Dozens of workers sifting through bundles of plastics, cardboard and paper at an Australian recycling centre are at the front line of a global waste crisis sparked by China’s ban on reprocessing contaminated materials.
Craig Barker, general manager of Suez Western Australia, says the Chinese move has “taken out effectively 50 per cent of the global capacity for recyclable material to be re-manufactured — it’s removed it overnight.”
The French utility is one of thousands of companies struggling to cope with Beijing’s imposition in January of strict limits on the recycling it imports.
Australia’s situation is symptomatic of a burgeoning global problem. Countries are awash in the waste previously sent to China, which until recently served as the world’s recycler. As materials pile up in Australia the solution is often to send trash designated for recycling straight to landfill, appalling environmentalists.
Suez said China’s policy shift halved the value of recycling it collected in Australia and warned that the nation urgently needed a new national waste strategy, fresh investment and a strong local market for recycled materials if the industry was to remain viable domestically.
“We’ve got to reduce reliance on offshore reprocessing and that means building local infrastructure and creating demand for recycled product,” said Mr Barker.
He said consumer education was also important to reduce contamination in household recycling.
The impact of China’s rules, which restrict imports to recycling with just 0.5 per cent levels of contaminants or lower, has been dramatic, since the vast bulk of material is excluded. In the first half of 2017 China and Hong Kong bought 60 per cent of plastic waste exported by G7 countries, according to data compiled by the Financial Times. This fell to 10 per cent in the same period this year, as companies sought alternative markets, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, or stockpiled recycling materials.
China’s ban is one element of a global waste crisis, the result of a surging population, growing urbanisation and a failure to adopt more sustainable practices, including recycling. A World Bank study estimated that global production of waste would rise from today’s rate of 2bn tonnes a year to 3.4bn tonnes by 2050.
By that time, the World Economic Forum has predicted, the weight of plastics clogging the world’s oceans will be heavier than that of all the fish in the sea.
These global waste problems are mirrored in Australia. Mark Venhoek, Suez Australia chief executive, told a parliamentary inquiry in March that China’s virtual import ban on recycling had sent the industry into “crisis mode”.
About 1.3m tonnes of Australian recycling exported to China has been affected, including 35 per cent of plastics and 30 per cent of paper and cardboard. Some of the total was redirected overseas but a government report in October concluded that large volumes of recycled materials ended up in landfill because of contamination and technical restraints on sorting co-mingled waste.
In February Remondis, a multinational company, wrote to clients in Melbourne warning them it would have to bury some recycling as “processing centres can no longer send the waste to China”. In April Ipswich council in Queensland warned it would send all its recycling to landfill because of the China crisis, although it later signed a contract with a recycling company under which it would not bury all the material.
“The public were outraged at the idea of sorted recycling going to landfill,” said David O’Loughlin, president of the Australian Local Government Association.
He said the best way to ensure that recycling was not diverted to landfill was to promote policies to boost the value of such materials, including taxing the use of virgin plastics and incentivising the use of recycled materials.
“The government needs to mandate the use of recycled plastics and recycled rubber from tyres in products, such as asphalt we use in road building,” said Mr O’Loughlin. “Virgin plastics are cheaper to make than recycled plastic — so we need to create incentives to use recycled material. More recycling also boosts local job creation.”
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Australia’s federal and state governments are drafting a national waste policy, which aims to recycle more, produce less waste and phase out the use of harmful plastics. But even agreeing on aspirational targets — such as cutting waste by 10 per cent by 2030; increasing recycling and energy recovery from waste to 80 per cent; and using 30 per recycled material — has proved impossible so far.
“The opportunity for Australians to see less waste and cleaner natural environments has been hijacked in the name of political opportunism,” said Melissa Price, Australia’s environment minister, after a meeting with her state counterparts this month
The failure to agree the targets also disappointed the recycling industry, which warns that south-east Asian nations will probably follow China’s decision to ban contaminated waste, so deepening the problems for the Australian industry. Thailand has already indicated it will ban foreign plastic waste by 2021.
“We’ve seen the Malaysians put in temporary bans and we’ve seen other south-east Asian countries start talking about the impacts of the influx of recycling,” said Mr Barker. “This is an absolute risk and a pressing issue for us now.”
Additional reporting by David Blood
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