Interview ABC Radio National - Breakfast

11 November 2019

HAMISH MACDONALD: Federal and state Environment Ministers have agreed to a two-year timetable to ban the export of all waste - plastic, paper, glass, and tyres - by July 2022. Without funding, though, there are fears the ban could lead to more waste ending up in landfill, as the recycling industry already struggles to process material currently in the system.

At the start of this National Recycling Week, we're joined in Brisbane this morning by Trevor Evans. He's the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management. Welcome to the program.

TREVOR EVANS: Good morning, and happy National Recycling Week.

HAMISH MACDONALD: To you as well. A ban on all waste exports by 2022. How will we get there?

TREVOR EVANS: So it's going to involve many things happening all at once. But the important thing is that the timeline is now laid out, and governments across Australia have put on the table the funding that's necessary to get there. In short, the ban is the most important thing. And then the question about what we're going to do with stockpiles – which exist already in some significant ways for some waste products such as glass and such as tyres – involve significant investments and involve us building the sorts of infrastructure right across Australia that does already exist in some places. We just need it to apply more widely.

HAMISH MACDONALD: When you say you've put down the money needed to get there, it's $167 million, I understand that's an investment plan to increase Australia's recycling rates, tackle plastic waste and litter, accelerate work on new recycling schemes and continue action to halve food waste. But the timeline on that is 2030, but the target we're talking about for ending waste exports is much sooner, 2022. So can you explain that?

TREVOR EVANS: Yes. So there's a number of different timelines and deadlines involved. As we try to improve recycling rates and as we try to reduce waste, there's obviously a number of facets to that and different deadlines apply to different aspects of it. So our food waste targets are to halve food waste by 2030, our targets to make sure that all packaging through industry is recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. And these bans on exports of glass, plastics, tyres, and paper is by 2022.

Now I want to make the very strong point, this is the first time a Federal Government has gotten so involved in waste reduction and recycling. At the heart of our comprehensive suite of policies, on which we were elected at the recent election, is $100 million specifically for investing in the sorts of facilities for sorting, for recycling and for remanufacturing that we need to see in Australia. That funding is open right now and the CEFC, who's administering that fund, is talking to proponents who have all sorts of different proposals and ideas.

HAMISH MACDONALD: And you can do this by 2022? Because I read that nearly half of Australia's waste ends up in landfills, oceans and rivers or is sent overseas. So you're saying that we have the capacity with that amount of money to completely end the export of waste within two years, just over two years?

TREVOR EVANS: Yes. So it's important that we don't conflate two very different moving parts right now in the recycling and waste reduction mix. The first, you're right, is that we are still landfilling almost 40 per cent of Australia's waste. We are managing to recover and recycle about 60 per cent, but we're still landfilling about 40 per cent. Now what we're exporting is a very tiny fraction of total waste streams right across Australia. So we can certainly – it's going to be tight, but we believe that we can certainly create the capacity in Australia to more than take care of the amount that's being exported at the moment by 2022. But that doesn't mean that all these …

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Interrupts] So we're doing nothing about all the stuff that's going in to landfill?

TREVOR EVANS: No, no. That's not right. So landfilling is approximately almost 50 per cent organics. So there's the food waste strategy, as I said, which is taking effect over the next 10 years or so. There are packaging targets and there are investments being made very specifically for increased facilities and infrastructure. What I'm saying is you don't need to have 100 per cent recycling rates in order to stop exporting. The exporting question is the first priority. It's a very important good step, and a lot of people in industry and in Australian society are very, very pleased to see the Federal Government taking that step to ban those exports. But we don't have to have 100 per cent recycling rates in order to stop the exports, which is why we can stop the exports much more quickly than some of our other targets.

HAMISH MACDONALD: So in terms of – just dealing with the exports, what's going to change physically, tangibly, in the next two years to enable that?

