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Environment Legislation Amendment (Circular Economy and Other Matters) Bill 2022

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
30 August 2022

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on this bill, which is the latest piece of legislation from the government on reforming Victoria’s waste system. I acknowledge that this bill introduces several governance and administrative reforms to improve the coordination of waste recycling and provides for the creation of the consolidated Victorian recycling infrastructure plan. These are reforms that the Greens support. However, I will focus my contribution on one concerning part of the bill that warrants more attention.

As we began this term of Parliament, Victoria was facing a serious waste crisis. Successive governments had failed to invest in a local waste management system, instead defaulting to the short-term solution of shipping our waste overseas and forgetting about it. When China stopped accepting our contaminated waste in 2018, our lack of any local recycling infrastructure sent the system into crisis. Recyclables were stockpiled in warehouses, posing serious fire risks. In fact at multiple warehouses we saw stockpiled recycling go up in flames, spewing toxic fumes into the air. Many councils were forced to send recycling trucks to landfill.

In 2019 the Greens initiated a parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s recycling and waste management system. This landmark inquiry found that our lack of any long-term planning for waste management in this state meant that the system was in dire need of broadscale reform. While the committee made a number of important recommendations for reforming our recycling and waste management system, some of which the government has now adopted, it did not go far enough when it comes to the types of transformation we need to create a long-term sustainable waste system founded on principles of recycling, re-using and reducing. The final report had one glaring omission: it failed to properly describe waste incineration as a threat to the development of a genuine circular economy. In my minority report to the inquiry I noted that:

Waste incineration has the potential to undermine recycling in Victoria and that Victoria is unprepared to deal with over 500,000 tonnes of toxic and other ash by-products that will be produced per annum if all proposals currently tabled proceed.

The Greens call for an urgent moratorium on new waste incineration plants in Victoria until 2030 to ensure that the full environmental and public health impacts are properly investigated. So it is really disappointing today to see this bill putting us on the path to a local waste incineration industry.

Waste incinerators are expensive to build and expensive to run. They rely on a dedicated waste supply, which means that by signing contracts for new incineration plants we are basically agreeing to generate enough waste to fuel the plant for its lifetime.

For example, a proposed waste-processing facility in our south-east, which would likely involve incineration, asked participating councils to commit to supplying minimum levels of waste over a 25-year period. Many of these councils were rightly outraged. At a time when we are trying to reduce the amount of waste we produce and encourage more re-use within a circular economy, guaranteeing a stream of waste in order to fuel a power plant is hypocritical.

I know that the government will claim that they are addressing this problem in this bill, as the bill caps how much incinerators can burn in a year, but this cap, which the government is setting at 1 million tonnes, is far too high. It also exempts projects that could burn a further 600 000 tonnes, meaning we could see up to 1.6 million tonnes of rubbish burnt in Victoria every year. The government’s proposed cap is more than all of the landfill waste collected from all of the household wheelie bins in Victoria in a year. This is not providing the necessary framework for a culture of recycling and re-using but is doubling down on incentives to produce more waste to burn.

I will be moving an amendment in the committee stage to limit the capacity of any incinerators licensed under the bill to just 50 000 tonnes per year. This amendment would put a stop to incinerators becoming an industry in Victoria so that we can commit to developing a genuine circular economy. I am happy for those amendments to be circulated now.

Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.

Dr RATNAM: The last thing Victoria needs is an incineration industry. If we run out of waste, then the incinerators will need to find somewhere else to get the fuel the plants need. In Europe many countries have started to turn their coal-fired power stations into waste incinerators, which generate energy from biomass. But these biomass projects burn wood pellets that come from logging South American forests and from logging forests here in Australia—and they call it renewable energy! We are logging our own precious forests to create enough fuel for these plants to burn.

Here at home in Victoria Alinta Energy’s CEO has indicated he is considering turning Loy Yang B into a biomass incinerator and is looking at the European models as an example. Such a move risks condemning our native forests to even more destruction and is totally unnecessary when we can produce enough solar and wind energy to power our state. Thankfully the current Victorian government has exempted burning native forests in incinerators from its definition of renewable energy, but if Victoria allows large-scale incinerators to get up, the pressure on future governments to find more and more material for them to burn will only increase. The dying native forest industry is looking for ways to limp along, and incinerators must not become its lifeline. Our native forests are worth much more to us thriving than burning.

Let us not create an industry that becomes hungrier for things to burn, including our forests. The Greens support other aspects of the circular economy and other matters bill, but as my colleague in the other place put it, we ‘do not want the circular economy or our plastics to go up in smoke’.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
30 August 2022
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