Over the weekend, Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued notices for a major recycling company to stop receiving waste at two of its sites.
While the full consequences of these notices are yet to be realised, in the short term this means at least one council will have to dump kerbside recycling in landfill.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s a result of China’s decision to stop accepting Australia’s recyclables, and a clear sign we’ve been playing catch-up but not focusing on sustainable solutions. We need to work out how to deal with recycling in Australia – and determine how much it will cost, and who will pay.
We’re missing a piece of the financial puzzle
Kerbside collections are of course funded by householders as part of their annual rates. After China stopped buying Australian recycling we saw the garbage component of rates rise, so the collection aspect of the costs seems to be addressed. But of course there are a range of materials that cannot be placed in kerbside bins, but can be recycled.
As reported recently in The Age, analysis by an environmental consultancy has found the prices consumers may have to pay to ensure there are systems in place to recycle a range of specific items. For example, it would cost A$16 to recycle a mattress. Given that my local landfill charges A$23 to dispose of a mattress, it seems to make economic sense to pay into a compulsory recycling scheme (and I would not have to transport the mattress to the landfill, which is another bonus).
However, the piece of the loop that is missing is the encouragement (by levies or incentives), for businesses to use more recycled materials in their products.
It does not make sense to collect and stockpile recyclable materials until commodity prices are high enough to justify sorting them. This habit makes us dependent on overseas markets and creates domestic issues.
Nor is it good to have a stop-start approach, in which recyclables are sorted properly when there is space, but sent to landfill when there is not (or have householders call the council fortnightly to see whether they should place their recycling bin out).
A recycling industry association has provided a ten-point plan for resolving what they consider the essential issues with recycling. This very positive list includes investing waste levy funds into recycling, providing incentives for companies to use more recycled material, and educating consumers and businesses on recycling issues.
Encouraging businesses to use more recycled material is crucial. Instead of just reporting how much of their waste is recycled rather than sent to landfill, all organisations should report on the percentage of materials they buy from recycled sources.
This would help consumers make better buying decisions, and give guidance for governments to target specific sectors or programs to increase the use of recyclables.
We need a “fresh eyes” approach to how we manage waste, focusing equally on the environmental, economic and social aspects of this issue. One barrier is the lack of a centralised approach by all three spheres of government. It doesn’t make sense for state or local governments to have to to manage this large-scale infrastructure issue in isolation.
The largest portion of responsibility for waste management lies with the generator, but that is not to say others may not have a level of involvement. We all have some responsibility for the waste we create in our own homes, and how we dispose of it. Besides recycling, that also means (where possible) avoiding and reducing trash, and buying items made with recyclables – this is called “closing of the loop”.
Some businesses have made significant efforts to reduce their dependence on virgin raw materials, and are using recycled material to either make or package their products. But we do not hear much about this.
Perhaps it is time for a scheme similar to the “Buy Australian” program or energy efficiency stars, which would enable consumers to readily identify the level of recycled material in a product. Currently it is very difficult to tell.
Retailers often say they’re driven by consumers in what they can provide, so why not use our supposed power to force improvements (and more importantly, reductions), in use of virgin materials?
The banning of plastic bags by supermarkets was consumer-driven – so now is the time to encourage companies to reduce their waste burden. Perhaps you can approach a retailer about excess packaging, or make sure you check the label to see if an item was made or packaged with recycled materials.
As we move towards a federal election we should also be asking what our political parties are proposing to do about our waste crisis. It’s time to ask local candidates about their sustainable plan for resolving Australia’s issues with recycling, waste management and reducing resource use.
The recently released 2018 Living Planet report is among the most comprehensive global analyses of biodiversity yet. It is based on published data on 4,000 out of the 70,000 known species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Rather than listing species that have gone extinct, the report summarises more subtle information about the vulnerability of global biodiversity. The bottom line is that across the globe, the population sizes of the species considered have declined by an average of 60% in 40 years.
