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.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


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.




Read more:
The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled


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.




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


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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More than 1,200 scientists urge rethink on Australia’s marine park plans


Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

The following is a statement from the Ocean Science Council of Australia, an internationally recognised independent group of university-based Australian marine researchers, and signed by 1,286 researchers from 45 countries and jurisdictions, in response to the federal government’s draft marine parks plans.


We, the undersigned scientists, are deeply concerned about the future of the Australian Marine Parks Network and the apparent abandoning of science-based policy by the Australian government.

On July 21, 2017, the Australian government released draft management plans that recommend how the Marine Parks Network should be managed. These plans are deeply flawed from a science perspective.

Of particular concern to scientists is the government’s proposal to significantly reduce high-level or “no-take” protection (Marine National Park Zone IUCN II), replacing it with partial protection (Habitat Protection Zone IUCN IV), the benefits of which are at best modest but more generally have been shown to be inadequate.


Read more: Australia’s new marine parks plan is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.


The 2012 expansion of Australia’s Marine Parks Network was a major step forward in the conservation of marine biodiversity, providing protection to habitats and ecological processes critical to marine life. However, there were flaws in the location of the parks and their planned protection levels, with barely 3% of the continental shelf, the area subject to greatest human use, afforded high-level protection status, and most of that of residual importance to biodiversity.

The government’s 2013 Review of the Australian Marine Parks Network had the potential to address these flaws and strengthen protection. However, the draft management plans have proposed severe reductions in high-level protection of almost 400,000 square kilometres – that is, 46% of the high-level protection in the marine parks established in 2012.

Commercial fishing would be allowed in 80% of the waters within the marine parks, including activities assessed by the government’s own risk assessments as incompatible with conservation. Recreational fishing would occur in 97% of Commonwealth waters up to 100km from the coast, ignoring the evidence documenting the negative impacts of recreational fishing on biodiversity outcomes.

Under the draft plans:

  • The Coral Sea Marine Park, which links the iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to the waters of New Caledonia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (also under consideration for protection), has had its Marine National Park Zones (IUCN II) reduced in area by approximately 53% (see map below)

  • Six of the largest marine parks have had the area of their Marine National Park Zones IUCN II reduced by between 42% and 73%

  • Two marine parks have been entirely stripped of any high-level protection, leaving 16 of the 44 marine parks created in 2012 without any form of Marine National Park IUCN II protection.

Proposed Coral Sea Marine Park zoning, as recommended by independent review (left) and in the new draft plan (right), showing the proposed expansion of partial protection (yellow) vs full protection (green).
From http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

The replacement of high-level protection with partial protection is not supported by science. The government’s own economic analyses also indicate that such a reduction in protection offers little more than marginal economic benefits to a very small number of commercial fishery licence-holders.

Retrograde step

This retrograde step by Australia’s government is a matter of both national and international significance. Australia has been a world leader in marine conservation for decades, beginning with the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the 1970s and its expanded protection in 2004.

At a time when oceans are under increasing pressure from overexploitation, climate change, industrialisation, and plastics and other forms of pollution, building resilience through highly protected Marine National Park IUCN II Zones is well supported by decades of science. This research documents how high-level protection conserves biodiversity, enhances fisheries and assists ecosystem recovery, serving as essential reference areas against which areas that are subject to human activity can be compared to assess impact.

The establishment of a strong backbone of high-level protection within Marine National Park Zones throughout Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone would be a scientifically based contribution to the protection of intact marine ecosystems globally. Such protection is consistent with the move by many countries, including Chile, France, Kiribati, New Zealand, Russia, the UK and US to establish very large no-take marine reserves. In stark contrast, the implementation of the government’s draft management plans would see Australia become the first nation to retreat on ocean protection.

Australia’s oceans are a global asset, spanning tropical, temperate and Antarctic waters. They support six of the seven known species of marine turtles and more than half of the world’s whale and dolphin species. Australia’s oceans are home to more than 20% of the world’s fish species and are a hotspot of marine endemism. By properly protecting them, Australia will be supporting the maintenance of our global ocean heritage.

The finalisation of the Marine Parks Network remains a remarkable opportunity for the Australian government to strengthen the levels of Marine National Park Zone IUCN II protection and to do so on the back of strong evidence. In contrast, implementation of the government’s retrograde draft management plans undermines ocean resilience and would allow damaging activities to proceed in the absence of proof of impact, ignoring the fact that a lack of evidence does not mean a lack of impact. These draft plans deny the science-based evidence.

We encourage the Australian government to increase the number and area of Marine National Park IUCN II Zones, building on the large body of science that supports such decision-making. This means achieving a target of at least 30% of each marine habitat in these zones, which is supported by Australian and international marine scientists and affirmed by the 2014 World Parks Congress in Sydney and the IUCN Members Assembly at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.


The ConversationYou can read a fully referenced version of the science statement here, and see the list of signatories here.

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

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

Holiday Planning: All out the Window


As my holiday draws closer my plans have changed yet again. Back in November 2009 I rolled my right ankle badly and it has not yet recovered to the extent that it would allow me to do a lot of bushwalking – especially on slopes. So this has meant a complete rethink of my upcoming 2 week holiday.

The theory of travelling to Wagga Wagga before heading to the New South Wales south coast has now been scrapped. I simply won’t be able to do the walking I had hoped to do.

Now I am looking at a road trip – and I’m not too sure just where the roads will actually take me. I will be on the road for 7 days and had thought that a quick trip to Kakadu was a possibility – but it would have to be a very quick trip (and probably without stopping). So that isn’t going to happen.

So what will happen? Not completely sure on that. I do plan to do the following however:

Day One – Dubbo

Day Two – Wagga Wagga

OK, so the above two days are still very similar to the original plan. It is after these two days that things have changed. Instead of turning to the east, I’ll be turning to the west. I just haven’t yet decided as to where.