Victoria’s Waste Crisis

01 May 2019

Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (14:32): From the party that preferences the Greens ahead of anyone else just about every time that is quite an amazing exposition.

I grieve for the state of the waste and resource recovery sector in the state of Victoria and particularly for the people and indeed for the environment that has been placed at risk because of its failure.

We had an effective and efficient waste and resource recovery system, one that in just a few years has been transformed from the pre-eminent system in Australia to one that stumbles from one crisis to the next. We had the kerbside recycling crisis: part 1, the China changes; part 2, the SKM Recycling problems. The government’s bungling has seen the near collapse, as I said, of what was the pre-eminent kerbside recycling system, and we have seen the environmental cost.

 

The toxic waste crisis has been a series of environmental disasters that could have been foreseen.

 

We have had three major hazardous waste fires in two years, and not only have we seen enormous fires spewing toxic fumes into the atmosphere, we have seen a stream—a chemically sterilised stream—flowing into the bay with no life in it. Nothing has survived. We have seen literally thousands of tons of materials that should have been used, should have been recycled, discarded to landfill, again at an enormous cost to the environment and an enormous cost to the community.

 

Yesterday we had the environmental and financial disaster that is the Lara stockpile.

 

The government have known for more than a year that this was a disaster in the making, yet they sat on their hands. They did nothing until they were forced to act by the liquidators’ entirely appropriate withdrawal. And now, despite sitting on millions and millions, indeed half a billion, dollars or more—raised exclusively to deal with the waste crisis—they have offered a fraction of the projected cost of the clean-up and of the fire protection. They are going to leave it to the local community to foot the bill for that issue.

The recent history of the waste system is indeed a tale of lost opportunities, and it is a total failure of public policy. We have current active policies that encourage rogue operators to conceal stockpiles and not deal with them.

 

These events are not simply a coincidence. It is not just bad luck. The crisis is a direct result of the government’s failure to proactively manage the waste issues that the state is confronting and has been confronting for a number of years, , but the policies the government are pursuing are simply making this problem worse.

 

Let us have a look at the history. In July 2017 we had the fire at the Coolaroo recycling plant. It took 20 days to extinguish, and 16 people had to seek medical attention as a result of that fire.

 

In August 2018 we had the West Footscray fire. More than 50 schools and childcare centres had to be closed on that day. We had toxic smoke billowing across the suburban area. I was driving across the West Gate Bridge on my way to a meeting with the Transport Accident Commission board in Geelong, and apart from a couple of major bushfire events during the course of my lifetime I have never seen anything like it, certainly not in a suburban environment.

 

Just last month,  on 5 April, we had the Campbellfield fire. This one was dealt with very, very quickly, but it could have been so much worse. There were reports of exploding barrels of burning waste, of black smoke filling the air and drifting to adjacent suburbs. I was up here at Parliament just a little bit after lunch, and it was certainly pretty hazy then. Schools and businesses closed. In that event two men were hospitalised.

 

There were  400 000 litres of chemicals stockpiled on that site; the permitted volume to be stockpiled was 150 000 litres. So almost three times the permitted volume was stockpiled on that site. It took 175 firefighters to battle that blaze.

 

Of course that fire is the subject of a coroner’s investigation, but I do want to commend the agencies involved, particularly the first responders, for their very, very effective management of the fire. But it was a fire that did not need to happen, and it would not have happened if this government has had its eye on the ball.

 

Then of course, as I mentioned earlier, there was the news of Lara yesterday. It was identified by the government’s own stockpile task force in early 2018. They identified the site then as a high-risk location but did nothing. It was left to the City of Greater Geelong to take the matter to VCAT.

 

When it went to VCAT those proceedings revealed that there were 350 000 cubic metres of waste on that site, including, by some reports, 4000 used tyres, several drums of oil.Stockpiles that were supposed to be capped at 9 metres were routinely exceeded by one third or more. Yet the government sat on its hands and did nothing.

 

Almost a year ago we knew the cost of cleaning up that site was going to be $100 million and it was going to take 18 to 24 months to do it. So what did we get in yesterday’s announcement? We got $30 million to maintain the fire prevention measures and to start the process. The government was asleep at the wheel throughout this whole process.

 

Who is going to take responsibility for that site? Will it be the ratepayers of the City of Greater Geelong who are going to be slugged with a $70 million bill to clean up something that they tried to do something about but the government simply ignored?

 

The waste industry itself wants this problem fixed. We had the head of the Victorian Waste Management Association, Peter Anderson, a couple of weeks ago calling for a tougher line against these cowboy operators. We had, courtesy of the journalist Heidi Murphy, comments from Bill Shorten on the day of the most recent fire:

Too many cowboys.. too unregulated.. we’ve gotta get more eyes on these operations …

 

Federal Labor seem to understand this issue; the people actually charged with the responsibility to manage it do not seem to have a clue.

