Amid growing tension in the APAC region over plastic waste exports, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a ban on waste exports and pledged $20m to boost Australia's recycling industry.

In a post on LinkedIn, in which PM Morrison can be seen reading letters from “passionate kids who highlighted the importance of our recycling and waste management initiatives,” he says, “I'm pleased to let them know that we are banning our waste being shipped overseas and that it will be recycled and reused here in Australia.”

This announcement followed a meeting in Cairns last Friday (9 August) of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). At this meeting leaders agreed “Australia should establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres, while building Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities and associated demand”.

According to the COAG meeting communique, Environment Ministers were tasked to advise on a proposed timetable and response strategy following consultation with industry and other stakeholders.

Leaders agreed the strategy must "seek to reduce waste, especially plastics, decrease the amount of waste going to landfill and maximise the capability of our waste management and recycling sector to collect, recycle, reuse, convert and recover waste".

Leaders also agreed the strategy should "draw on the best science, research and commercial experience, including that of agencies like the CSIRO and the work of Cooperative Research Centres".

In a statement following the COAG announcement, Pete Shmigel, Australian Council of Recycling CEO, said: “The only route to COAG’s vision of recycling sovereignty and security is governments now matching very big deeds and dollars to their discussions. This great leadership by COAG must be followed by great investment."

Shmigel went on to say that material export bans must be implemented over a clear timetable with consultation and care to avoid unintended consequences.

"If there are no new and sustainable markets established for the 4.5m tonnes of currently exported material, there will only be the option of domestic disposal -- which is highly undesirable," he said. "Equally, it would be counter to the decision to ban the overseas sale of stock where product value has been added by Australian industry and there are good environmental outcomes. However, if 4.5m tonnes can be integrated into a domestic circular economy, it can generate an additional 5000 recycling jobs or a growth of some 10% on current employment figures, and that would be an awesome environmental and economic outcome."

$20m investment pledged

Then, on Tuesday this week (13 August) a second announcement followed: The Morrison government pledged $20 million to boost Australia’s recycling industry as part of its plans to reduce waste materials such as plastic, paper and glass.

ACOR has welcomed the developments, and says the funding is earmarked for research and design. But environmental lobby group Boomerang Alliance (Total Environment Centre) says it's not enough.

PKN spoke to Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation CEO Brooke Donnelly about both of these developments, who hailed last week's COAG announcement to phase out the export of waste materials as an "excellent milestone" – and one that she says consolidates the significant body of work that has been delivered by government and industry over the last 18 months.

"The signatories to the Australian Packaging Covenant are committed to building a circular economy for packaging in Australia – and phasing out waste exports and developing Australia’s domestic recycling capacity are critical pieces of that puzzle," Donnelly said.

"Federal Government’s announcement demonstrates that Australia is serious about tackling plastic pollution – a fundamental component of our work to deliver the 2025 National Packaging Targets, which will boost plastic recycling rates and phase out single-use and problematic packaging.

"A big part of the work ahead of us is to reduce the contamination in our waste stream, and consumer recycling education programs like the Australasian Recycling Label are now more important than ever," Donnelly said.

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