New Zealand is a relatively large and geographically isolated archipelago with a biota that includes many species found nowhere else in the world. One might think that it is buffered from some of the effects of biological erosion, especially since people only arrived less than 800 years ago. But as we show, the impact on wildlife has been catastrophic.
Describing biological diversity
The diversity of life may seem incomprehensible. Carolus Linnaeus began his systematic work to describe earth’s biological diversity in the 18th century with about 12,000 plants and animals. Since then, 1.3 million species of multi-cellular creatures have been described, but the size of the remaining taxonomic gap remains unclear.
Recently, sophisticated models estimated the scale of life, suggesting that multi-cellular life ranges between about five million and nine million species. Microbial life might include millions, billions or even trillions of species.
Species do not exist in isolation. They are part of communities of large and microscopic organisms that themselves drive diversification. Charles Darwin observed in his usual understated way:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Global decline of wild places
The main threat to biodiversity remains overexploitation of resources, leading to loss of habitat. Human overconsumption can only get worse in coming decades, and this will likely escalate the impact of invasive species, increase the rate of disease transmission, worsen water and air pollution and add to climate change.
This is the Anthropocene, the era of human domination of many global-scale processes. By the early 1990s, just 33 million of the earth’s 130 million square kilometres of ice-free land remained in wilderness. By 2016, it was down to 30 million. Most of this is either desert, taiga or tundra. In other words, humans and their cities, roads and farms occupy 77% of the available land on earth.
By 2050, wild lands are projected to contract to 13 million square kilometres, leaving ever less space for wild animals and plants. In terms of resources consumed, there is huge inequity. Preliminary estimates of the biomass of all life on earth reveal that humans, their pets and their farm animals outweigh wild land mammals by 50 to one. Poultry outweigh all wild birds 2.5 to one.
New Zealand: at the bottom of the cliff
In New Zealand, a lot of attention is paid to iconic, rare species, such as kiwi and kākāpo. However, in 2017, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reported that the proportion of forest land occupied by birds found only in New Zealand had declined in the North Island from 16% to 5% between 1974 and 2002. In the South Island, it declined from 23% to 16%.
These figures are consistent with other studies on animal populations. For example, kiwi, which currently number 70,000, may have declined by two thirds in 20 years. Thus there is a risk that continued biodiversity decline overall will see more and more species requiring last-ditch efforts to save them, with healthy populations confined to heavily protected and often fenced sanctuaries.
New Zealand is unusual in that introduced, invasive predators are a major threat and are widely seen as the predominant threat to native animals. However, land use change in New Zealand has been rapid, extensive and catastrophic for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The New Zealand situation is at best the global story writ small.
As the last substantial land area to be settled by humans, the land experienced an alarming rate of habitat loss. Indeed, deforestation was considered a necessity and the “homestead system” in Auckland saw tenants turned off the land if they failed to clear sufficient native bush.
Native bush in New Zealand has been reduced by about three quarters from its former 82% extent across the landscape. What remains is heavily modified and not representative of former diversity. For example, in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, ancient lowland kahikatea forest has been reduced to less than 5% of its former extent, and between 1996 and 2012, 89,000 hectares of indigenous forest and scrub was converted to exotic forest and exotic pasture. When a habitat is removed, the organisms that live in it go, too.
The way forward
The Living Planet report charts a detailed, aspirational roadmap to reverse the decline in biodiversity. It takes heart from the 2015 Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. It looks ahead to a greatly strengthened Convention on Biological Diversity for 2020.
Unfortunately, biodiversity threats are, if anything, even more pervasive and difficult to address than fossil fuel emissions. In climate change, it is broadly agreed that rising seas, acidifying oceans and destabilised weather patterns are bad. There is no such universal understanding of the importance of biodiversity.
