Talking Rubbish Isn’t Enough – Time For Action

By: Anne Rinaudo

Recently Australia’s environment ministers met to literally talk rubbish. Yes, really. It would be funny if the situation were not so dire.

Australia is facing a rubbish and recycling crisis of enormous proportions. Our addiction to a throwaway culture is catching up with us. The single use plastic straws, spoons coffee cups, takeaway containers and plastic bags we use without a care are piling up all around us. It is not just those obvious items that are causing problems. Our lax attitude to what we put into our council recycling bin is coming back to bite us as well.

We sent tonnes of recycling to China

At the top of the agenda for the meeting of environment ministers was the import restrictions China has placed on our rubbish. Earlier this year China followed through on a decision to refuse certain categories of waste from Australia and the rest of the world. The change of policy restricts 99% of the recyclables we previously sent to China for processing. Let’s just think about that for a moment – the world has so much rubbish that we have been sending it to China. Surely, I am not the only one who thinks there has to be something wrong with a world where we ship rubbish internationally?

‘Contamination’ is bottles with lids and labels

Until recently, Australia sent huge mountains of recycling to China for processing; 1.2 million tonnes of it in 2016-17. However, in January 2018 China tightened the rules on the level of contamination in the recycling and it is hitting us hard. In this context, contamination means the recycling is mixed with material that is not able to be recycled and has to be further sorted before processing.

The new rules are causing pain for Australian recycling companies shipping used paper and plastic into China. There is now a contamination threshold of just 0.5%. For instance, a plastic bottle with a lid or label would be rejected under China’s new standard.

Mixed paper scrap is now $0 a tonne

The rule change is making it uneconomic to collect kerbside council recycling. The recycling used to be a good deal for the companies in the business of collecting it, but the average price of mixed paper scrap has fallen from around AU$124 per tonne to A$0 per tonne. Scrap mixed plastics has fallen from around A$325 per tonne to A$75 per tonne. With the Chinese market now effectively closed, recycling companies no longer find any profit in contracting to collect council recycling. To continue a recycling service councils will have to charge ratepayers high prices. That is difficult, if not impossible, depending on which state they are in. If councils end kerbside recycling there is an outcry; a situation which Ipswich council in Queensland recently experienced.

The Federal Government is not taking the lead

Jeff Angel from the Boomerang Alliance told Stephen O’Doherty on Open House, that China’s policy change caused a huge revenue hole for Australian recycling.

“The revenue from China supported the kerbside system. Once the money from selling to China wasn’t coming in, the collection became uneconomic. State governments have stepped in but it it is not a long term solution.” says Angel.

The State governments in Victoria and NSW have relaxed restrictions on stockpiling waste and also handed out some financial support. However, the Federal Government is not keen to buy in. Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg’s contribution last year, when concerns were first raised, was a statement that “Waste Management and recycling is primarily the responsibility of state, territory and local governments. While China’s ban is going to put pressure on some industries, it could provide opportunities for others in the recycling industry.”

Selling waste supported the kerbside collection

Angel  said there were some positives in the agreed statement issued following the April meeting of environment ministers. However, he was concerned that there was little action from the Federal Government, who are leaving it to state and local government to do the heavy lifting. He says the statement is an acknowledgement that there is a serious problem we have to deal with it.

We need personal responsibility plus political action

“A recent reputable poll found 80% of Australians support recycling. The political setting is there, there is a lot more work to do but there wasn’t much meat on the announcement. Some of the solutions like requiring recycled content in products, have to be national, you can’t have different content requirements in each state. We have a national waste policy which we get regular data updates from but we don’t see much action from the Federal Government it has really been left to the states.” says Angel.

Part of the agreed statement addressed the issue of plastic microbeads but Angel believes the action could have been more robust.

“Rather than a voluntary industry program we asked for a Commonwealth law to ensure these micro beads don’t start reappearing in products” he says.

A circular economy should be our long term aim

Waste to energy is not the answer

There is a lot of pressure for the Federal Government to fund waste to energy solutions; burning waste and using that energy for the power grid. However, Angel warns that the idea of waste to energy is a potential nightmare and could lead to toxic exposure.

“There are cowboys who will do the wrong thing. Secondly these waste to energy plants using mixed waste have a highly unpredictable emissions profile. Thirdly they are costly to build and the investors want a predictable supply of material to burn in the long term of say twenty or more years. So we end up burning material and and get a one off energy contribution from material that could be recycled again and again. Finally in all of these plants there are always toxic residues to dispose of” says Angel.

Our reliance on sending recycling offshore has left us lagging in developing a ‘circular economy’. The circular economy is a fairly new concept that was one of the agenda items at the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2018. It is an economic model that goes beyond recycling and invests in waste reduction and reuse. It discourages planned obsolescence and encourages companies to have more reusable elements in their products. The Conversation has an explainer on the circular economy. Europe and other nations including Japan, and now China, are already moving towards a circular economy, Australia risks being left behind.

Global plastic pollution alarm

Angel’s vision is for us to become much better at recycling and reusing materials. He also warns the issue of marine plastic pollution is a devastating catastrophe we are just starting to understand.

“It is unbelievably serious. Scientists recently found 12,000 pieces of microplastic in every litre of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. We have a global plastic pollution alarm and it is infiltrating and accumulating in every part of the world and now business, government and the community are starting to react to the plastic pollution alarm” he says.

How to win at recycling

Angel says that while we need to take personal responsibility “You can’t blame people for not knowing the full details of what to recycle. It wasn’t their decision to come out with a new piece of packaging – that’s done in a corporation. So apart from acting on good personal ethics we need to put pressure on business and on politicians.”

Finally just how can you do your best at recycling? Use the RecycleSmart app or your council’s website to check exactly what can and can’t go in your kerbside recycling bin. If in doubt, keep it out!

Article supplied with thanks to Open House.

Anne is the producer of Open House – a weekly three-hour live talkback radio show exploring life, faith and Hope from a Christian perspective.