You may want to hold your nose because there’s certainly the sniff of a federal election in the breeze. 

It may or may not happen in 2021, but there’s one sure thing about the next poll that you can lay money on in Vegas. Resource recovery and waste minimisation, as a policy area, will be unprecedentedly contested by both the Coalition (LNP) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP), as well of course by The Greens.

The last election in 2019 saw significant commitments made by all of the major parties. However, the LNP especially surprised many stakeholders with a very solid package of election promises, including funding pledges, that surpassed anything in its history. The ALP could be accused of perhaps taking the issue somewhat for granted and/or deciding to play it safe with its limited promises. In the case of a sharpened up Albo ALP, that’s not going to repeat itself. 

But more broadly, what new policy is likely to be put forward and why so?

On the LNP side, the challenge is “what’s next?” Having realised that there is massive community support for resource recovery, and that acting on it is a practical and credible way for the LNP to demonstrate environmental credentials (as opposed to, say, in the area of climate change), the Morrison Government has been busier than a sorter in a recycling plant this term. It’s efforts include:

  • Driving National Waste Policy and its 80 per cent waste reduction target 
  • Appointing the first-ever Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction
  • Declaring through the Prime Minister that “it’s our waste and our responsibility”
  • Banning by law some waste streams from being exported 
  • Taking some action (for whatever it’s worth) on plastics minimisation 
  • Providing unprecedented national funding for recycling infrastructure 
  • Making a strong commitment to food waste recycling 
  • Initiating somewhat boring but important “good housekeeping” like the current development of nationally consistent kerbside recycling standards 
  • Throwing more weight behind the Australian Recycling Label (ARL) and consumer education, and
  • Officially recognising resource recovery as one of the “big six” Australian manufacturing sectors for the future.

Speaking of sixes, let’s go full sports cliches. It’s been a big innings from the Prime Minister, Minister for Environment Sussan Ley, Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction Trevor Evans and their highly capable and mature teams. They have runs on the board and produced them by standing in the crease in a logical, systematic and solid way. Certainly, the LNP will substantially point to the scoreboard and its well-earned achievements in resource recovery during the election contest.

The problem with achieving good things in Government is that stakeholders give you little credit for your last Test and expect you to keep hitting centuries. 

To that end, one area where the LNP is likely to do more is product stewardship (PS), or the concept that those who make stuff should take some level of responsibility for the recovery, recycling and/or reuse of that stuff at the end of its initial useful life. So far, the LNP has refreshed the legal and policy rules for PS, including how sectors or products get nominated for action, strongly communicated expectations to industry (notably packaging and handheld batteries), and provided increased funding for voluntary PS schemes ranging from agricultural plastics to child safety seats to sporting equipment. 

The opportunity for the LNP in the election context is to build on their PS platform and make commitments such as: a) “nominating” more sectors for PS prioritisation; b) developing standards for what constitutes a “quality” PS scheme, including through the newly formed and funded Centre for Excellence for PS; c) offering up further funding for PS research and innovation, such as “closed loop” techniques, and; d) supporting more recovery options for PS items in regional and rural areas. In keeping with its DNA, all LNP commitments will most likely be founded on collaborating with industry who make voluntary commitments; it’s about carrots for good environmental results, rather than what’s seen as unnecessary sticks or costly interventions in the booming economy.

Where the LNP may be a bit more interventionist is on the positive procurement agenda, or committing government agencies to more significantly source recycled content products to grow domestic demand and industry sustainability. For example, it would be logical for the LNP to do more to see roads – which they are the largest funder of and which are the country’s biggest asset – made with recycled content such as secondary plastics, rubber crumb and lower grade glass cullet. Such an initiative also has considerable greenhouse gas savings, which is an area where the LNP will need to provide at least tick some boxes if it won’t go to targets or taxes.

And, we’ve arrived at the opening for the ALP. Whereas the LNP will be aligned with its pro-business approach (and that’s where it’s legitimacy on resource recovery is based), the ALP can put greater emphasis on an eco-centric approach. If you strongly believe the end game of decarbonising the economy is vital and justifies strong action, then you can have a bigger comfort zone with market intervention.

Stakeholders got a big hint of this when the ALP – somewhat unexpectedly – almost succeeded in the Senate at amending the Government’s recycling legislation to put packaging and plastics product stewardship into a mandatory rather than voluntary mode for industry. Very big hint, indeed.

Follow the bouncing ball in terms of the ALP and it’s need to differentiate from the LNP, and this is where we may end up:

  • Proclamation of mandatory PS schemes and the legal capacity to set performance targets and timelines for them
  • Legislated design standards for some types of products seen as environmentally problematic
  • Greater consequences for industry for ‘non-compliance’ in PS
  • National bans on single-use plastic items that consolidate and build on State commitments
  • Hard targets for Government procurement of recycled content products across agencies
  • National-level or consistent bans/standards on certain items being disposed to landfill such as e-waste and batteries
  • Incentives for recycled content products, such as tradeable credits related to the product’s GHG footprint compared to virgin material product’s, and
  • Mandatory recyclability and recycled content product labelling for packaging and other products

The overall political aim for the ALP will be to “up the ante’” on the LNP’s voluntary emphasis (which is typically slower to achieve results) with a more compulsory emphasis (which promises faster and bigger outcomes) that swing voters may be more attracted to.

As part of that, the ALP could primarily position its resource recovery policy as a key part of the circular economy and pollution reduction, while as the LNP could position its further promises in terms of manufacturing jobs in the regions.

But here’s something that unites both sides. The truth is that the debate about “why recycle?” or “is recycling a good thing?” is over. Done and dusted and won. Rather, the future contest – to the benefit of both the resource recovery industry and general punters – will be about “how to” and “who is best qualified to do it”. Winner winner chicken dinner (in recycled content and fully recyclable packaging, one hopes).

Pete Shmigel is a writer who is in recovery after 25 plus years of executive roles in politics, major corporates, consulting, charitable NGOs and the resource recovery industry. He likes bikes and has decided to recycle and repurpose them through the new start-up, Revolve Recycling.