The federal government budget announcement on waste looks good but according to experts, it’s a rehash of funding already announced. If the government really wanted to change up the agenda on waste it could do little better than put its money where its mouth is and mandate better practices in its own procurement policies. After all, it’s the country’s biggest procurer.

The federal government this week said it was investing $249.6 million to “drive a transformation of Australia’s waste and recycling capacity”. There would be new infrastructure to reduce more than 600,000 tonnes of waste ending up in landfill, and it aimed to create 10,000 new jobs in the sector over the next 10 years.

This will be through initiatives such the $190 million Recycling Modernisation Fund, which will generate $600 million of recycling investment for new infrastructure to sort, process and remanufacture materials.

Money has also been set aside to further National Waste Action Plan strategies, $25 million for a national waste data system, and $14.8 million to tackle the marine impacts of ghost nets and plastic litter.

“Recycling and clean energy manufacturing is recognised as a National Manufacturing Priority, which reflect Australia’s established competitive advantage and emerging areas of priority. By recycling more waste we can also create more jobs,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.

Though industry welcomed the budget announcements there was nothing actually new about them, according to industry leaders such as Gayle Sloan chief executive officer of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia.

“The $250 million announced was money that has already been committed through the last few months in a series of announcements, so it wasn’t new to industry, however, it is very welcome to have that support coming,” Ms Sloan told told The Fifth Estate.

“I don’t know the last time recycling and waste was actually mentioned in a federal budget, so it’s great to actually be in there and it shows that we are definitely on the agenda.

“The key is going to be getting it delivered in a meaningful way that does positive things for job creation, industry development and in attracting investment that we really need in the sector.”

Government is the biggest procurer in the country

Ms Sloan also believes there are still many opportunities around procurement of recycled materials that should be tapped into, and the federal government, considering it is the largest procurer of goods and materials in the country, really needs to commit more funds to that venture.

“We need certainty about people purchasing the products that my industry collects, sorts and reprocesses, and greater commitment financially for the purchase of those materials,” Ms Sloan added.

“And we’ve seen examples of that in Victoria, who’ve set up a team to look into putting more recycled materials into its civil infrastructure projects.

“We need to move beyond considering to doing, because that is what is going to drive genuine investment in these recycled materials.”

Rose Read, National Waste and Recycling Industry Council CEO,

said the government must prioritise the use of these recycled and recovered materials in all of its projects and procurement activities.

“For the waste export ban, for the Modernisation Fund, for all of that to work, we need to see those recovered materials being reused in infrastructure, in packaging and in products in general,” Ms Read told The Fifth Estate.

“We also need more recycled content in our packaging and the government needs to mandate levels on that or incentivising packaging companies to use more recycled content. It should also help with the development of new products to use recovered materials from the get-go.”

Support for mandating recycled content in packaging

Ms Sloan also supports mandated targets around recycled content for packaging.

“We need a definite leadership piece on changing the paradigm to recognise that the materials that my industry collects are materials that can be reused over and over, and that change needs to happen nationally,” Sloan continued.

“We need to grow the demand for Australian recycled content and all governments needs to step up and put their money where their mouths are and start procuring recycled materials.

“We also need the product stewardship bill strengthened to put more obligations on generators to think about how they design materials so it can be reused, recycled, recovered and then brought back. The product stewardship piece at the moment is not strong enough.”

This is because there isn’t enough emphasis put on sustainable design in the bill and there is no real support in terms of helping producers to make sure their products can go back to market for reuse and recycling at their end of life.

“We are still a long way behind the thinking of those in Europe, China and other places who are consciously moving towards a circular economy and putting emphasis on sustainable design,” said Sloan.

“I think we are going through a recycling economy, a closed loop approach to get to a circular economy, but we could learn from what is happening overseas and fast track that so much more.”

Europe is on track to moving towards legislating for sustainable design later this year, and Ms Sloan believes we should be looking at doing something like that too.

“We are still talking about only 20 per cent recycled content for plastic in products to market, whereas England in 2022 is bringing in a virgin tax for products that don’t have at least 30 per cent,” continued Ms Sloan.

“We need to recognise that there is a need for market interventions in this area and we need to pull levers that include legislation to incentivise business to do the right thing.”

Australia’s governments will also ban ban the export of unprocessed waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, with a view to transforming domestic waste management and the recycling sector to collect, recycle, reuse and convert waste into a resource.

The Morrison government will provide $6.6 million over three years from 2020-21 to implement and administer the Commonwealth’s commitment to ban the export of these types of waste from January 1, 2021.

“We absolutely support the export ban as we have always wanted to decouple ourselves from global markets and its challenges. What we need though is for those products to stay onshore and for there to be a demand for those materials to be recovered and reused,” Ms Sloan said.

“And we should be having mandated targets for procurement and spend for recycled materials. So we should have projects identified by governments at all levels that will include recycled contents.”