ABC’s Four Corners waste and recycling exposé has everyone talking about rubbish, with the NSW and Queensland governments squaring up for a stoush over garbage sent to Queensland to avoid landfill levies.
It’s also brought the recycling industry out in droves to highlight key barriers and opportunities for the sector, including ways to make useful stuff out of those glass mountains.
Immediately after the broadcast, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk issued a statement saying, “Queensland will not be a dumping ground for NSW waste.”
She said she would discuss the allegations, including non-enforcement of the proximity principle, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
The proximity principle became law in NSW law in 2015, and makes it an offence to transport waste using a motor vehicle more than 150km from where it was generated, unless it is being transported to one of the two nearest lawful disposal facilities.
It was brought in in an attempt to address the thousands of tonnes of NSW trash transported to Queensland to avoid paying the NSW waste levy.
Queensland does not have a waste levy – Labor’s previous levy was repealed by the former Newman government – however Ms Palaszczuk has ruled out reinstating one.
“I made a commitment to the people of Queensland that under my government this term we would not put in place any new fees taxes or charges, and I keep my promises,” she said.
It was hardly news to the Queensland government there was still an issue, though.
Back in February 2016 Queensland’s minister for the environment, Dr Stephen Miles, said he was in talks with his NSW counterpart regarding stronger cross-border laws.
“The previous state government’s inaction, after initially dumping the comprehensive waste and recycling strategy it inherited from the former Labor government, was bad for the environment and bad for Queensland’s recycling industry,” Dr Miles said.
“When the LNP scrapped the waste disposal levy, they created a major problem, which is costing Queensland more than $90 million in foregone levy revenue annually, and made it cheap to send waste across the border into Queensland for disposal.”
Yet they will still not introduce one.
Yesterday Ms Palaszczuk said the state government has made “historic reforms” to address the management of waste in Queensland, citing its container refund scheme, plastic bag ban and investigation into waste-to-energy projects.
“We have led operations, including heavy vehicle searches and a special pollution hotline to allow the public to report illegal dumping to the Department,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
The NSW government needed to enforce its laws, she said.
“I can confirm there will be a crack down on bulk waste transport activities – from as early as tomorrow – to ensure that operators are strictly complying with all necessary regulatory requirements.”
Border inspections by the Department of Transport and Main Roads will focus on the movement of hazardous wastes, in particular asbestos.
The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection will also step up regular compliance checks at key waste landfill sites to ensure they are operating within their environmental authority conditions.
Ms Palaszczuk said next week she would convene a meeting of waste and recycling industry representatives, state agencies and the Local Government Association of Queensland to discuss other long-term strategies to manage waste.
“This issue needs to be addressed with cooperation of the states,” she said.
“I want to work cooperatively with the NSW Government. Our cross border agreement commits us to ‘consistent action on waste management’.”
On the NSW side of the litter border, EPA chair and chief executive Barry Buffier said he had “considered” the Four Corners program, which included a lamentable interview with EPA executive director for waste and resource recovery Stephen Beaman.
“The Four Corners program contained allegations about corruption in the waste industry and suggested, or implied, corrupt conduct through inaction by the EPA in response to notifications of illegal waste activities,” Mr Buffier said.
“Consequently, I have referred this matter to ICAC today.”
He claimed the NSW EPA had the “toughest waste regulations in the country” and put significant effort into regulating the waste industry, monitoring compliance and taking enforcement action.
He also said he was taking four weeks “recreation leave”, effective immediately.
In a statement issued the day after the program, the EPA specifically addressed some of the illegal dumping within NSW that was highlighted in the program.
It said it had in the past financial year completed 100 prosecutions with about $2.36 million in fines issued – an average fine of about $23,600 per prosecution.
It is currently investigating a number of Central Coast sites.
“The EPA was made aware of potential illegal landfilling at Spencer in December 2015 in a report from a RID Squad inspector. At this time, Central Coast Council (formerly Gosford Council) was the regulator for the site, which means the council had full responsibility for investigation of the site,” the statement said.
“Contrary to allegations that the EPA has been unresponsive on the Spencer site, a complex investigation is underway, gathering evidence to prosecute the alleged perpetrators.”
The “complex bank of evidence” it is compiling includes assessing a large volume of seized material, investigating over 70 waste transporters and “interactions with parties known to have a violent history”.
“The EPA is currently finalising a brief for criminal prosecution and is in court with the persons of interest.”
NSW has not issued any statements in response to the Four Corners program.
Private dumping concerns
Interstate dumping was not the only scandal that Trashed: the dirty truth about your rubbish revealed.
It also highlighted the illegal dumping of construction and industrial waste on private properties in Victoria and New South Wales.
This again is something that has been fairly common knowledge – however enforcement and consequences have not always followed through on that awareness.
One case in Victoria where it possibly has was the illegal dumping of waste from the Corkman Pub’s illegal demolition on a development site believed to be owned by the same persons allegedly responsible for the demolition.
The Victorian EPA issued a statement at the time that the waste had been located at 93 Furlong Road, Cairnlea, following a tip-off from a member of the public to the EPA’s pollution hotline.
EPA metro manager Daniel Hunt said that tests found asbestos was present in the waste, and that it had been illegally dumped.
“Anyone who dumps construction and demolition waste, or permits its illegal disposal, faces a fine of up to $758,350 if prosecuted,” Mr Hunt said.
“The tip-off we received really demonstrates the value of community reporting, and we thank the person who called us. It may have taken us much longer to find the waste without that valuable information.”
So – if you see something, say something.
Where’s our national waste strategy?
Greens spokesperson on waste and recycling, Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, said the problems exposed by the program have been a long time coming, and that the fall in commodity prices has demolished the co-mingled kerbside recycling business model.
“The response of government to this slow building crisis has been woeful. Millions of Australians have been diligently sorting their rubbish all for nothing. This is an outrage,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.
He said the federal government had completely stalled on the national waste policy, have not issued a National Waste Report for four years and have not issued a single policy directive.
The COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water was also abolished.
“They have vacated the space and the result is that the recycling industry is in crisis and public trust is sure to follow.
“The environment minister must act now to save this industry and to help restore public faith.”
The Greens are calling on the federal environment minister to recommit the government to developing a national waste policy with binding targets including a maximum of 10 per cent of waste going to landfill by 2030.