The recycling crisis in Australia: easy solutions to a hard problem



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The amount of landfill in Australia is expected to rise since China is no longer buying our recycling waste. But there are easy solutions to this big problem.
Nicolás Boullosa/flickr, CC BY

Ian A. MacKenzie, The University of Queensland

Ipswich residents have been told their recycling waste will now be dumped into landfill because it is too expensive for the local council to recycle.

This is a result of Australia’s recycling industry crisis. China’s recent ban on imported solid waste means that most of our waste has been stockpiled domestically and is not being recycled.

Last year alone we exported more than 600,000 tonnes of waste to China. Australia does not currently have the capacity to handle this volume.




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In Queensland, this could not be happening at a worse time, given that the state will soon launch its own container refund scheme in a bid to boost recycling rates.

Unfortunately, the case of Ipswich Council is likely to be repeated around Australia. Many local councils will be feeling the strain and considering their options as they face their own recycling mess.

Use a stick

A crude, but ultimately effective, strategy would be to increase landfill levies to make this option more expensive.

This would create a clear and immediate incentive for businesses to consider exactly how much material they need to send to landfill. Until recently, Queensland had no levy on landfill. This prompted many New South Wales businesses to send their waste across the border for cheaper dumping.

Queensland recently re-introduced a levy to deter this practice, which will presumably normalise the amount of waste going into its landfills.

Increasing levies will mean a movement towards the correct cost of landfill while at the same time generating revenue than can be used to improve recycling infrastructure or, fingers crossed, even cut council tax rates.

Use a carrot

It’s hard to say exactly how much recycling is processed in Australia, as there’s no coherent national database of facilities. But, according to a 2011 government report, Australia generates roughly 50 million tonnes of waste a year, around 50-60% of which is recycled.




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It is clear the domestic market is currently too small to increase the percentage of recycling it handles. To solve this, another simple solution would be to subsidise the cost of recycling this waste.

Subsidies would provide immediate incentives for local recycling plants to increase their processing of this material. In the long run, this may result in more investment in local recycling infrastructure that will be essential to cope with the volume of waste.

Subsidies are not new for Australian environmental policy. Indeed, we subsidise the reduction of greenhouse gases using the A$2.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund. The same logic could be used for recycling.

A savvy policymaker could implement a recycling subsidy that is fully funded by the revenue generated by a waste levy, thus requiring no additional taxpayer funding.

Use a second, different, stick

So far the proposed polices have focused on the existing problems within the landfill and recycling industries, but we need to look more closely at the root of the problem: the generation of waste.

Effective policies could reduce excessive packaging by encouraging companies to rethink their product delivery.

One could tax product packaging, just as policymakers have done with the use of successful plastic bag taxes. In 2015 England adopted a 5p charge for plastic bags and their use fell by 85% in just six months.

Use a mirror

Understandably, implementing tax and subsidy policies may not please everyone. Luckily, changing patterns of behaviour to reduce waste without levies and subsidies is often quite easy and relatively cheap.

Some councils are taking the step of monitoring the contents of bins. This is done either by sending employees to physically inspect wheelie bins, or fitting garbage trucks with cameras to check what’s dumped into their trays. Some parts of Perth are trialling clear wheelie bins to encourage homeowners to reflect on what they’re putting in them.




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We may instinctively object to being named and shamed for poor waste disposal habits, but it’s certainly a relatively cheap and effective way of changing community habits.

In a similar approach on the ABC’s War on Waste, a street of neighbours communally exposed the amount of rubbish they each generated, then pledged to reduce it.

Taking ownership of – and responsibility for – your own waste may prove an unlikely yet effective policy.

Don’t panic! We have options

All in all, we have plenty of options for dealing with our recycling. Now that China is no longer offering a cheap and convenient option to push our waste problems offshore, we have an opportunity to make positive and long-lasting change.




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Using sensible policies, most effectively in combination, could make this a defining opportunity for our local recycling industry with great benefits for the Australian environment.

The ConversationWhat we need most is strong and consistent leadership from policymakers who can imagine a low-waste Australian society.

