NOTICE OF MOTION | ENVIRONMENT AND PLANNING COMMITTEE
Mr Melhem (Western Metropolitan) : I also rise to speak on the motion moved by Dr Ratnam in relation to the reference to the Environment and Planning Committee to inquire into, consider and report by Tuesday, 13 August 2019 in relation to the crisis in Victoria’s recycling and waste management system. That is an issue I have had a keen interest in over the years—waste management and recycling—whether it was in my previous job or in my current position in Parliament. I think it is fair to say the issue of recycling and waste management has been of ongoing interest to me and is an ongoing issue this government has been trying to tackle in the last four years, since we got into government. When I say, ‘trying to tackle’, it is not just by talking but by actually doing things.
It is definitely an issue that has been on our radar, and we have been taking practical steps to make sure we actually get a long-term solution to deal with the issue. I get it that in recent times, after the Chinese government decided that they no longer wanted to accept recycling goods—maybe I will paraphrase that; I am talking about contaminated recycling goods—from countries around the world, including Australia, although I think Australia sent only a small portion of the recycling product that was sent to China. The reason for that is obviously that they have decided that they do not want to deal with this issue because of the cost and they would rather just deal with clean recycling product. Their economy has basically reached its peak, the need for that material is no longer a priority for the Chinese economy and there is obviously the issue of cost. So they have made their decision to stop importing any recycling goods—and I will just underline that means any contaminated recycling product from Australia and other countries in the world. That is obviously regrettable, and it has had a major impact on the Australian and in particular the Victorian recycling product, which we used to export to countries like China.
So yes, there is a problem in Victoria, but can I just say it is not at a crisis point where you are saying it is the end of the world, because it is not the end of the world. But definitely we need to take immediate action. I do not want to be misread as saying we can sit back, do nothing and pretend there is no problem; there is a problem. The problem is twofold. I want to separate the issue we currently have with SKM and the whole issue about recycling. There are two issues. In relation to the recent notice by the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) to SKM, basically instructing them to stop stockpiling recycling product in their warehouses and their operations in northern Melbourne and Laverton, that was because of some safety concerns. I will make no apology about putting that notice out. We have all complained about the EPA over the years—I was one of the complainers, and I am still sometimes critical of the EPA— but I think the EPA in this instance are doing their job to make sure we do not have a disaster waiting to happen. We know that in that particular workplace there was a major incident not long ago, a major fire, and we do not want another one. Let us not forget the other major fire we had in Stawell with the stockpiling of tyres. That site has been cleaned up; I think Mr Gepp was talking about it the other day. The last truck has left Stawell, and they have cleaned it up. That was a major problem. Again, those tyres were stockpiled because we could not export those tyres and we could not use those tyres ourselves. They used to use these tyres, for example, to make cement at one of the big cement factories that I used to deal with in my previous job, near Geelong, which has closed down now. They do not use the tyres in the process of making cement anymore. So we have got some issues.
The first issue is we need to put community safety first. That is why the EPA, finally in my view, has made the right decision, and I want to congratulate it on the action it has taken to issue a notice which states that the company should stop stockpiling waste because we do not want another fire, which would put at risk not just the workers at SKM. I dealt with those workers in my previous job; they are members of the AWU. I want to give SKM credit. They are trying to make their business successful, and they are under enormous pressure to try and make a dollar. They are in it to make a dollar, and there is nothing wrong with that. They are employing people, so we support that. They receive, from my understanding, around 50 per cent of the recycled goods in Victoria. The ban by China is obviously putting enormous pressure on their business. I feel for them and the situation they find themselves in. SKM will be working closely with the government and local councils to try and find a more long-term solution to this problem. We have to make sure that this does not put unnecessary pressure on SKM’s operation and profitability and viability, I should say, going forward. We want them to stay in business. Secondly, and most importantly, we do not want to put the community or the workers at risk. Thirdly, we need to find a long-term solution for the recycling issue which we are facing today.
I have been speaking to a number of councils who are affected by the current situation. I was in discussions with Wyndham council last week. My understanding is that Visy has jumped in to provide assistance. The council has signed a six-month contract with Visy to fill the gap and overcome the situation the council is in because they cannot send their recycling to SKM. Visy have jumped in to fill the gap, and I think that is a welcome thing. I do not want people to say, ‘We need to refer that to a committee to inquire on it and write a report’. There is some merit in doing that and having some fresh eyes on the issue. If it goes to a committee, I am looking forward to the committee looking at the issue—and I think it is broader than just recycling—and coming up with a report on the sort of action the government should take, and the industry should take, going forward, to address this issue. But we should not be sitting here waiting for a committee to conduct an inquiry and write a report in relation to this issue. This is about what we are doing about it now. This government is actually doing a lot of things, as we speak, to address the issue of waste and recycling. It has been and always will be a commitment of this government that the recycling issue is a top priority, and I think the commitment by this government, in particular by Minister D’Ambrosio, in relation to recycling is second to none.