To address this, the report details the importance of biodiversity to human health, food production and economic activity – the “ecosystem services” that nature provides to humans. The intrinsic value of nature to itself is hardly mentioned. This is not a new debate. The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity is founded on “the intrinsic value of biological diversity”, while the Rio Earth Summit of the same year stated that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”
The issue should not be confined to ecologists, philosophers, and diplomats. It needs to be addressed or we may find that future generations value nature even less than present ones do. In 2002, Randy Olsen popularised the concept of the shifting baseline, which means that people progressively adjust to a new normal and don’t realise what has been lost:
People go diving today in California kelp beds that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, “You should have seen it in the old days”.
A global plastic waste crisis is building, with major implications for health and the environment. Under its so-called “National Sword” policy, China has sharply reduced imports of foreign scrap materials. As a result, piles of plastic waste are building up in ports and recycling facilities across the United States.
In response, support is growing nationally and worldwide for banning or restricting single-use consumer plastics, such as straws and grocery bags. These efforts are also spurred by chilling findings about how micro-plastics travel through oceans and waterways and up the food chain.
I have studied global trade in hazardous wastes for many years and am currently completing a book on the global politics of waste. In my view, today’s unprecedented level of public concern is an opportunity to innovate. There is growing interest in improving plastic recycling in the United States. This means getting consumers to clean and sort recyclables, investing in better technologies for sorting and reusing waste plastics, and creating incentives for producers to buy and use recycled plastic.
Critiques of recycling are not new, and critiques of recycling plastic are many, but I still believe it makes sense to expand, not abandon, the system. This will require large-scale investment and, in the long term, implementing upstream policies, including product bans.
Easy to use, hard to destroy
Plastics make products lighter, cheaper, easier to assemble and more disposable. They also generate waste, both at the start of their life cycles – the petrochemicals industry is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions – and after disposal.
The biggest domestic use by far for plastic resin is packaging (34 percent in 2017), followed by consumer and institutional goods (20 percent) and construction (17 percent). Many products’ useful lives can be measured in minutes. Others, especially engineered and industrial plastics, have a longer life – up to 35 years for building and construction products.
After disposal, plastic products take anywhere from five to 600 years to break down. Many degrade into micro-plastic fragments that effectively last forever. Rather like J.R.R. Tolkien’s One Ring, plastics can be permanently destroyed only through incineration at extremely high temperatures.
Why the United States recycles so little plastic
Less than 10 percent of discarded plastics entered the recycling stream in the United States in 2015, compared with 39.1 percent in the European Union and 22 percent in China. Another 15 percent of U.S. plastic waste is burned in waste-to-energy facilities. The remaining 75 percent goes to landfills. These figures do not include any dumping or illegal disposal.
Even the most easily recyclable plastics have a lengthy journey from the recycling bin to their final destinations. Many barriers have become painfully apparent since China, which until recently accepted half of all U.S. plastic scrap, implemented its crackdown on March 1, 2018.
First, there are many different types of plastics. Of the seven resin identification codes stamped on the bottom of plastic containers, only 1’s and 2’s are easily recyclable. Public education campaigns have lagged, particularly with respect to cleaning and preparing plastics for recycling. Getting consumers to commit to more stringent systems is critical. But scolding can backfire, as experience with food waste shows.
Another factor is U.S. reliance on single-stream recycling systems, in which all recyclables are placed in the same receptacle. This approach is easier for consumers but produces a mixed stream of materials that is difficult and expensive to sort and clean at recycling facilities.
The United States currently has 633 materials recycling facilities, which can clean, sort and bale a total of 100,000 tons of recyclables per day. Today they are under growing pressure as scrap piles up. Even before China’s restrictions went into effect, materials recycling facilities operators threw out around half of what they received because of contamination. Most are not equipped to meet China’s stringent new contamination standards, and their processing rates have slowed – but garbage production rates have not.
