The tax that had to happen

Finally, Tasmania will have a tax on waste to help fund what we must do to eliminate it

“As levies make it more expensive to dispose of waste to landfill, they stimulate the market to reduce waste generation and find more valuable uses for the waste.”

That’s the Tasmanian government explaining its proposed new legislation to manage the island’s waste. If fully implemented, this levy will bring both environmental and economical benefit, the result of listening to people who really care about the amount of stuff we discard. 

People like Brad Mashman and Rena Dare, who manage Glenorchy’s Recovery Shop, and Jenny Brown of Envorinex, Georgetown – all veterans in resource recovery – have been introducing the government to ideas about turning waste into saleable products, something we knew about centuries ago, when we repaired things, but have since forgotten. 

Leaders at the world’s cabinet and board tables are grappling with one of capitalism’s biggest weaknesses – its disregard for the impacts of economic activities on human society and the natural environment – and the need to represent these impacts in budgets and balance sheets. 

With the social and environmental debt continuing to build, the idea of a circular economy has taken root in Europe, China and Japan. It has now burst on to the international stage, with several meetings over the first half of 2021 to reach agreement on the best national strategies.

“It is essential for all of us to redesign our economic systems to make them sustainable and resilient,” Japan’s environment minister Shinjirō Koizumi told the World Economic Forum in February. His Dutch counterpart, Stientje van Veldhoven, emphasised the link between waste and climate policies: “There’s no way to carbon neutrality without a circular economy.”

In 1992, the year of the Rio summit, Australia had a national strategy aimed at cutting waste by half by 2020. It funded ideas for recovering waste materials and studies into eliminating the potential for waste at source. So 29 years later, we might have imagined that Australia would be leading this new circular economy push.

Sadly, no. With the highest volume of landfill waste in the southern hemisphere, all Australia can boast is a 2018 “national waste policy”, all of 15 pages. Not surprisingly, the 2020 target is discretely dropped, replaced by a 2030 “framework for collective action” and a call for others to develop “tailored solutions in response to local and regional circumstances”. 

With such lacklustre national leadership, those others might be forgiven for being the same. But being closer to its cutting edge makes a difference, as local government and private waste managers, with direct responsibility for the stuff we throw out, have shown repeatedly.

By making it more expensive to dispose of waste to landfill, a levy collected at tip sites stimulates the market to generate less waste and find more valuable uses for what is discarded. All Australian states except Tasmania have one, but the Gutwein government is now stepping up to the plate.

After extensive expert consultation, last week it released a draft Waste and Resource Recovery Bill, under which the Environment Protection Agency will collect a levy from those using landfill on behalf of a new “Waste and Resource Recovery Board”. All revenue is to be invested back into waste management and resource recovery. 

Starting in November 2021, the waste levy will be a flat rate applicable for all waste streams state-wide, ultimately settling at the average of levy rates across Australia, currently about $60 a tonne. The Government will provide support for local government and landfill operators to prepare for the new tax.

For its first two years the levy will be $20 for each tonne of material received at landfill sites, rising to $40 and then $60 a tonne in two-yearly increments. This staged process will ensure a modest cost impact on households while allowing time for businesses and local government to plan for the changes, including investing in waste reduction and resource recovery.

With pressure to reduce landfill building for decades in Tasmania, it’s a wonder that so many governments of both persuasions resisted it for so long. But this legislation is unequivocally a good thing. 

A final question: Is it time for Peter Gutwein’s party to ditch its mantra that new or higher taxes are always bad? In 2014, Canberra Liberals took the view that they must abolish a legislated price on another human waste product, carbon dioxide. At the time this was technically a tax, but it was to be transformed into a market-driven scheme in 2015.

Parties might like to think their guiding principles, including the one about no new taxes, are immutable. But in these transformative times, nothing is sacred.

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