It has been variously described as smelling like off ham, burning plastic and chemicals. Officially, it produces “a strong odour with wet paper and sweet fermented characteristics”, in the words of an odour engineer from the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). People who live near it report experiencing headaches, sinus problems and skin irritation because of the unrelenting stench.

The cause is a 40-year-old recycled paper mill run by Visy. With an annual turnover of more than $7 billion, it is the largest privately-owned company in Australia. The plant operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and is located in the mostly working-class suburb of Reservoir in Melbourne’s north. Residents there are fed up.

The mill’s stench has been a source of complaint in the area for years. In May 2021, the EPA investigated and issued Visy a remediation notice requiring action be taken to minimise the emission of offensive odours into residential areas. It was also required to provide a written report explaining the actions taken and their effects, as well as proposals for further odour control measures.

When EPA officers visited the site on 1 September 2021, a month past the notice’s deadline, they found the company had not done the necessary work and issued it with a $9,087 fine. More than a year later, residents say the smell persists and yet there have been no further financial penalties for the company.

In early September this year, Visy was issued a formal warning—one of many—by the EPA for again failing to act by the EPA’s deadline. On 12 September, a highly anticipated EPA-mandated community meeting was held by the company, at which dozens of angry local residents had the opportunity to make their feelings known.

All those that spoke talked about the psychological impacts of the smell. “It’s inescapable”, said one resident. “Visy are having a real good go at ruining our lives”, said another as everyone took their turn to describe how the stench affects them.

Chris Bydder, a senior odour engineer, had earlier confirmed to the Age the connection between offensive odour and distress. “Smell stimulates a whole central nervous system and when that happens, you can get other knock-on effects—you start to become stressed, there’s also feelings of helplessness.”

Many in the meeting pointed out that Visy is a highly profitable company that was simply putting the continued generation of profits ahead of the people living near the mill. Others were astounded that a company owned by the country’s fifth richest family, worth more than $24 billion, could have received only one fine of $9,087 for years of damage done to human health and the environment. It was pointed out that if any of the residents at the meeting committed a minor transgression like littering, the EPA would swiftly issue them a fine for every offence, and a hefty $370 fine at that. Yet a massive company can flagrantly defy the rules repeatedly and over a long period with impunity.  

The close relationship between Visy’s owners, the Pratt family, and the state Labor Party did not go unremarked upon by those in attendance. It was noted that just the month before, the Victorian Labor Party and Premier Daniel Andrews had held a $4,500-per-head fundraiser at Raheen, the Pratt family’s Kew estate. In February, Andrews also attended the bar mitzvah of Leon Pratt, son of Visy executive chairman and one of Australia’s richest men, Anthony Pratt, and in 2019 he opened Visy’s corrugated packaging facility in Truganina. Anthony Pratt’s company, Pratt Holdings, was the biggest political donor in Australia in 2021.

Reservoir residents are committed to forcing the company to stop the stink, including by ceasing its operation until the air is clear. Community group Clean Air for Reservoir is encouraging residents to monitor and report on the odour to the EPA and aim to put pressure on politicians and the company through lobbying and other action.

Steph Price lives within smelling distance of the Visy mill in Reservoir and is the Victorian Socialists candidate for the seat of Preston.