Revisiting the issue of interstate waste movement

By Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting Group

According to an ABC report on the 8th of August, the Queensland Premier was “horrified” to hear of the extent of dumping of waste from NSW in Queensland. The Queensland government was “not aware… until it was highlighted on the Four Corners program…”

Experts Divided on Landfill Levy IssueI am pleased that Queensland has recognised the problem and taken speedy action by launching an independent inquiry into the matter on August 16th. The Queensland Government’s 2016 Waste and Recycling report stated that 566,000 tonnes of waste was transported interstate to Queensland. That report was released only three months ago, and as I said at the time, the States need to get on with fixing the problem.

The issue has now hit the political headlines. It was framed by 4 Corners as a matter of criminal behaviour, which it isn’t. Queensland has committed to reducing it through increased inspection of interstate trucks. But it is legal. Inspecting truck certificates addresses a symptom only.

To be clear, trucking waste between the States is not illegal. It is part of the free trade between States that is protected under s.92 of the Australian Constitution.

The reason it’s happening is because there is no landfill levy in Queensland. The Newman government repealed the Bligh government’s levy of $35/tonne citing a low tax campaign slogan. The waste industry warned them what would happen. The oversupply of landfills (cheap supply) combined with the absence of a levy, opened up the arbitrage opportunity of trucking waste to Queensland. It was entirely predictable and the waste sector has been calling for action for at least 3 years.

Like water, waste flows downhill to the lowest (cheapest) point. Trucking waste from Sydney to Queensland saves waste companies around $40/tonne. Whilst none of us like it, it is legal and certainly no crime to pursue this saving.

It could be fixed tomorrow by a landfill levy in Queensland of between $30-40/tonne. Even a temporary Queensland levy while the States work out the best way to respond would do. Show me a Queenslander that is happy with NSW using Queensland as a dumping ground.

We know that levies work. When the Newman Government removed Queensland’s levy in 2012, recycling rates slumped 17% and have not recovered since.

The current situation is untenable. It has led to Steve Beaman being unfairly scapegoated by 4 Corners and the ABC. He personally developed the Proximity Rule to limit long haul waste transport, but when it came to defending the Rule in court against an appeal, the NSW government (not Steve) succumbed. One wonders why and how the legal advice changed?

The alternative to a Queensland levy is for the NSW government to attach the levy liability to the waste. That way it doesn’t matter if you transport it to Queensland or the moon, the levy liability applies.

I repeat the call that I’ve made over and over:

  1. Queensland needs to reintroduce a landfill levy;
  2. Regulators around Australia need to harmonise levies at a level that drives recycling or attach the levy liability to the waste; and
  3. Levy funds need to be hypothecated more to local government, enforcement, regulation and industry development.

It really is that simple.

As always, I welcome your input on this, or any other topic on ‘The Tipping Point’.

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