Don’t trash chance for a waste revolution

Photo: theage


The federal government’s announcement of new recycling labelling on packaging is a welcome addition to the response by lawmakers, consumers and industry to the collapse in the international recycling market precipitated by China’s unheralded exit as the biggest importer of waste.

Environment Minister Melissa Price revealed the packaging initiative as central to achieving a target of recycling or composting 70 per cent of plastic packaging by 2025 and diverting 80 per cent of waste from landfill by 2030.

Another key aim of the policy is that all packaging would have 30 per cent recycled content by 2025. The move buttresses a plan, endorsed by state and territory environment ministers a few months ago, to compel that all packaging be recyclable, reusable or compostible by that year.

Targets work. Successful public policy often involves creating incentives and disincentives, and stemming the transfer of production and pollution costs to consumers and businesses. Europe provides a useful guide, having long ago embraced recycling as enlightened self-interest.

The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union stipulate that no more than 10 per cent of waste can go to landfill by 2035. This stimulates reprocessing of waste into new products. Europe is creating market incentives to solve the waste problem. By 2025, 55 per cent of municipal waste must be recycled, a level that will rise to 60 per cent in 2030 and to 65 per cent a decade later. About a third of Europe’s household waste is currently recycled.

Unsurprisingly and perhaps reasonably, industry is seeking compensation for the costs, imposed by regulations and legislation, of transitioning to recycled packaging. One of the biggest producers of hard plastic packaging – milk crates, for example – has commissioned a survey that suggests people are far more enthusiastic about the notion of environmentally sympathetic packaging and consumption than they are about paying higher prices for it. Such research can be seen as self-serving, but that does not make it inaccurate.

Compensation issues associated with the transition from cheaply dumping waste on China to optimising its management onshore can be readily resolved. It should be seen as a rational, short-term investment of public funds into creating a profitable waste management system. Incentives such as tax breaks, and disincentives in the form of fines and deregistration, have a role.

There is a growing grassroots movement embracing reusing and repairing along with recycling in the move to better management of waste as the global population grows.

The government’s policy is yet to be finalised. Ms Price says it is ‘‘too soon for us to talk about’’ tax incentives and overall funding. Given Australia’s urgent need to catch up with best practice on waste management, that is a dubious position. She says it needs input from the states and territories. They have shown their readiness to advance Australia fairly into a cleaner, smarter future.

The targets were to have been discussed by environment ministers in June, but the federal government cancelled the meeting. The path seems clear. This is not an opportunity to waste.

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