Finally, since China was the U.S. plastic scrap market’s main buyer, its ban has eliminated a key revenue stream for municipal governments. As a result, some waste collection agencies are suspending curbside pickup, while others are raising prices. All 50 states have been affected to some extent.
No silver bullets
Numerous public and private entities are working to find a more viable solution for plastics recycling. They include plastics producers and recyclers, corporations such as Coca-Cola, colleges and universities, foundations, international organizations, advocacy groups and state governments.
Upgrading materials recycling facilities and expanding domestic markets for plastic scrap is an obvious priority but will require large-scale investments. Increasing waste-to-energy incineration is another option. Sweden relies on this approach to maintain its zero waste model.
But incineration is deeply controversial in the United States, where it has declined since 2001, partly due to strong opposition from host communities. Zero-waste and anti-incineration advocates have heavily criticized initiatives such as the Hefty EnergyBag Program, a recent pilot initiative in Omaha, Nebraska to divert plastics to energy production. But small companies like Salt Lake City-based Renewlogy are working to develop newer, cleaner ways to convert plastics to energy.
Efforts to cut plastic use in the United States and other wealthy countries are focusing on single-use products. Initiatives such as plastic straw and bag bans build awareness, but may not significantly reduce the problem of plastic trash by themselves. For example, plastic straws account for only 0.03 percent of the plastic that is likely to enter the oceans in any given year.
To stem ocean plastic pollution, better waste management on land is critical, including steps to combat illegal dumping and manage hard-to-recycle plastics. Examples include preventing BPA leaching from discarded products, dechlorinating polyvinyl chloride products, on-site recycling of 3D printer waste, and making virgin-quality plastic out of used polypropylene.
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The European Union is developing a circular economy platform that contains a multi-part strategy to increase plastics recycling and control waste. It includes making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and reducing leakage of plastic products into the environment. The United States is unlikely to adopt such sweeping policies at the national level. But for cities and states, especially those where support for environmental protection is strong, it could be a more attainable vision.
You might never have heard of expanded polystyrene, but you’ve definitely used it. It’s the lightweight white foam used for everything from packing peanuts to holding boxes of veggies at the supermarket.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is versatile, waterproof, and surprisingly strong. Unfortunately, it’s also a nightmare to dispose of. It fragments easily into many small, light pieces which can be easily carried away by the wind, and is difficult to process.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
Australia exports some EPS to be recycled overseas, but we have less than one collection point per state. All of this means that The NSW Evironmental Protection Agency estimates that some 12,000 tonnes of EPS is sent to landfill every year. According to the Australian Plastics Recycling survey, about 14% of EPS is recovered for recycling. Most of that is exported – only around 1.6% of all the EPS used in Australia is recycled here.
This is why many researchers are looking for ways to re-purpose EPS, taking advantage of this very useful material and keeping it out of landfill.
Turning trash into treasure
Over the past seven weeks our Master of Design students at UTS have been working on this problem. On level two of the UTS tower, down in the carpark, is a piece of machinery that turns EPS into patties of hardened plastic. These are collected on a palette, taken to a processing facility, and turned into low grade industrial products like traffic bumpers.
EPS is fed into the machine at one end. It’s then shredded, heated, and pressed through an opening at the other end.
It coils into a messy sausage on the cement floor, before being quickly worked into a rough disk by a service worker using a rudimentary, rake-like tool. The spectacle is vaguely reminiscent of watching chefs work pizza dough. Every week cluttered stacks of EPS become these compact, easy-to-handle patties.
Artist Peter Trimble uses a similar method to create Rubbish Stools out of EPS. The process removes the air from the material, reducing it to 3-5% of its original volume.
A different kind of meaning emerges when this substance, rather than piling up in an inchoate lump on the floor, transforms into something useful: a chair, bowl, or tray.
Design and systemic change
Design involves finding ways to create value and meaning with materials that might otherwise remain inconspicuous and neglected. Rather than dismiss EPS as redundant packaging, we aim to see it as something with its own inherent functional and aesthetic value.