TREVOR EVANS: Yeah. So some of it is going to involve very specific investments for very different supply chains. So there are four major products where exports are being phased out: glass, tyres, paper and plastics. Glass and tyres, for instance, we already have significant stockpiling issues in Australia, and hopefully in a little while we can talk about the sorts of government procurement and other initiatives that can really put a good dent in those stockpiles. We can bring those bans in very, very quickly, because for instance, in relation to glass, there's already significant glass crushing facilities right around Australia at the moment which can help turn those glass stockpiles into things like road base or sand that can be used around pipeline infrastructure and so on. For tyres there are already significant facilities around Australia for shredding and crumbing tyres so that they can be turned into other products. And then when it comes to things like paper and plastics – so in Australia we have very, very good capacity for turning industrial cardboard into new cardboard. So that's the sort of cardboard that you'd find at the back of any supermarket or Harvey Norman's or other similar industrial site. But for the mixed paper and for the mixed plastics that are in the yellow bins, the recycling bins that all Australians contribute to, those are the places where there are some facilities around Australia doing fantastic work, but we need to see more of those facilities. Now often that doesn't involve building a whole new facility. So for paper or plastics, for instance, we already have some good facilities doing industrial cardboard as I said, or particular types of plastics. Often it's a case of just helping those sites which already have their logistics chains in place, helping them to expand their current offerings. So putting some extra kit, some extra infrastructure on the sites that already exist.

HAMISH MACDONALD: The Australian Recycling Council wants Government to match industry dollar for dollar to expand processing plants. It estimates plastics will need about a doubling in domestic demand for recycled product, with about 187,000 tonnes exported out of a total 300,000 tonnes recycled. Are you willing to go that far?

TREVOR EVANS: The money that we have on the table combined with the money that some of the states have offered up will amount to a dollar for dollar matching investment. The $100 million that's at the heart of our Federal Government's initiatives for boosting our waste and recycling infrastructure, that $100 million figure didn't come out of thin air. It was a very carefully calibrated dollar amount, which was calculated on us identifying the sorts of facilities which would need to be built to build that onshore capacity, bring many of those offshore activities onshore. And so we calculated that figure knowing that it would be a dollar for dollar investment that industry wanted to see.

HAMISH MACDONALD: The Recycling Council's questioned why the tyre export ban hasn't been brought in immediately, as you mentioned, there are already markets here for that. Can you explain why?

TREVOR EVANS: Yes. So there was certainly a wide array of views at the meeting of environment ministers that occurred on Friday. Some governments were pushing for much faster timelines, but of course we have to be cognisant that there are many governments, all of them sovereign, that come to the table. And so when particular governments around Australia have strong views about not being able to meet tighter timeframes and they're suggesting a slightly longer one, we have to take account of that. There are some states like South Australia – I'll give them a shout out – which essentially have the infrastructure in place right now, including for plastics, that they would be willing to sign up for a ban that took effect yesterday. But not all of the states and territories are up to the same speed.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Can I ask you a question about landfill because it would seem to me – well as you've outlined – there are different targets for different components of this broader recycling question. Are we actually going to be bringing down the amount that goes into landfill beyond the organic waste?

TREVOR EVANS: Yes, is the short answer.

HAMISH MACDONALD: So how much and in what timeframe?

TREVOR EVANS: Governments have agreed to, so at the moment, about 60 per cent of all of our waste is recovered and recycled and about 40 per cent nationwide – this is a nationwide average – is going to landfill. Governments agreed on Friday that they'll bring that landfill down, that landfill rate down to 20 per cent by 2030. So that's a halving of the amount that's currently going into landfill.

HAMISH MACDONALD: But is that just – is that taking out the organic waste which you're planning to halve or is that other components of the landfill waste?

TREVOR EVANS: It's definitely a combination of many different waste strains. So organics will play a big role, so will product stewardship schemes. So these are schemes which take particular high value or large items out of general waste. So there are product stewardship schemes at the moment for things like mobile phones and printer cartridges – most people would know about those schemes – but there's also schemes that apply to other larger products and that's an area that the Federal Government is very, very keen on turbo-charging so that we can bring more individual types of product out of those general waste streams. It definitely also includes getting better recycling rates at the kerbside. And so that's going to involve a number of different things, it's going to involve all of us as consumers making better split second decisions about what we put into our recycling bins. And that's going to ensure, simultaneously as states and territories bring in their container deposit schemes, that more and more of those products which are easily recyclable don't find their way into landfill.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Trevor Evans, thank you very much.

TREVOR EVANS: An absolute pleasure.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Trevor Evans is the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management.