The Prime Minister is wrong when he says his government is acting on plastic pollution. He is wrong
when he says the problem can be solved by industry with little role for government other than a
magic sprinkling of research money.
The reality is that because plastic is handy, colourful, and cheap we make everything out of it and
wrap everything in it. It goes into landfill if we’re ‘lucky’ where it will persist for hundreds of years.
But each year 15 million tonnes of it pours into waterways and oceans.
In Australia we recycle barely 10 per cent of the plastic we use and that is achieved by sending it to
countries like China, Malaysia, and India. Some of it was simply getting burned, which is toxic. Some was being thrown straight into rivers.
The truth is that we’ve practiced a kind of waste colonialism, sending our rubbish elsewhere and turning a blind eye to the results.
We are a long way from a circular economy that would ensure our rubbish is re-used and recycled. If
anything, the circularity at present sees plastic travel a few thousand miles from the yellow-tipped
bin in an Australian suburb to Malaysia and then by river and sea to our northern coast.
To get to the point where we use and waste much less of everything is going to take hard work and
big change. On current projections there will be twice as much plastic produced globally by 2025
than today. We need to stop using microbeads and non-recyclable bags that go into the sea.
Companies must take responsibility for the life-cycle of their products through product stewardship
regulation which will drive innovation in product design. There are far too many types and
combinations of plastic which make recycling a contamination nightmare.
We need to support reprocessing infrastructure and the market for recycled products. That will
require government investment in plant and equipment, and it will rely initially on government-
sponsored demand through procurement policies. Let’s be clear, a market failure on this scale will
not correct itself and will not be cured by a small regulatory nudge.
So far the crisis has prompted the government to announce a Recycling Investment Package. But
this $167 million in funding is bulked out with a labelling exercise that sticks a recycling badge on
$100 million of existing Clean Energy Finance Corporation funds. That is not new or additional
money. The last thing we need is pointless budget ‘repackaging’.
Similarly, the $16 million over six years for the Pacific Ocean Littering Project is a drop in the ocean.
This contribution of $2.66M p.a. is drawn from the Pacific Regional aid budget and constitutes
redirected funds from an already shrinking pot.
Everyone expects the government will soon push for an agreed timetable on ending waste exports,
but the states on whom this burden falls know it cannot happen until our resource management
system is transformed from a predominantly transport game into a genuine recycling industry. That
requires national leadership, new regulation, and proper funding.
In the absence of those things we will continue to recycle very little plastic and have no leg to stand
on in lecturing countries in our region about the blizzard of plastic waste in our oceans. Sound
familiar? Only collective action can address the shared harm of plastic pollution. It’s no different
with carbon emissions.
This week we have again seen the Prime Minister seek to hang his environmental hat on the waste
crisis peg while declining to participate in the United Nations summit on climate change. On plastic,
it will be both a failure and a waste if the government gets away with being all talk and no action.
But if they can get away with trumpeting their success on climate while emissions rise each and
every year, why wouldn’t they?
Josh Wilson is the Labor Federal Member for Fremantle and shadow assistant minister for the environment.