Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Recycling and Waste Bill

26 October, 2020


Today I rise to speak on the Recycling and Waste Reduction 2020. This bill will repeal the Product Stewardship Act and establish a new legislative framework to allow Australia to better manage its waste. It's a timely bill. The rise of disposable masks and PPE equipment used during this pandemic, over the last few months, has refocused our attention on the need for sufficient and effective waste management. Waste is also an issue that is top of mind in Warringah. In 2019 a Warringah survey showed that 76 per cent of respondents to a question on the environment listed waste as their top issue.

This legislation aims to prevent the huge problem that we have with plastics and packaging in our consumption driven society. For decades we have shipped our problem off to Asia. This is now halted, and we need to find solutions. That means we will have to redesign the waste system to repurpose, reuse and redesign over 1,700 kilotonnes of waste. The bill will help to do this through several measures: prohibiting the export of regulated waste material; providing for a system of exemptions and export licences; setting out obligations for manufacturers, importers and distributors of certain products; making provisions for the authorisation of certain persons to exercise powers and perform functions under the bill, including the minister; and, importantly, contributing to the development of a circular economy.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation is the authority on the circular economy and defines it as a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design:

It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.

I commend the government's efforts to progress towards the development of a circular economy.

We should follow the example of Europe and become first movers in this sector. Since 2015, Europe, as part of Closing the loop—an EU action plan for a circular economy—has set targets for re-using and recycling as well as minimum product design standards. For example, by 2030, all plastics packaging placed on the EU market must be re-useable or recyclable in a cost effective manner. Europe has also committed 650 million euros for its major initiative on industry 2020 in the circular economy. Equally, I commend the government for its $250 million investment in recycling, going towards the Recycling Modernisation Fund to implement the National Waste Policy Action Plan, and for its $1.5 billion for the Manufacturing Strategy, a portion of which will go to the sector. These are important investments that will drive much-needed innovation.

Why is the bill so important? Well, it's a very big problem that it is trying to fix. Waste is pervasive. It can be found in the deepest oceans, the most arid deserts and the highest mountains. The problem is acute in Australia and nowhere more so than in an electorate like Warringah where, as a coastal electorate, we see it in our oceans. The WWF recently found that on average Australians use 130 kilos of plastic per person each year and only nine per cent of that is recycled. More frightening still is that up to 130,000 tonnes of plastic will find its way into our waterways and into the ocean.

The CSIRO has found that over three-quarters of rubbish along our coast is plastic, with up to 40,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. Clean-up days are regularly held to pick up huge quantities of plastic, but the sheer volume means we need to transition away from their use. In my electorate of Warringah we have a local movement Operation Straw, STRAWkle. In 2018 they started to go STRAWkling. They're a group of snorkelers dedicated to cleaning up Manly Cover. In just 12 weeks over the summer of 2018 volunteers collected over 2,000 plastic straws from the area. The findings from the project helped inspire more than 40 businesses in the local area to stop using plastic straws. This is how we get change. But we need more to make that commitment, especially the big fast food chains. McDonald's has committed to phasing out their straws this year, and KFC and Subway have as well. But more needs to be done by these chains on other plastic items like lids. I call on those big companies who are part of the problem, because they do create and sell their products with a substantial amount of plastic waste.

I went down a few Saturdays ago and had a great time helping volunteers collect plastics in Manly. It was a great community initiative, but it was quite distressing to see just how much plastic we collected, from those horrible little red lids on the soy sauce to straws and building material plastics—the little bits that come between tiles and are washed down the drains to the beach—so many bits of plastic.

We also have the Northern Beaches Clean Up Crew, who regularly get over 100 people at an event. To date, they've collected 13,233 pieces of rubbish from Sydney's Northern Beaches and lower North Shore. I'm pleased that my office has assigned this group to expand and has been able to assist them to expand through to environmental grants. I commend the government for having those environmental grants to assist local communities.

Just last week I attended the unveiling of Manly's first operational seabin. The seabin is a trash skimmer, designed to be installed in the waters of marinas, yacht clubs, ports and any water body with a calm environment and suitable surface available. The unit acts as a floating garbage bin, skimming the surface of the water by pumping water into the device. The seabin can intercept floating debris, macro and micro plastics and, with an additional filter, even microfibres. It was a pleasure to unveil the unit, and I look forward to more seabins becoming operational throughout Warringah in the coming years. I urge all those out there to keep looking for solutions. We can't have a situation where plastic debris is killing so much of our marine life. The feedback from the Warringah community is strong on this issue, especially on this bill. Northern Beaches Council and Mosman Council both support it and support the government to innovate and succeed in this mission to create a circular economy.

Local councils are on the front line and pay large amounts to sort and dispose of waste, and they must be adequately consulted with respect to these reforms. They want to know: with the passage of this bill, what is the next step? They say that the only way we can achieve an export ban is by making sure we're stimulating innovation in the industry in the right way and creating outcomes locally. They're looking for both state and federal government to step in and provide leadership. I appreciate the support of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. They're giving up to $600 million in the Recycling Modernisation Fund, but more of this is needed to reach councils, who are on the front line of waste.

There are still some remaining issues that need to be addressed. What further action can the government take? I echo the comment made by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills that elements of this bill should be made in principal legislation. We've seen an ongoing trend of ministerial discretion and less parliamentary scrutiny expanding through the use of delegated legislation. We have this again in this legislation. The minister, at their soonest convenience, should either move amendments to rectify those provisions or clarify why those provisions have been left to delegated legislation.

This bill can and must go further. It should be strengthened so that eventually most products are covered by some sort of accredited agreement. This includes introducing packaging content targets and the banning of single-use plastics over time. I also ask the government to consider including the waste targets from the National Waste Policy Action Plan within the bill and some form of accounting and reporting to ensure we remain on track with our commitments. Accountability is always an important part in progressing issues like this. We need to make sure that the department is responsible but also that we are properly up to date with how we are progressing with waste and recycling.

The legislation would also benefit from regular five-yearly, rather than 10-yearly, reviews so as to ensure it keeps pace with innovation in the sector and the latest environmental science. We know things move quickly in this space, and I have great faith that Australian people will keep looking for solutions. Whenever I visit schools in Warringah, the No. 1 issue the kids raise with me is the state of our oceans, including plastic in the oceans. It is absolutely something that we must fix.

Even though, for constructive feedback, I support this bill, we all must do more. Waste and overconsumption are legacies of our generation and we absolutely must try to amend these problems. It's a commendable effort, through this bill, to get on top of the waste issue. Alongside the climate crisis, this will be a crisis of our times. We must do our utmost to take responsibility for our waste and clean up our oceans.