Ian A. MacKenzie, Senior Lecturer in Economics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Honeybees hog the limelight, yet wild insects are the most important and vulnerable pollinators



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Szefei / http://www.shutterstock.com

Philip Donkersley, Lancaster University

Pollinating insects like bees, butterflies and flies have had a rough time of late. A broad library of evidence suggests there has been a widespread decline in their abundance and diversity since the 1950s. This matters because such insects are critical both for the reproduction of wild plants and for agricultural food production.

The decline of these pollinators is linked with destruction of natural habitats like forests and meadows, the spread of pests such as Varroa mite and diseases like foulbrood, and the increasing use of agrochemicals by farmers. Although there have been well documented declines in managed honeybees, non-Apis (non-honeybee) pollinators such as bumblebees and solitary bees have also become endangered.

There are more than 800 wild (non-honey) bee species in Europe alone. Seven are classified by the IUCN Redlist as critically endangered, 46 are endangered, 24 are vulnerable and 101 are near threatened. Collectively, losing such species would have a significant impact on global pollination.

Though much of the media focus is on honeybees, they are responsible for only a third of the crop pollination in Britain and a very small proportion of wild plant pollination. A range of other insects including butterflies, bumblebees and small flies make up for this pollination deficit.

Butterfly pollinating during monsoon season.
Hitesh Chhetri / http://www.shutterstock.com

Not all pollinators are created equal

Pollinators also vary in their effectiveness due to their behaviour around flowers and their capacity to hold pollen. Bigger and hairier insects can carry more pollen, while those that groom themselves less tend to be able to transfer pollen more effectively. Bumblebees, for example, make excellent pollinators (far superior to honeybees) as they are big, hairy and do not groom themselves as often.

Where they are in decline, honeybees suffer primarily from pests and diseases, a consequence of poor nutrition and artificially high population density. This differs from other pollinators, where the decline is mainly down to habitat destruction. It seems pesticides affect all pollinators.

An ashy mining-bee (Andrena cineraria) settles in for a snack.
Philip Donkersley, Author provided

Save (all) the bees

Curiously, the issues facing non-Apis pollinators may be exacerbated by commercial beekeeping, and attempts to help honeybees may even harm efforts to conserve wild pollinators.

The problem is that there are only so many flowers and places to nest. And once the numbers of honeybees have been artificially inflated (commercial-scale beekeeping wouldn’t exist without humans) the increased competition for these resources can push native non-Apis pollinators out of their natural habitats. Honeybees also spread exotic plants and transmit pathogens, both of which have been shown to harm other pollinators.

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most common species of honey bee.
Philip Donkersley, Author provided

Over the coming decades, farmers and those who regulate them are faced with a tough challenge. Agricultural output must be increased to feed a growing human population, but simultaneously the environmental impact must be reduced.

The agriculture sector has tried to address the need to feed a growing population through conventional farming practices such as mechanisation, larger fields or the use of pesticides and fertiliser. Yet these have contributed to widespread destruction of natural landscapes and loss of natural capital.

Limited resources and land use pressure require conservation strategies to become more efficient, producing greater outcomes from increasingly limited input.

A mosaic of different flowers: these sorts of landscapes are paradise for bees.
Philip Donkersley, Author provided

Cooperative conservation

So-called agri-environment schemes represent the best way to help insect pollinators. That means diversifying crops, avoiding an ecologically-fragile monoculture and ensuring that the insects can jump between different food sources. It also means protecting natural habitats and establishing ecological focus areas such as wildflower strips, while limiting the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

As pollinating insects need a surprisingly large area of land to forage, linking up restored habitats on a larger scale provides far more evident and immediate benefits. However, so far, connections between protected areas have not been a priority, leading to inefficient conservation.

The ConversationWe need a substantial shift in how we think about pollinators. Encouraging land managers to work cooperatively will help create bigger, more impactful areas to support pollinators. In future, conservation efforts will need to address declines in all pollinators by developing landscapes to support pollinator communities and not just honeybees.

Philip Donkersley, Senior Research Associate in Entomology, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.