In their initial experiments my design students discovered that EPS can be a beautiful material. Through the application of heat and use of specific moulds, EPS can take on an organic, porous texture, reminiscent of bone, or an immaculate, plastic sheen, almost like glass.
This intensity of contrast is one of the common attributes of aesthetic beauty. It could easily be turned into an object, such as a vase or bowl, that someone might hold onto for life.
Considered in isolation, these insights are of limited value to a sustainable Australia. It doesn’t help that many people if the UTS gift store begins selling items made from recycled material (although obviously it is a very small improvement).
However, if these things find their way to landfill soon after purchase the sustainability benefit is marginal.
The more significant change comes when good design helps create a broader shift. For example, could UTS change its recycling systems to accommodate a range of ongoing projects, designed to supply the needs of the university community?
Better still, could those results be applied to large shopping centres, local councils, or small towns? Sometimes seeing the beauty in an overlooked piece of rubbish can open our minds to many different possibilities.
The authors would like to acknowledge Andrew Simpson, founder of Vert Design, for his guidance and teaching expertise in the student project.
Tom Lee, Lecturer, Faculty of Design and Architecture Building, University of Technology Sydney; Berto Pandolfo, Senior Lecturer Product Design, University of Technology Sydney; Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Rachael Wakefield-Rann, Research Consultant and PhD Candidate, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis, with China having effectively closed its borders to foreign recycling. Emergency measures have included stockpiling, landfilling, and trying to find other international destinations for our recycling – but none of these are sustainable long-term solutions.
To manage this problem sustainably, we need a mix of short and longer-term planning. That means taking a broader approach than the strategies agreed by state and federal environment ministers at last month’s emergency summit.
There is a wide range of potential strategies to address the crisis, shown in the diagram below. We have highlighted those that were endorsed at the ministers’ meeting, but there are many other options we could be considering too.
Waste management is planned around “the waste hierarchy”. This sets out our options for dealing with waste, in order from most to least preferable for sustainability. To be effective, the government’s strategies need to follow this established hierarchy.
This means that waste strategies should prioritise avoiding, reducing, and reusing, before recycling, energy recovery, and finally disposal to landfill as a last resort. So how do the ministers’ strategies stack up?
Top of the pile
The ministers agreed to reduce waste through consumer education and industry initiatives. These types of initiatives are important and sit at the top of the waste hierarchy, but the announcement is so far lacking in detail and targets.
Local councils have been running recycling education initiatives for a long time, with mixed success. Going beyond this to waste reduction is even harder and there are few successful examples. To do this well would require substantial investment of time and resources to identify and trial effective approaches to waste reduction. Education alone, without incentives and regulations, is unlikely to deliver sufficient change.
The ministers also endorsed a new target of making 100% of packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. While this target is commendable, we should be prioritising reduction and reuse over recycling and composting when designing packaging.
The industry-led Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has already adopted “closing the loop” (improved recovery) as a performance criterion in its new Packaging Sustainability Framework, but incentives to prioritise reusable packaging are still needed. Refillable returnable glass bottles are common in Europe. Support from government and businesses for local pilots of these and similar schemes would help overcome barriers to implementation.
These “top of the hierarchy” approaches are all long-term and need serious attention to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.
Bottom of the heap
While we’re working on avoidance and reuse, we need to improve our domestic recycling system.
There are several ways to do this:
Increase domestic recycling capacity
The ministers also agreed to work together on expanding and developing our recycling industry. To do this, we need to focus on improving sorting, and reprocessing recyclables into materials that can be used for manufacturing. The recycling industry is advocating for new reprocessing facilities, but we need to develop local markets for recycled material at the same time to make sure we depend less on export markets.
Develop local markets
For recycling to happen, there needs to be a market for recycled content. The ministers agreed to advocate for more recycled materials in government procurement, such as recycled paper, road base, and construction materials. Procurement guidelines will be needed to ensure this goes ahead. Governments could take this a step further, and incentivise businesses to use recycled content in their products too.
