Environment, Resources and Development Committee: Inquiry into the Recycling Industry

Today Mark reflected on the Inquiry into the Recycling Industry undertaken by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee of which Mark is a member.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: This is a motion to note the report of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee following its inquiry into the recycling industry. This was a most useful inquiry which I was pleased to participate in. I think we have some valuable learnings that we can pass on to the government, the chamber and the community more generally.

It is probably fair to say that the origin of this inquiry was in a sense of national concern about what we were going to do when the Chinese stopped taking our rubbish. Members would be familiar with the National China Sword policy where they effectively said, 'We are getting so much rubbish that is contaminated from overseas and it is of low value. The level of contamination is too high and we are not going to take it anymore.' That did put the cat amongst the pigeons in many countries. Unfortunately, it resulted in a bit of a race to the bottom and there were a number of other countries in South-East Asia which found themselves the recipients of the First World's waste which was contaminated and not able to be satisfactorily recycled.

Anyway, we fast forward and I think this inquiry did show that, despite the National China Sword policy, there was a great deal of interest in the community in us doing much better with our waste. It is a point of state pride. We feel ourselves to be a national leader when it comes to waste and recycling, and a lot of that has its origins in the deposits on the bottles. But if we are fair and reasonable with ourselves, as important as that was, it is a tiny fraction of the waste that is generated in a modern industrial society. There is so much more that we can and should do.

I was heartened by the number of times the phrase 'circular economy' was mentioned by witnesses and in the inquiry generally. People are coming to the conclusion that we do need to move away from an economic system that involves inputs, processing and waste—a linear progression. People are much more interested, on a finite planet, in trying to develop strategies for a circular economy where ultimately there is no waste or at least the amount of waste is very much reduced.

I will not go through all the committee's findings and recommendations but one thing that came out quite clearly was that, even amongst people who are motivated and inclined to do the right thing, many people found it very difficult to know exactly what the right thing to do was, people standing between two bins wondering where this particular item goes. I know the government has tried campaigns; I think it is the Just Ask Vin campaign. There are lists on the internet of where different items should go but, even with all of that work, we still find that there are some serious problems. I will give one example and it finds its way into the committee's recommendations at recommendation 11:

That state government, in collaboration with local government and stakeholders, devises a cost-effective strategy and implementation plan to divert as much glass as possible from co-mingled recycling.

Most members would think, 'Hang on, I put my empty vinegar bottle or jam jar or whatever it might be in the yellow lid bin at home because that's what we are told to do.' However, having examined this process from cradle to grave, as the committee did, I can tell members that, first of all—and let's use an olive oil bottle as an example—it may well smash as you are putting it into the yellow lid bin.

If it does not smash then it will possibly smash when it is roughly tipped into the back of the truck and maybe compacted. If it does not smash then it is probably going to smash when it is dumped onto a concrete apron. If it does not smash then there are a number of conveyor belts and drums and mechanical sorting devices it goes through.

The bottom line is that it is mostly going to smash, and when the glass smashes in the commingled recycling it contaminates the paper and the cardboard. Shards of glass embedded in cardboard is not a good recycling proposition, and it is that sort of contamination that China railed against and that, in part, led to them refusing to take the world's waste.

We also saw that horrendous example in Adelaide, where commingled recycling was compressed into bricks and subsequently became impossible to sort. It all ended up in landfill. That was a recycling company that went bust some little while ago.

The question then is: what to do? It struck me that it was not that difficult, but in the absence of clear direction even people who want to do the right thing struggle. I came up with a very fine solution (and I am a bit embarrassed it took me so long to realise it): if I have a box next to my rubbish bin that might have some deposit bottles in it or cans or PET bottles, if I have another box next to that for the wine bottle or the vinegar bottle or the olive oil bottle I can take them to the same place.

I do not get 10 cents for my olive oil bottle, but I can put that bottle into a glass bin that contains nothing but glass where it does not matter if it smashes because it is going to be recycled back into a glass product. It is a very, very simple thing to do, but how many people would know that is appropriate? I have stopped putting glass in my yellow lid bin and I tell everyone I meet that they should do the same thing. However, what this really needs is a more concerted campaign, whether it is by the EPA or another agency, because people do want to do the right thing but just do not know what the right thing to do is.

I understand that in Victoria they have now gone to a fourth bin on the kerb: they have general waste, they have organics recycling, they have the commingled; and I think they are now separating metal and glass, which is not that difficult. They can go in the same bin, and they are easy to separate at a processing facility. You do not want broken glass mixed in with plastics and cardboard.

Having said that, I think one of the main failings, not necessarily just of this inquiry but of the system as a whole, is that too much reliance is placed on consumers, consumer behaviour, consumers doing the right thing, when ultimately what we really need to move towards is shifting the responsibility home to the manufacturers of products and the manufacturers of packaging.

The concept of product stewardship, also known as extended producer responsibility, is not new. A number of industries have seen the writing on the wall and have decided they had better do something before they are made to do it by legislators. We are all familiar with the schemes; we have some of them here in Parliament House. The empty toner cartridges from your printer or your photocopier, we can recycle those, and for mobile phones most people are familiar with Mobile Muster. These are all voluntary schemes.

Television recycling is interesting. It is now illegal to take a television to the tip. You cannot dump a television into landfill, so there is a regulatory component there. The trick is to make it as easy as possible for those electronic products to be recycled. There are also issues in relation to tyres: it is illegal to dump those now. Unfortunately you need to pay to get rid of a tyre, which means that anyone who has a tyre will probably keep it in the shed, wait until they sell the house and make it someone else's problem. There are plenty of these stewardship programs, and they are mostly voluntary.

I think the next step for us, as a society, will be to move towards more compulsory standards that prevent, for example, food producers or others using multiple packaging materials that make it impossible to recycle—the plastic that is bonded to the paper, for example. Whilst it might give you a lovely window to see the product, it makes it much harder to recycle. I think we are going to have to sheet home responsibility more and more to manufacturers. We have not done that enough. It was a little bit outside the terms of reference of this inquiry, but I think it is an area we need to go to next.

I would like to join the Presiding Member and thank the members of the committee, all the witnesses who gave evidence and the people who took time out to show us some of the things that they were doing with recycled products. I would particularly like to put on the record my thanks to the staff of the committee, who did so much work pulling together our itinerary, the witnesses and the trips that we took, and also compiled the final report, so my thanks go to Joanne Fleer and Merry Brown. I think this is a good report and it shows us where we can start but by no means does it offer us all the solutions.