SKM, which took recyclables from 33 Victorian councils, went into administration in August with debts of $100 million.
The company’s collapse cast the state’s recycling system into chaos, with several councils forced to send thousands of tonnes of recycling to the tip.
In the wake of SKM’s collapse, huge stockpiles of waste were discovered in warehouses and elsewhere across Melbourne, some of which were outside of the EPA’s jurisdiction because the “recyclables” were not covered by the authority’s waste permit system. The state government says that loophole will now be closed.
The EPA says its new regulations will help ensure that waste and recyclables are stored at “lawful places” reducing “harm to human health and the environment and tackling illegal dumping, stockpiling and abandonment of waste”.
The regulations will also give the EPA and its agents power over council rubbish operations that were not previously covered; smaller local government landfill sites and “waste transfer stations”.
The proposed rules are designed to work in concert with legislation coming into force in July 2020, allowing jail sentences of up to five years for waste offenders, fines of up to $1.6 million and lifetime bans on repeat rogue operators.
The Surveillance Devices Act will also be amended, making the EPA a “law enforcement agency”, under the legislation and opening the way for the authority’s agents to deploy a range of surveillance techniques, search warrants and other police-like powers against dodgy industry figures.
The state Labor government says the EPA will now have a greater ability to step in earlier and prevent waste sites reaching crisis proportions.
“The new powers will mean the EPA will be involved from the start, to prevent problems before they occur and keep Victorians safe,” Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio told The Age.
One industry observer, who asked not to be named, said the changes marked the latest phase in a long transition of the role of the EPA.
“The EPA has gone through a number of transitions, they were the facilitator that really helped to get recycling going in the state and they’ve become more of a hardline regulator,” the source said.
“It’s not just in waste and recycling, it’s in other areas like in those big toxic chemical warehouse fires.”
While greater compliance within the industry was a welcome development, the industry expert said, it was likely to combine with other factors, including the refusal of Asian nations to continue to take Australian recycling waste, to push prices up for households.
“It means people [in the industry] will have to comply and if you don’t comply they’re gonna get whacked.”
“But compliance costs money and those costs have to be passed on.
“When you run the equation through, it looks like in the end the citizen, the household, will end up paying more if we’re going to have an effective recycling system.”
The peak body for Victoria’s local councils, the Municipal Association of Victoria, told The Age that is was examining the proposed new waste regulations and would be soon able to advise its members of their implications.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age