerbside
glass-only collection bins, and the introduction of container deposit schemes
(CDS). CDS is now in place, or coming into place, in all states except for
Victoria and Tasmania.
The benefits of CDS have been further highlighted in the wake of the
crisis the recycling industry is currently facing. The committee heard
that CDS inherently improves the quality of the material collected with glass
collected in South Australia, where CDS has been in place for decades, fetching
three times more than glass collected elsewhere through kerbside collection
schemes. The committee also heard that the diversion of a large amount of glass
out of kerbside reduces the contamination of remaining materials, which also
improves the quality of other types of recycling.
The committee heard a range of views on the introduction of CDS,
including concerns that current recycling infrastructure and investment has
been based on the presence of glass in kerbside collection schemes and that the
removal of glass would have a financial impact on operators and local councils.
The committee also heard that the South Australian CDS cannot simply be replicated
by states seeking to introduce new schemes and that there are differing views
on the most appropriate model for implementation.
The committee notes that COAG has conducted a regulatory impact
assessment of a national container deposit scheme and that the states could not
reach agreement on such a scheme. The committee is of the view that a national
container deposit scheme would ensure a uniform approach to glass recycling,
with a reduction in contaminated kerbside recycling, and certainty to industry
and the community.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government implement a
national container deposit scheme.
Mandatory product stewardship
Product stewardship is an important policy tool used to improve waste
and recycling outcomes. Australia's Product Stewardship Act 2011 was
developed as a result of the National Waste Policy, and is largely focused on
the end-of-life solution of products. Commonwealth product stewardship schemes
set material recovery levels for those areas it directly regulates.
Product stewardship acknowledges that those involved in producing,
selling, using and disposing of products have a shared responsibility to
ensuring that throughout the lifecycle of a product, environmental, human
health and safety risks are mitigated.
A common component of successful product stewardship schemes is the
inclusion of some of the cost of the disposal of a product into the purchase
price of a product, including refundable deposits that are redeemed upon
disposal for recycling. The most widely used and understood form of product
stewardship in Australia is CDS. The effect of these economic incentives is
usually a high level of source separation of the products or materials covered
by the product stewardship scheme.
The committee is of the view that mandatory product stewardship schemes
should be established to cover a range of items which pose challenges to the
appropriate management of end-of-life products, including mattresses, tyres and
the entire range of e-waste including batteries.
The committee notes that schemes established under the Product
Stewardship Act 2011 have largely been voluntary. The committee accepts the
evidence that voluntary schemes are not as effective as compulsory schemes, and
is of the view that product stewardship schemes developed under the Product
Stewardship Act 2011 should be mandatory.
Though product stewardship in Australia has largely focused on
end-of-life processes, the committee is of the view that a more holistic
approach is required. The committee notes the evidence that up-stream material
recovery and efficiency, and improved product design result in better
environmental outcomes. Assigning responsibility for the disposal and treatment
of post-consumer products to producers has been recognised as incentivising the
prevention of waste at the source. As such, the Australian Government should
ensure that extended producer responsibility is implemented for a range of
The committee recommends that product stewardship schemes established
under the Product Stewardship Act 2011 be mandatory schemes.
The committee recommends that mandatory product stewardship schemes be
established for tyres, mattresses, e-waste, and photovoltaic panels.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government extend producer
responsibility under product stewardship schemes to ensure better environmental
and social outcomes through improved design.
The committee recommends that the Product Stewardship Advisory Committee
be re-established and that they be tasked with recommending products for
listing under the Product Stewardship Act.
Waste levies are a financial contribution required to be paid by
licensed waste facilities for each tonne of waste received at the facility.
Waste levies are intended to encourage the diversion of waste from landfill to
recycling. Most states and territories have implemented waste levies, with the
exception of Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory. The levy amounts
vary between states and within jurisdictions according to the type of material
being sent to landfill.
The committee heard that landfill levies have been successful in
achieving significant diversion rates, and provide important revenue which can
be used to fund sustainable waste management practices. The committee also
heard however that there is a point of diminishing returns with landfill
levies, and that they can lead to perverse outcomes such as the
inter-jurisdictional transport of waste to avoid levies, illegal landfilling
and dumping, and the placing of financial pressure on recyclers.
Of particular note was the movement of waste from New South Wales to
Queensland to avoid the New South Wales landfill levy. The committee accepts
that the lack of a landfill levy in Queensland, and the relatively high
landfill levy applied to Sydney Metropolitan Area waste has been responsible
for this significant movement of waste. The committee notes that the Queensland
Government has recently announced that it will be introducing a landfill levy,
and it is hoped that such an introduction will reduce the incentive to move
waste between the states.
The committee is of the view that state and territory governments are
best placed to manage the implementation of landfill levies, however it notes
that co-operation between jurisdictions is important to manage any negative
consequences which may arise.
The committee is also of the view that state and territory governments
should fully hypothecate landfill levies towards measures that are designed to
reduce the amount of material going to landfill. The use landfill levies by
state and territory governments to increase general revenue creates a perverse
incentive for state and territory governments to maintain landfilling at
The committee recommends that the Australian Government assist state and
territory governments to ensure that landfill levies in proximate jurisdictions
are such that there is a no incentive to transport waste for levy avoidance
The committee recommends that the Australian Government support state
and territory governments fully hypothecating landfill levies towards measures
that reduce the creation of consumption and waste, and that increase the
recycling of waste materials.
Environment agencies and Environment Protection Agencies (EPAs) in state
and territory jurisdictions have established policies and regulatory
requirements for the sustainable management of waste and on landfill
Landfill poses a range of environmental and social risks and it is
essential that it is appropriately managed. The committee particularly notes
with concern the evidence that landfills which are not adequately provisioned to
be managed beyond closure pose significant economic, environmental and social
risks in the future. Landfill standards must require operators to identify and
appropriately manage all risks, both short-term and long-term.
The committee notes that there are significant differences between
jurisdictions in the way that waste is classified and the classes of landfill
that are permitted. The committee accepts the evidence that landfill standards
should be best-practice, risk-based and nationally harmonised to ensure that
all environmental risks are appropriately mitigated.
The committee also notes the risks to sustainable landfill management
posed by a lack of infrastructure planning and encroachment by urban
development. The committee is of the view that state and territory governments
are best placed to provide waste management infrastructure with certainty and
protection through appropriate planning controls.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state
and territory governments to ensure the implementation of harmonised,
best-practice landfill standards.
An opportunity too important to be missed
Waste is a fact of life; the evidence indicates that the quantity is
only going to increase; yet there cannot continue to be an expectation that
'just putting it in the bin' will work as an adequate waste management system.
While China's decision to restrict the import of certain categories of
waste has triggered the current crisis in the Australian waste management
sector, in fact, there have been underlying problems in the sector for some
Stakeholders—governments, the industry and the community—are now focused
on recycling. The committee welcomes the commitment to addressing the current
problems. However, the committee considers that solutions must look to the
long-term and must incorporate moves to a circular economy.
There are great benefits for Australia in adopting a circular economy.
As well as reducing our ecological footprint, reducing the generation of waste
and developing a viable recycling sector would improve material productivity,
increase employment opportunities in both recycling and manufacturing,
stimulate innovation in the use of materials, and meet community expectation
about how our waste is dealt with. The committee considers that this is an
opportunity too important to be missed.
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