Labelling products to indicate recycled content would also help generate demand from consumers.
Improve the quality of collected recyclables
This is an ongoing challenge, but will be essential for any future recycling pathways. Initiatives to achieve this were not detailed in the meeting. This will require upgrading our sorting facilities, and potentially improving our kerbside collection systems too.
Industry reports have suggested that re-introducing separate bins at the kerbside – or at least separating paper from glass – would greatly improve the quality of mixed paper compared with current co-mingled recycling. It would eliminate glass shards, which make re-milling paper much more difficult.
Container deposit schemes also provide an excellent opportunity to collect better-value recycling streams. South Australia developed its scheme way back in 1977 and similar schemes are finally being rolled out in New South Wales (“return and earn”), and will soon be followed by Queensland and Western Australia.
Labelling products with recycling instructions may also help with collection quality. Industry organisations APCO, Planet Ark and PREP Design recently launched a labelling scheme to help packaging designers increase the recyclability of their packaging, and to give consumers information on how to recycle it.
Waste to energy?
Finally, the ministers also identified the potential to develop “waste to energy projects” through existing energy funding channels. This strategy falls lower down the hierarchy than recycling, as materials are no longer available to recirculate in the economy.
Waste to energy projects can be complementary to recycling in processing genuine residual waste (contaminants separated from recyclables at sorting centres), to achieve very high levels of diversion. This is already required under the NSW EPA energy from waste policy. However, waste to energy is not a solution to a recycling crisis and should not be used to deal with recyclables that can no longer be exported to China. It is not a short-term option either, because Australia does not have a mature waste to energy sector, and investment needs to happen at the right scale to ensure that it is complementary to recycling.
Most of the strategies currently being pursued are sound in principle, although many of them need clearer plans for their funding and implementation, as well as ambitious targets.
We need a comprehensive range of short- and longer-term strategies if we are truly to get to grips with the recycling crisis. We should be wary of “silver bullets” such as waste to energy, or new export contracts that could undermine more sustainable long-term solutions.
The environment ministers agreed to update the National Waste Policy this year, incorporating circular economy principles, which is encouraging. This will be their opportunity to coordinate a nationally consistent response that promotes the development of resilient markets for recycled content, and reusable and re-manufactured products.
This will need to go beyond the current strong focus on recycling, and embrace the upper levels of the waste hierarchy. The next step will be to develop properly funded plans for implementing these changes.
Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg is meeting with his state and territory counterparts today. Top of their agenda? The recycling crisis precipitated by the China “ban”.
States and councils around the country have been struggling since the imposition of import restrictions that exclude 99% of the recyclables that Australia previously sold to China.
Curious Kids: Where do my recycled items go?
Hopes are high that the federal government will step in and take a clear role. Proposed solutions include investing in onshore processing facilities and local markets, incentives or mandates to use recycled content, and grants and rebates for innovative approaches that go beyond recycling to designing for prevention and reuse.
But what is the ban and why is it such an issue?
What is the China ‘ban’?
The “ban” is actually a set of import restrictions imposed by China under its Blue Sky/National Sword program. This follows its previous Green Fence program, introduced in 2011, which progressively tightened inspection efforts to reduce the amount of contaminated materials entering the country.
National Sword takes this a step further by restricting the importation of 24 streams of recyclable material. It does this by setting stringent “maximum contamination thresholds” and limiting the number of import permits provided to Chinese businesses.
Of key importance to Australia are the restrictions on paper and plastics, which now have contamination thresholds of just 0.5%. While not a ban in theory, this is virtually a ban in practice, because it is currently unachievable when processing household wastes like plastic.
How much of Australia’s recycling is affected?
Recent estimates commissioned by the federal government suggest that of all recycling collected from households, business and industry in 2017, Australia exported 3.5% to China (some 1,248 megatonnes).
