Environment ministers have been told Scott Morrison’s promise to introduce a waste export ban is doomed to fail unless they change tack and back it with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and a requirement that public agencies use recycled material.
Federal, state and territory environment ministers meet on Friday in Adelaide, where they are due to announce a timetable to end the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. The prime minister has said he expected the ban to start next year.
The Queensland government announced ahead of the meeting that it planned to ban the supply of many single-use plastics, including straws, stirrers, plates and cutlery.
But groups representing the waste and recycling industry and the environment were pessimistic about the likelihood of a significant plan to deliver Morrison’s headline commitment of an export ban, which has been backed by all premiers and chief ministers.
Gayle Sloan, the chief executive of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association, said a draft plan shared with interest groups included no policies or funding to help develop a local industry to process what would no longer be exported. She said the industry and environment sector were united in concern over an apparent lack of action.
In a letter to ministers, Sloan applauded the vision to boost domestic recycling capacity and end reliance on exports, but said the industry was dismayed little had been done to enable the shift.
She said it wanted a “robust action plan” for use of recycled material backed by strong, enforceable targets and matched by funding from “all players in the supply chain”, including packaging producers. It urged the states to press the federal government to explain how it would spend $130m committed to recycling at the election, and called on them to match it.
“If we are going to make real change and not just set targets we can’t meet or will only meet through perverse outcomes of increasing waste to landfill, then we have to have real support packages and sensible timeframes,” Sloan said. “We can do this, but not at zero cost and not with a few months’ notice.”
Australia exports about 4.5m tonnes of waste to Asia each year, more than half of which is metal. Recycling companies have struggled to find new places to export waste since China introduced strict limits on the level of contaminated recycling material it would accept nearly two years ago. In Victoria, it culminated in recycling company SKM being put in administration and up to 180,000 tonnes of recyclable material potentially going to landfill.
Compared with other developed economies, Australia generates more waste than average and recycles less. Announcing the proposed ban in August, Morrison expressed concern about the amount of plastic waste ending up in the ocean and cited data suggesting just 12% of Australian plastic waste was recycled.
Jeff Angel, the director of the Total Environment Centre, said to dealing with the problem the ministers’ meeting needed to make significant commitments on the procurement of recycled products, recycling content requirements and funding to kickstart the domestic industry.
“We don’t want this environment ministers’ meeting to issue one of those usual vague, non-specific communiques,” he said.
In a video statement, the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, said the meeting would set a timetable for the ban, as promised. “It’s really important that we make it happen,” she said.
But she said it would not be achieved through “government grants and too much regulation”.
“The sector is full of really smart people, they’re doing this already, they need some help to scale up and I’m always interested in how we can do that,” she said.
Lily D’Ambrosio, the Victorian minister, said the country needed “an urgent national plan to fund this ban so we’re ready when it comes in”. She said the state was investing $135m and called for a rapid injection of federal funding.
Other ministers approached declined to comment on how the ban would be implemented or did not respond.
In Queensland, the environment minister, Leeanne Enoch, said she wanted to introduce laws next year to ban many single-use plastics, with the possibility it could be extended to cups and heavyweight shopping bags.
Enoch said the state’s “plastic pollution reduction plan” was an Australian first in scope and structure and would encourage a shift to a circular economy that minimised waste and boosted recycling. She said any legislation would be the subject of widespread consultation and flagged exemptions for the disability and aged care sectors if suitable replacement products were not available.
WWF-Australia’s Katinka Day said if the Queensland plan was implemented the state would become the national leader in tackling single-use plastics, and called on other jurisdictions to follow. She said a major challenge would be dealing with inefficiencies in the waste management system that led to up to 130,000 tonnes of plastic entering local waterways and oceans each year.
The environment ministers’ meeting is also expected to reach a decision on a delayed national nature strategy meant to cover the years 2018 to 2030.
A 17-page draft “strategy for nature” was posted on the web just before Christmas 2017, replacing the previous 100-page biodiversity conservation strategy. It outlined three goals and 12 objectives but few details about what state and federal governments would do to meet them, and no measurable targets.
The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation urged Ley to use the meeting to secure an agreement on a national plan to address a spiralling extinction crisis.