 

True, a multi-agency task force has been formed. They have identified eight sites in Epping and Campbellfield. To its credit that group is starting to get a grip on the problem and those sites have been identified in the last four months or so, but how many more are we going to see before this crisis is over? Epping and Campbellfield are not the only places where waste is illegally stored.

 

The northern and western suburbs are not the only parts of Melbourne where toxic chemical cocktails are illegally stored. They should not be illegally stored anywhere, but we know they are in those two locations. Yet the government persists with the fiction that these are the only problem sites. I do not buy that for a second.

 

The government has to identify every problem site, and they have got to get it done by yesterday. The outcome of these fires has been bad enough, but the reality is that, compared with the genuine risk that exists, we got off lightly—we absolutely got off lightly—and we are not going to continue to be so lucky if we do not deal with this risk.

 

Ms Britnell: It goes to demonstrate that they do not care about the environment at all.

 

Mr MORRIS: Exactly. And then of course there is the related issue of the kerbside recycling crisis.

 

Now the kerbside recycling crisis is not the total cause of the problems I have identified; clearly there are a range of factors. But it is certainly a contributing factor at some of those sites, a significant contributing factor.

 

For the second time in less than two years we have had the  kerbside recycling scheme placed in danger. This time it was not the actions of China; it was the actions of one of the major recyclers that led to its licence being suspended.

 

Now I do not criticise for a second the decision of the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) to suspend that licence. They did what they had to do, and clearly there is a problem. It is a problem that has been coming for a long time.

 

The February crisis simply confirmed again what we do know—that is, the government has done absolutely nothing to address the problem.

 

In July last year, via a media release, the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change claimed that the problems in the kerbside recycling scheme had arisen because of the decision of China to restrict the import of recyclable materials.

 

China has not banned the import of recyclables. It has banned the import of mixed paper and it has placed much tighter contamination thresholds on all recyclable commodities. So there is a twofold problem. We have global stockpiling of recyclables—that stockpiling is driving the prices down, and that has been going on for a long time—and we have an excessive contamination level that makes the product of our recycling bins difficult to sell on world markets because the quality is so low.

 

Of course in a perfect world we would not be seeking to export our recycled product; we would in fact be reusing it locally. But one of the other aspects of this whole debacle is that the government has failed comprehensively to support the development of markets for recycled product, and it has comprehensively failed to deal with the contamination issue.

 

This is not something that happened six months ago or even in January or February last year. In January 2015 the price of mixed paper was $170 per tonne. By January 2018 it was below $100 a tonne. Again in January 2015 the price of high-density polyethylene plastic was $920 a tonne. By January 2018 it was down to $600 a tonne. The price for PET slumped from $700 a tonne to under $300 a tonne in the same period, and the price for mixed plastics collapsed from $400 a tonne to less than $100 a tonne—all of this before China changed its rules.

 

This was a structural adjustment to the global markets, yet the government thought it could solve that problem, the structural adjustment, by means of a temporary assistance package of less than $15 million. The government itself has facilitated a market that is heavily reliant on exports, yet when the export prices collapsed and the very future of the market was threatened, it did next to nothing.

 

All we have heard from the government is claims about how much money it is spending from the rubbish bin tax—the municipal and industrial landfill levy. So let us have a look at the truth of that.

 

The fact is that in 2015–16 almost $151 million came in through that tax, $207 million in 2016–17 and almost $219 million last year. Over those three years $155 million has been paid to the EPA, $53 million has been paid to Sustainability Victoria, almost $26 million has been paid to the waste and resource recovery groups, $25 million—almost the same amount—has been paid to Parks Victoria, a smaller amount for the commissioner for environment sustainability and a tiny amount for committees of management.

 

The fact is total payments to agencies for their ongoing operation—not initiatives related to waste—over the last three financial years were $263 million and a further $313 million transferred into the Sustainability Fund.

 

Now when you look at the operation of the Sustainability Fund, what are the big-ticket items out of there? Are they to do with waste? In 2015–16, $3 million went to the Living Victoria water rebate program and $6 million to the threatened species protection initiative. In 2016–17 preserving Victoria’s unique biodiversity received $17.5 million. The reinstating Victoria as the national leader in climate change export initiative received $4 million; Saving Energy, Growing Jobs—$6.37 million; and just $150 000 in that year on the Victorian litter plan. In 2017–18 over $20 million was spent on the energy storage initiative; $18.8 million for biodiversity; $14.67 million for the solar certificate tender and $4.44 million for Landcare.

 

These are worthy initiatives, but they are the core business of government. They are not areas that should be funded from the proceeds of a levy designed to deal with our waste issues.

 

Worse still, the amount that is expended from the Sustainability Fund is significantly less than the receipts to the fund. In fact over those three years the balance of the fund has risen from $383 million—almost $384 million—to $511 million.

 

The fact is the government is collecting this money. It is spending it on things that it was not intended for. It is using it to prop up ordinary spending and ordinary operations. It is not spending it on solving our waste crisis, and until it fronts up and actually does spend this money on dealing with the problem we face, that crisis will be ongoing.