The Palaszczuk government has claimed interstate waste traffic has slowed dramatically as a result of the levy, but official data has yet to be published and it is unclear whether any drop in traffic is due to the levy or the slowdown in construction activity in 2020 during the COVID crisis.
The exemptions for local government come on top of wholesale exemptions from the levy granted in regional areas, with half of the state’s 77 councils not paying. The state government also refunds 105 per cent of what local governments pay in levies on yellow-bin waste everywhere else, part of a three-year deal to soften the effect of the levy on households.
The amount covered by the exemptions is equal to half of all the waste reported to the department during the last financial year for the entire state.
The waste industry has questioned the effectiveness of the levy regime in improving recycling rates, which in Queensland are some of the lowest in Australia, and along with the LNP opposition is calling for greater transparency over what happens to money raised by the local levy.
Neville Brownlow, who runs a green waste processing facility on the Gold Coast, said the 105 per cent rebate meant councils were effectively being incentivised not to recycle to avoid the political cost for the state government of the levy being passed on to residents via their council rates.
“It’s going to lead to perverse outcomes,” he said.
Waste operators can apply for exemptions for waste material that they reuse on-site, for example soil used to cover landfill or crushed concrete to make internal roads. There are also exemptions for waste recovered during natural disasters and handled by charities and for hardship cases.
Some operators have complained the exemptions are unfairly administered, opaque and distort competition. They argue mid-level environment department officials should not have the power to grant what are effectively tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars without Treasury oversight.
One waste operator in north Queensland told Brisbane Times that identical applications for an exemption on the same site had been treated differently when the name of the applicant changed.
Industry peak body the Waste Recycling Industry Association of Queensland is calling for the introduction of a levy regime like the one in Victoria, where all revenue from its waste levy goes towards funding environmental programs and the state’s independent environmental regulator. Queensland is the only state without such a body.
“We should be challenging how we spend the landfill levy revenues,” WRIQ chief executive Mark Smith said. “Victoria does a report every year on where the money is spent.”
LNP environment spokesman David Crisafulli said he wasn’t opposed to the levy in principle but echoed the call for more transparency on what happened to the revenue collected.
“My issue with the waste levy has been how poorly implemented it has been and how the vast majority ends up in government hands rather than going towards good environmental outcomes,” he said.
In 2018, Brisbane Times exposed how interstate waste operators were obtaining exemptions from waste levies in their own states worth hundreds of millions of dollars by trafficking construction and demolition waste to Queensland and claiming it was being recycled, when the waste was just being taken to landfill.
A relatively low waste levy was in force briefly under the Bligh Labor government and then axed by the Newman LNP administration, leading to a massive influx of waste into Queensland from interstate as operators profited by avoiding levies in their home states.
Mark Solomons is an investigative journalist for Brisbane Times.