Circular Economy (Waste Reduction and Recycling) Bill 2021
It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak in support of the Circular Economy (Waste Reduction and Recycling) Bill 2021. This bill is what happens when you have Greens in Parliament. We have been campaigning for years for better waste solutions in Victoria and pushing the government to go further and faster on recycling reform. In this bill we have a set of really important, long-awaited reforms to fix our broken recycling system—changes that the community have been campaigning on for years.
Introducing a container deposit scheme has been one of our key policies since we first entered Parliament. In fact we first introduced our own bill to create a container deposit scheme back in 2009—12 years ago—and we have reintroduced it three more times since, most recently in 2019. But the government dragged its feet on introducing a scheme, and in that 12 years waste and recycling policy stagnated, with no overarching waste policy in place since 2014 and virtually no major reforms to substantially reduce the volume of resources going to landfill for decades. Victoria spent too many years relying on shipping our waste and recycling out of the country and making our waste crisis someone else’s problem, which meant that when it all came crashing down in 2018 the government suddenly realised they had no real waste or recycling policies beyond sending it to landfill or shipping it overseas and forgetting about it. In many cases our recycling was not even being recycled, but instead it was being stockpiled in warehouses, and when these stockpiles caught fire and the toxic and dangerous smoke spilled out across the northern and western suburbs, people rightly asked: ‘How did we let it get to this?’. It was clear that Victoria needed a huge investment in our recycling system so that we could actually start properly recycling waste so that it was fit for re-use.
This bill also shows the value of the parliamentary committee system. The Greens-initiated inquiry by the Environment and Planning Committee into recycling and waste management was the final push that made the government act. This was one of the largest and most expansive inquiries in this Parliament’s term—that was until today when another Greens-initiated inquiry on biodiversity loss and extinction was tabled, which pipped the recycling inquiry at the post. That waste inquiry—so expansive, so comprehensive—received hundreds and hundreds of submissions that told a very damning story about what had happened to recycling in Victoria. We found that a lack of systematic coordination and regulation and enough monitoring and enforcement led to the system collapsing. We heard and were told that what we needed to do to increase recycling in Victoria was increase separation, reduce waste at its source, increase product stewardship programs, invest in a proper circular economy policy and essentially engage in a fundamental rethink about how we think about consumption and disposable goods. And of course it made a strong recommendation for Victoria to finally introduce a container deposit scheme, the last state in the country to do so. So it is great to see the government heeding the recommendations of the inquiry and committing to transforming Victoria’s waste and recycling system.
The bill is setting up the structure for the new container deposit scheme, and while we might be the last to the table in the country on this reform, the Greens are really pleased that we got here at last and that from now fewer bottles and cans will end up in our waterways and oceans and more Victorians will be recycling their old bottles into new bottles. This bill also sets up Recycling Victoria, which will be the new regulator for the state’s recycling, replacing the current waste and resource recovery groups. The WRRGs, alongside councils, have done a great job for years in managing the intricacies of waste management and recycling, and while it is good to see that WRRG staff will be transferred to the new regulator, bringing their expertise and skills into the new system, we hope councils are also included in the work going forward.
This bill requires all councils to collect four waste streams: residual waste, commingled recyclables, food and garden organics and glass. A separate bin for glass was one of the recommendations made by the recycling inquiry. Glass can be easily recycled and turned into new products, but in our current recycling system it gets mixed up with all the other paper and plastic and is frequently contaminated and no longer suitable for recycling. The reverse is also true—that the glass breaks in recycling and then contaminates the other products in the commingled recycling. A separate bin for glass products means we are well on our way to having a solid glass recycling industry in Victoria. It is also really good to see food and organic recycling rolled out across the state. Organic waste makes up as much as 40 per cent of a red bin, and most of the organic waste is food. And while many of us compost, there are many others who are unable to in their homes.
I am also aware that the local government sector is concerned that every council in the state will be pushed into a new, four-bin kerbside service, as the minister’s second-reading speech indicated this would be the default, and that for some councils—say, a rural council where lots of people are composting on their own property—a four-bin service may not be appropriate. While the Greens are really supportive of the four waste streams and do want every council to sign up to food organics and garden organics services and glass recycling, we also understand the fear raised by the local government sector that being too prescriptive might restrict councils’ ability to choose the best service for their area if it improves recycling. Some councils may be running their own really successful compost programs or finding innovative ways to re-use glass. There are also parts of Victoria where it makes more sense for residents to use drop-off services for recycling rather than having trucks travelling a long way for small pick-ups. I am aware that the bill allows for exemptions, and I hope that this is used not to exempt any council from one of the streams but to allow some flexibility in how councils provide recycling services to their residents.
I know many Victorians will be really excited at the ability to properly recycle food and green waste, to turn old glass bottles into new ones and to help Victoria reduce its waste footprint. But this is a significant overhaul of recycling in Victoria, and to make sure it is successful we need good community education campaigns to go alongside the rollout of the new system. There is already a lot of confusion about what can and cannot go in your recycling bin. Can we recycle used coffee cups? What about pizza boxes? Is foil recyclable? The switch from three to four or two to four bins in some places will cause some confusion. In councils where they already offer food waste services there is some evidence that where community education was limited or non-existent the services are being very poorly used, if at all.
Part of the reason we ended up in the waste crisis in the first place was that our recycling was contaminated and generally poorly done. We do not want to see this new system roll out and be struck with the same flaws because the government forgot to tell everyone how to use the new bins. We have a good opportunity to get this right the first time, so let us take it. The Greens would like to see a good investment in community education and behavioural change and a statewide education campaign to encourage all Victorians to increase their recycling. We are conscious that while the minister has indicated Sustainability Victoria will continue to hold this role, there is work to be done to expand the types of education programs that we are running in the state.
This bill is a great first step in fixing Victoria’s waste crisis and reforming our recycling industry, but if we are really going to create a circular economy, as described in the title of this bill, we need to go a little further than what is in this bill. We need to seriously start looking at boosting our local recycling industry and encouraging greater take-up of recycling products. We need to improve producer responsibility for waste so that the companies who are making the products are responsible for their entire life cycle, including what happens to them after they are used. We also need to ban all single-use plastics to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic and packaging we are producing, and we need to avoid bad waste solutions like incineration. Burning all our waste is as bad an idea as shipping it all out of the country. It means signing contracts with big incinerator plants to supply them with the huge amounts of waste they need to burn to be economically viable. The more waste we send to incineration the less we are recycling and re-using, and the more waste we burn the more toxic fumes we are pumping out into the air. We are really disappointed that incineration remains an option on the table and that there are already a number of projects planned in our state. Waste incineration has no place in a circular economy and essentially inherently undermines it.
While I am pleased to support this bill today, I hope that the government really commits to transitioning Victoria towards a zero-waste state with lots of locally made recyclable products and a strong local recycling industry so that there is no waste left to burn.