When our recycling has no where to go

12 February 2018 | Holly Porteous

Resolution:Possible researcher Holly Porteous is in Australia discussing the recycling trade and its local and global implications.

Recycling in Victoria, South Eastern Australia  is ‘on the brink of collapse.’ For years, China – the biggest importer of recyclable materials in the world – had served as an export destination for much of Australia’s recycling. Councils paid bin contractors to collect bins, the contractors separated waste for landfill and recyclables and sold much of the recyclables to China – almost 60% of it, in part fuelling the Chinese manufacturing industry. Australia’s sale of recyclables to China was worth $523 million. 

recycling; plastic; waste; china

In the UK, too, news of China’s new recycling import policy hit the media’s front pages.

But as of the 1st of January 2018, China ended the import of 24 categories of solid waste, citing environmental and public health concerns  – a ruling not just putting a dent in the Australian recycling industry’s coffers, but also calling into question the immediate future of recycling in the country as a whole. Just last week, recycling giant Visy told bin collectors Wheelie Waste that as of 6th February it would no longer be accepting recyclables from the 11 councils it services in western Victoria. Other contractors are ‘desperately trying to find new markets for the recyclable material’. As councils are faced with either stockpiling recycling in the hope of finding somewhere else to sell it or sending it to landfill, lecturer in hazardous materials management at Deakin university Dr Trevor Thornton said there is a ’50-50 chance that the ban could result in the collapse of the recycling system in Victoria.’

The roots of the problem

Up until 2011, Australia did much of its recycling locally. Yet coupled with the high price of oil and far higher labour costs in Australia than in China, China’s rapid growth and demand for raw materials made it more profitable for recyclables to be sold to China than sorted in Australia. As a result, the country’s internal infrastructure for recycling largely collapsed.

Last July however, China changed course. Against a backdrop of persistent pollution, a rising phenomenon of ‘trash towns’ and a drive to develop China’s domestic recycling system, it decided that as of 2018, it would refuse foreign waste.

Looking to the future – What can be done?

Although short-term pain is likely, this may be an opportunity for Australia to develop an internal recycling industry to cater for the population. A power plant in Paris burns household waste to generate power for 79,000 homes – a model that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation believes could have serious potential in Australia. According to Syctom, the waste disposal company managing the site, combustion gases are treated by an electrostatic precipitator which recovers more than 99% of the particles contained in them. Flue gases are also treated to remove pollutants, making it a remarkably environmentally friendly process.

Perhaps most crucially though, China’s ban on imported waste could spur Australian governments, councils, businesses and private citizens to place increased emphasis on waste reduction while domestic waste management systems develop. According to Melbourne based newspaper The Age this has already started – a Facebook group called ‘Zero Waste Westies’, set up by people in the western suburbs in Melbourne, has more than 800 members. Depending on how events play out, what looks like a local step back for sustainability has the chance of inspiring a more environmentally conscious society, as well as a healthier China.

rubbish, recycling, bins, melbourne, moreland

Recycling and General Waste Bins in Moreland City Council, Melbourne, Victoria (Photo Holly Porteous)

What can you do to reduce waste?

Here are some ideas…
1. Get to know the rules of recycling in your area. What is and is not recyclable? Wherever possible, opt for buying things in recyclable packing rather than packaging you’ll have to through away.

2. Ditch the plastic bags! Let that canvas bag reign supreme at the shops.

3. Make a meal plan to help prevent you from buying extra unneeded food.

4. Buy in bulk. (Less packaging required).

5. Start composting. Compost heaps are easy ways to make the most of your food waste. Food scraps and garden waste can be turned into highly nutritious soil, while also avoiding landfill. A win-win!

6. Use a keep cup! Our thirst for disposable plastic and paper coffee cups are a huge drain on resources, and contribute astonishingly to waste. (According to the University of Melbourne, Australians use 1 billion disposable coffee cups each year. At that rate, using a Keep Cup would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 92% over a year.)

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