One of Victoria’s main privately-operated recycling plants, SKM, has been placed in receivership amidst a dire crisis in the recycling industry.
The company is reportedly $100 million in debt, which includes the unpaid wages of workers. The closure of the company could result in 600 job losses. Neither a bailout nor SKM being taken over by another private company will amount to a real solution to the problems we face.
This crisis started developing early last year when China placed a ban on most recycling waste entering the country. Previously around 30% of all of Australia’s recycling was being sent to China.
Australia doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to process all the recyclable rubbish, and the recycling collection industry is now unable to sell it off at a profit. Because of this, contractors have stopped collecting from some councils. Over 30 local councils are now sending recycling to landfill. This is a slap in the face to millions of people.
Because they couldn’t ship it off overseas, big contractors like SKM and Visy started storing rubbish in warehouses and yards. This kind of stockpiling led to a toxic fire at SKM’s Coolaroo site in 2017. Since then these stockpiles have only increased and become more dangerous.
Many people are understandably angry at how this crisis has unfolded. A recycling regime has been in place in Victoria for 25 years. In this time, we have been told that if we changed our individual behaviour, we could avert an ecological disaster.
The fact that recycling was taken up so enthusiastically over the years is positive. It shows how ordinary people want to do what they can to protect the planet. But this crisis is a sign that individual changes are not enough. We need to look at how industry itself it run.
In response to SKM going into receivership, the Victorian state Labor government said that the company would not be bailed out. The environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio labelled SKM a “rogue operator”. This implies that this one company is the issue, and not the fact that recycling is run on a for-profit basis with no real planning in place.
The solution put forward by the state government is for another privately-run company to take over the processing. Another suggestion from the Municipal Association of Victoria’s Coral Ross is to make workers shoulder the burden by working longer hours to reduce the stockpiles of excess waste. But why should ordinary workers shoulder the burden?
Handing over the reins to some other company may provide a short-term solution, but will fail to address any of the underlying causes. What we really need is a major overhaul to the way we produce things and deal with waste.
At the moment much of the packaging that goods are sold in is unnecessary. Often it is there purely for marketing purposes. This coupled with the fact that production under capitalism is unplanned and for-profit means that we end up producing much more waste than we need to.
A democratically planned socialist economy would produce things for need rather than profit. On that basis waste could be reduced drastically. Similarly, with the profit motive removed we could deal with the waste that was produced in a sustainable way.
In the meantime, we need to take recycling out of the hands of the private sector. Rather than wasting resources by sending waste overseas we need publicly owned local recycling plants. That way we would be able to process and recycle rubbish near the point of consumption. The construction of new recycling plants would reduce transportation costs and create jobs.
We also need to shift the costs of recycling away from households and onto waste producing profiteers, through increasing corporate taxes.
Recycling plants could be linked to local TAFEs and universities, who could work together on research into more efficient waste management. As well as enacting plans to reduce waste, we could look at technology to transform waste into useful products like building materials.
The private sector is utterly incapable of dealing with recycling crisis. Only a socialist alternative to capitalism would be capable of dealing with the recycling crisis and producing the goods we need in a sustainable way.
By Meredith Jacka