It is a top priority of the government to make sure we run some effective education programs on this issue. We are going to start by reducing waste. Whether it is plastic, whether it is paper or whether it is just general waste, the whole principle driving this government and Minister D’Ambrosio is to make sure we go out there and educate people about how they can reduce waste. That is the number one priority— how we reduce waste. That should be the key. Without going to a committee, the question has to be asked and pushed hard: how we can achieve the goal of being able to reduce waste? That is the number one priority. We are always going to have waste. There is always going to be a need for the use of plastic, glass and that sort of packaging material. That is not going to disappear. It is always going to be there. The question then becomes how we are going to reduce this waste and then recycle it. Talking about recycling and the current Chinese ban, the Chinese are still using clean recycling materials; clean glass, for example. They will pay top dollar for it. Maybe one of the issues we need to start seriously looking at is educating our citizens that there are good buyers out there for clean recycled products. If you have your pasta sauce bottle and you rinse it, you will get a good price for it. That is what they do in a lot of European countries and a lot of other countries around the world. If you clean glass or clean plastic, you will get top dollar for it. The Chinese will still buy those products, but they will not buy them if they are contaminated. As I said, it suited their economy and their business plan for a number of years to buy contaminated products because their economy was growing so fast, but now I suppose you could say they have become a bit fussy because they only want to buy good-quality products, which is fair enough. That is their call and that is their decision. So maybe they are some of the things we need to start looking at.
The government has invested more than $37 million to boost the recycling industry through a Recycling Industry Strategic Plan, and some of these changes will take a bit of time. It does not just happen overnight, but we are actually putting money and heavy investment into making sure that we are finding solutions and we are looking at solutions. So the strategic plan will bring government investment in waste and resource recovery initiatives to over $100 million over the last four years, more than any previous Victorian government. So the talk that we are not doing much or we are not doing anything is just not true—we are. The other thing I talked about is what we do with our recycling products, what we do with our glass, for example. Let us talk about glass. I think as recently as a few months ago on the Tullamarine Freeway thousands of tons of glass were used out of our recycling products to seal the road on Tullamarine Freeway. That is made of glass. So when you are driving over the Tullamarine Freeway you are driving over glass because recycled glass is converted back to sand, because that is what you might glass with. Glass comes from sand, so you turn that back to sand. As they say ‘ashes to ashes’, so glass back to sand. The Tullamarine Freeway has mountains of glass. If you are driving past Laverton on Somerville Road Visy Industries have got a huge operation there and there are mountains of sand stockpiled there, and it is good to say that VicRoads has now changed its standard and is encouraging its contractors, particularly in the asphalt industry, to start looking at using that recycled material and making roads. That is something I was involved in advocating for in my days in the union, because some of those recycling bottles could go to be made into new bottles at Allied Glass. There is one operation in Spotswood, there are another two in Adelaide, one in Sydney and one in Queensland, and the glass industry is basically shrinking. They only take the good product, so if they are contaminated with too much colour, these glass bottles, they reject them. We are talking about the container deposit, and I think that is a great idea, but that is not necessarily the only solution or the final solution. It may be one of the solutions.
The solutions have to be what do you do with the product at the end of the day? Where does the product finish up? Going back to the issue about reusing, the ones we cannot reuse can go to making new bottles, and the ones we cannot use to make new bottles we will make roads with now, which is a good thing. So it is very pleasing to see that VicRoads has done that, and I am hoping that will continue and maybe expand, because we have got a lot of road projects happening in Victoria. I think we will probably need a lot of glass. We have got heaps of it, and we can use that to basically seal our words and make roads from that recycling product. On the issue in relation to paper recycling and other recycling, I think it is important to note—again going back to the Chinese ban which has caused the current crisis we are dealing with today—the matter about making sure it is not contaminated. Some of the industry now is waking up to that, and I think it is a matter of repackaging some of the recycled material. Where you are able to sort out a clean product or non-contaminated product in one pile, then you can deal with that and sell it at a premium price. Then on the other hand you look at finding another solution for the contaminated product, whether that solution could be exploring other methods such as the government is exploring through waste-to-energy management in Melbourne, where they are looking at other options. I, for one, definitely do not want to see these products finishing up in landfill. The last thing we want to see is any of that product finishing up in landfill. Unfortunately from time to time some of these products might finish up in landfill, at least in the short-term until a more permanent solution is found. So going back to the investment the government is putting in, some of the $37 million in funding will provide $13.5 million for a short-term relief package for local councils, which has already been done; a further $13.9 million to increase the quality of recycled material, which I talked about, in relation to an education campaign; $4.2 million to improve the productivity of the recycling sector and procurement; and $5.5 million to develop and market recycled material with supported development of end-market and recycled material. So there are a lot of things already happening in relation to recycling.
I think the other part of the motion talks about waste management in general, and I am pleased that we are now looking at other options as an alternative to landfill with the announcement of Australian Paper, which has received funding from this government of $2.5 million, $2.5 million from the federal government and they have put in $2.5 million themselves, developing a 650 000-tonne capacity plant to convert waste to energy. Last night Wyndham council approved another permit, or licence, for another company, Recovery Energy, to open and operate a plant in the western suburbs for waste to energy. I want to congratulate them on the good work they have done as well as Wyndham council for granting them that licence last night at the council meeting. There are things happening about recycling and about waste, so it is not like the government is sitting back doing nothing about it, but some of these things will take a bit of time. So in conclusion I just want to make the point that it is like we are being lectured about the government’s commitment in relation to recycling, and I do not want it to be seen that the only people who care about recycling and waste management are the Greens. Certainly that is not the case. So that is a snapshot of some of what this government is doing in relation to recycling and waste management. We will see what happens with the motion and whether it is agreed to and referred to a committee. If that is the case, I look forward to the work of the committee. But make no mistake, this government is committed to addressing the current issue of recycling. Actions speak louder than words. With those words I will leave it at that, and I will be interested to hear the comments from the other speakers. I will conclude on that note.