In January China placed a ban on most recycling waste entering the country. Australia is now facing a developing crisis as most recyclable waste can no longer be shipped there for processing.
Globally, China is the largest importer of recyclable products. Waste plastics, paper and metals from the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia are shipped to China and processed, with the recycled materials then being used to fuel its manufacturing industry.
However, the service sector in China has been expanding and it has brought with it increased domestic waste. With local supply increasing there simply isn’t as great a demand for the world’s recyclable rubbish.
The decreased demand, coupled with concerns about growing pollution have prompted the government’s ban, which includes 24 categories of waste and excludes any recyclable material with a ‘contamination rate’ above 0.5%, meaning contaminated by general waste. The average contamination rate for household bins in Australia is around 6-10%.
Australia has been overly reliant on exporting waste to China, with around 600,000 tonnes, or 30% of all our recycling waste being sent there. Because of this over reliance on China the ban has triggered a crisis.
Because the infrastructure does not currently exist in Australia to process all the recyclable rubbish made – or the rubbish cannot be recycled and sold at a profit – it has stopped being collected by contractors in some local councils. Dozens more councils are likely to be affected in coming weeks.
In others waste is being stockpiled, as huge recycling companies like Visy struggle to find a new overseas market to sell the rubbish to. It is likely that large quantities of recyclable rubbish will now be sent straight to landfill.
Some councils are being told that they could now have to pay collection contractors up to $120 per tonne to continue services.
Because of this market failure it is now very likely that local councils will seek to increase rates and charges to pay for the extra costs associated with getting recycling waste collected. This at a time when working class people are already burdened with an increased cost of living and stagnant wages.
If anyone is going to cover the extra recycling costs it should be the corporations that produce products with wasteful and excessive packaging.
Victorian councils already spend $600 million a year, or around 12% of their budget, on recycling. With contractors now demanding higher fees, some limited support has been given to councils by the Victorian government.
$13 million has been offered to affected councils to subsidise increased costs, however this support will cease at the end of June. Most commentators are sceptical about the prospects of the state government and the councils finding a solution by then.
Trevor Thornton, a lecturer on hazardous materials management at Deakin University, has warned that the entire recycling system could collapse as a result of the China ban, giving it a 50% chance of failure.
With a dire warning like this, common sense would demand strong intervention from the federal government, but they have washed their hands of the matter.
Josh Frydenberg, the Minister for the Environment and Energy, stated that recycling and waste management was a local and state government issue. The Victorian government is also attempting to limit its responsibility, describing it as an issue for local government and offering no further support.
This crisis requires an urgent solution. Waste management and recycling are essential services that should not be left to the unreliability of the market.
Sending waste overseas to be recycled is an absurd idea in the first place, from both a practical and environmental perspective. Rubbish should be processed and recycled locally in state owned recycling plants.
The costs involved could then be shifted from ordinary consumers to profit making corporations through taxation. The construction of a series of recycling plants in each major city would not only reduce expensive transportation costs but provide much needed jobs.
The plants could be linked to local TAFEs and universities and work together on research and development projects. In addition to plans to reduce waste we could look at technology to transform waste into useful products like building materials.
A plan of this character would not only be good for the environment but it would also provide well paid and secure jobs.
By Dane Letcher