A crisis too big to waste: China’s recycling ban calls for a long-term rethink in Australia


Monique Retamal, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, 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.




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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.


UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, Author provided

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.


UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures

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.




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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.


Adapted from Assessment of domestic Waste and Recycling/NSW DEC

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.




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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.

The ConversationThis 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

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

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How green is our infrastructure? Helping cities assess its value for long-term liveability


Roger Jones, Victoria University; Celeste Young, Victoria University, and John Symons, Victoria University

Australian cities score high in liveability awards. Melbourne has topped The Economist’s most liveable cities ranking five years in a row, with Adelaide, Sydney and Perth not far behind and Brisbane in the top 20. Australian cities rank well in other liveability surveys, too, if not so highly. Environment is one of the key factors that these surveys measure, but the data and methods being used are not very sophisticated.

Green infrastructure is a key contributor to these rankings. The networks of green and blue – taking in rivers and streams, parks, green wedges, gardens and tree-lined roads and rail – underpin urban liveability.

Yet, if we look at these valuable assets, they are mainly historical legacies of the 19th century. They include The Domain, Treasury-Fitzroy Gardens and Royal Park in Melbourne, Hyde and Centennial Parks in Sydney, King’s Park in Perth, the Adelaide Parklands and those in Brisbane, Hobart and Canberra.

Their creation was driven mainly by visions of what a city should look like and provide for its people. This was long before the invention of cost-benefit analysis and many of the other tools used to make the economic case for infrastructure.

Future-proofing urban environments

Today, if a key parcel of land is up for development, green infrastructure is often an afterthought, if considered at all. The recent reports that the former Victorian government rezoned Fishermans Bend, a former industrial site of 455 hectares, without proper regard for grey or green infrastructure are not unique.

In an area threatened by sea-level rise, increased flooding and heat island effects, to allow development that exacerbates these issues is extremely short-sighted.

But this is happening in many localities. Changing climate and the unintended consequences of small decisions, such as urban infilling, are making cities hotter, more prone to flash-flooding and less green.

Rain gardens have aesthetic and practical value as they reduce urban flooding by slowing water run-off.
shutterstock

Local government authorities are on the front line with these issues. They carry the major burden of responsibility for developing and maintaining neighbourhood environments. Over the last few years, some councils have considerably increased spending on park renewal, rain gardens to slow runoff, water capture and recycling and urban forest strategies.

However, this is occurring in an economic environment where local government’s resources are limited and efficiency is emphasised at every turn. State governments run on a platform of capping rates, not considering whether those rates reinvested by council generate ongoing socially beneficial returns.

When communities are asked what they want councils to invest in, green infrastructure is usually high on the list. Local government has recognised these pressures, identifying the need to build better business cases for green infrastructure projects and programs in order to justify their expenditure.

Finding better ways to value green assets

A recent collaborative project, involving four metropolitan Melbourne councils and Victoria University, has put together a framework to help local government identify the benefits of green infrastructure over its whole lifecycle.

The aim is to build better business cases to support projects and develop asset management programs for green infrastructure. This would lead to trees and parks being considered in a similar way to roads and buildings as assets that provide a stream of benefits to the community over their lifetimes.

Valuing the benefits of green infrastructure is tricky, though. This is because each element provides multiple benefits, which cover very different types of value.

For example, a wetland can provide flood protection, substitute for external water supply, cool an area, increase biodiversity, provide recreational opportunities and contribute to adjacent property value. These wetland benefits are public, private and intrinsic.

High-quality open space can contribute to people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. This has the results of offsetting medical costs and promoting higher economic productivity and improved human welfare (happiness and satisfaction). Putting a dollar figure on all of these benefits is extremely complex.

The long-lived aspect of green infrastructure also means it can play a major role in adapting to changing climates within urban environments. The future value of flood protection, cooling services, amenity, recreation and human health and welfare can be substantial.

However, current methods of discounting future dollar benefits, at roughly 5% each year, undervalue these long-term benefits. A recently completed project in Melbourne’s west identified the potential for welfare and environmental benefits exceeding A$300 million over 30 years (discounting at 3.5%) by reducing pollution from an industrial precinct using integrated urban water management principles.

The framework is a starting point for councils to address the economic value of green infrastructure. It is different to most other frameworks, with the emphasis not being on how to select the type of infrastructure, but on how to get a project or program valued, approved and implemented. It has been tailored to existing council processes so it can be used now, but also grow as council programs evolve.

One major gap that our work has pointed out is the lack of available data in Australia to measure green infrastructure benefits with confidence. They are there, but it would be great to rate liveability with confidence and to have it on the same footing as income or GDP.

The Conversation

Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University; Celeste Young, Collaborative Research Fellow, Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, and John Symons, Research Fellow in the Victorian Institute for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University

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