First a question: How could there be a crisis? We all put our yellow bins out for the council to collect our recyclables, and business does it’s bit don’t they? Then what’s the problem?
The problem is what happens after the waste paper, plastics, cans and bottles are bought back to the depot. Plastics is a good example – we consume about 3 million tonnes a year, but we only recycle about 12-14% .... and a lot of this was exported to China to be recycled there. Not just plastic either – Australia also exported waste paper, glass, textiles, ewaste and more to China.
And China has finally turned around and said: no more. They want to clean up their act and are no longer willing to accept all the low grade, contaminated dirty waste from Australia, the EU/UK and others (they previously took about 60% of the world’s contaminated mixed waste!. They are no longer willing to take the millions of container loads of baled unsorted plastics/paper/glass etc and reprocess them in China.
This has been coming for a long time, and we should have prepared for it, but suddenly Councils (in Victoria for example) are being told by the main collector of waste, Visy, that they will not be able to continue to collect, sort and deal with the waste from those councils.
By being lazy in our recycling efforts, and trying to get away with exporting our problems, Australia now faces a recycling crisis. By reducing our domestic recycling capacities and by buying low cost virgin materials and products, we’ve created a monster. And the consequence is that even more valuable waste resources will end up in landfill.
What can be done?
How about these 3 things:
- Our Governments, both State and federal develop plans for a ‘Circular Economy’ with more sorting, reprocessing, jobs and good environmental outcomes. For example the former government in South Australia recently released a 30 year plan to do just that. And those States that don’t yet have a Container Deposit Scheme need to hurry up and introduce one.
- Our industry take responsibility for production and waste: not just making their products ‘recyclable’ but just as importantly, using recycled materials. Many large corporations are starting to get the first part of the equation, but very few are ‘closing the loop’ by using recycled materials in production. Also industry needs to start moving away from the concept of single use containers and packaging.
- Our people, yes that’s us, also take more responsibility for what we use by not just putting out the recycling bin, but also refusing, reducing, reusing, and when buying, closing the loop by buying recycled products.
Where do we rank globally in Recycling:
In 2016 the Australian Council of Recycling found that Australia ranks only 13th in the world for recycling rates (even less if you take out the exports!). They found that Australia is losing the recycling race with a rate of only 41% compared to market leaders like Germany with 65%. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and have one of the worst rates of waste generation: logically we should have one of the highest recycling rates in the world.