However, the proportion is much higher for two key streams from our household kerbside recycling: 29% (920 Mt) of all paper and 36% (125 Mt) of all plastics collected were exported to China in 2017. This represents around 65% of the export market for each. The contamination rate of Australia’s kerbside recycling averages between 6-10% and even after sorting at a recycling facility is generally well above China’s 0.5% acceptable threshold.
Australia has limited local markets for household recyclables like paper, plastics and glass, so we rely heavily on overseas markets like China to buy and reprocess the waste. Losing the market for a third of our paper and plastics – as have many other industrialised countries – has sent shockwaves through the global recycling market. Oversupply has caused the average price of mixed paper scrap to fall from around AU$124 per tonne to A$0 per tonne (yes, zero!). Scrap mixed plastics has fallen from around A$325 per tonne to A$75 per tonne.
For many recycling companies, this means that the money they can make from kerbside recycling will now be less than the cost of providing the service.
Despite this reduced market, over the past 12 months traders have been able to sell scrap paper and plastics to other countries in Asia. This is a stopgap solution, as these countries are likely to reach their maximum capacity soon.
Other recycling businesses are storing these materials in the hope that a better option becomes available soon; The Age has reported some 200 “dangerous” stockpiles in Victoria. New South Wales has temporarily relaxed stockpile limits to allow greater short-term storage.
Major recycling company Visy has invoked force majeure to stop accepting recycling from the collection contractor for ten regional Victorian councils, while others councils face increased fees. In response, the Victorian state government unveiled a A$13 million rescue package to help councils meet increased costs until June, when they can increase rates (which are expected to increase by 4.5%).
Passing costs onto residents isn’t always an option, as in NSW where rates are capped. To prevent a number of councils from abandoning kerbside recycling altogether (as temporarily happened in Ipswich), the NSW government has announced A$47 million of funding to help industry and councils. However, this is money diverted from funds already aimed at better managing waste throughout the state.
In South Australia, some recycling is seemingly still being sent to China despite the ban because of the high quality of recycling in that state. However, this is not a realistic option for all, and industry associations have called for a A$7 million rescue package. The SA government is waiting on a report from a working group before committing to such a package, but has announced A$300,000 in grant funding for the development of secondary reprocessing infrastructure.
The Western Australian government has created a task force to look at solutions but it has so far not returned any findings.
So what are our options?
The immediate responses from state governments have focused on short-term solutions. Our major medium- to long-term options fall under three categories: increasing the quality of recycling to enable continued export; investing in onshore recycling markets and facilities; and reducing the need for recycling altogether.
Ahead of the Friday meeting of state environment ministers, there’s been a call for “product stewardship”: making companies responsible for the ultimate fate of their products, to create an incentive to ensure packaging is recyclable.
The Waste Management Association of Australia has been lobbying for a A$150 million action plan to invest in infrastructure and improvements in recycling quality, and for governments to buy recycled products. South Australian data suggest that 25,000 jobs could be created if we process recycling onshore.
Let’s hope the meeting produces a commitment from all ministers to long-term recycling and reuse solutions. What we don’t want to see is prioritised investment in waste-to-energy approaches to kerbside recyclables, as this has the least environmental benefit compared to avoidance, reuse and recycling. Even as a short-term solution any investment could lock out better longer-term solutions, because once these facilities are built they need to be fed.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
However, for a truly circular economy, we also need governments to take this opportunity to go beyond recycling and invest in waste reduction and reuse. Grant programs and incentives for manufacturers to design for disassembly and reuse are a great idea, as is support for businesses moving to reusable products and systems, like refillable bottles and returnable food containers.
Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen at today’s meeting, the key message for the public is to keep on recycling, and to recycle carefully. Use the RecycleSmart app or your council’s website to check exactly what can and can’t go in your kerbside recycling bin. If in doubt, keep it out!