Australia’s Recycling Crisis: Will Our Recycling Bins Still Be Collected?

On 1 January 2018 China’s National Sword Policy came into effect, reducing acceptable contamination levels for 24 types of recyclable materials to between 0.5% and 1.0% (down from 5%). For Australia, the biggest impact will be on paper, cardboard and plastics. There is likely to be little impact on recycling of metals because Australia exports most of its recyclable metals to countries other than China.

The overall impacts of this policy are enormous because of China’s dominance of the global recycling industry. In 2016 China took in half the world’s exports of recovered paper and used plastics and imported a total of $18 billion worth of recyclables. In 2016-17 about half of Australia’s recovered paper, cardboard and used plastics were exported, with 63% of exported paper and cardboard, and 68% of exported plastics going to China.

A lot of people are critical of China for causing our recycling crisis but China’s recycling industry has been responsible for most western countries being able to increase recycling rates. And they are applying these new rules for appropriate business reasons, i.e. it is much more costly to process recyclables with higher contamination levels.

While there may be opportunities in the middle to long term, the immediate impact
is potentially devastating. MRA Consulting Group’s Mike Ritchie says in the February/ March 2018 edition of ‘Inside Waste’ that ‘The prices for mixed plastics and mixed paper have plummeted’. He says that mixed paper has dropped from its decade-long range average of $200-250/tonne to between $0- 80/tonne. Mixed plastic has dropped from $250-350/tonne to around $50 per tonne.

Reinforcing the impacts of the National Sword Policy the domestic market for glass has also ‘collapsed’ Mr Ritchie said. It has become cheaper to import glass bottles from Mexico than to recycle our glass. Local recyclers have resorted to processing glass bottles into sand and some have stockpiled the glass bottles.

The National Sword Policy has immediately made local Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF), those businesses that receive and sort recyclables, un-profitable. To stay open MRF operators urgently need to receive higher gate fees from waste generators, including councils.

The impact of this price decrease was felt immediately with MRF operators in some states refusing to accept plastics, paper and cardboard. Across Australia MRF operators are renegotiating contracts with councils seeking an increase in the cost of collecting bins.

The waste industry is seeing this crisis as an opportunity to grow our domestic recycling capacity. Domestic recycling has significant environmental benefits. If we can recycle more materials in Australia it will reduce the enormous amount of fossil fuels used to ship recyclables across the globe. Recycling of plastics also reduces the demand for virgin plastic, the production of which accounts for 20% of global oil consumption.

Mike Ritchie continues to say ‘This is not a time to be making a case that we need
to build more landfills or waste to energy facilities to handle the extra recyclables. ... the public rightly expects that the materials they diligently sort at home will be recycled.’

Instead Mike Ritchie recommends that governments:

  • assist with capital improvements to achieve the contamination specifications;

  • change regulations to allow stockpiling;

  • change purchasing polices to increase domestic demand for recyclables;

  • and that councils adopt a two recycling bin system (paper and containers) to reduce contamination.

The Local Government Association of Tasmania has said that kerbside collection of recyclables will continue throughout Tasmania and the materials will still be recycled (either in Australia or offshore). Councils have been renegotiating contracts with the companies that collect recyclables and this is likely to result in councils having to pay more. One council has said the cost increase will be dramatic and that this will probably be passed onto ratepayers.

It is a pivotal time for Tasmania’s recycling industry and councils and the State Government should consider the policies Mike Ritchie has proposed. They should also invest in a more effective education program to help reduce contamination and recyclables being put into rubbish bins. In Tasmania it is really difficult to know ‘what can go in my recycling bin and what cannot?’ and ‘how can I be confident that what I put in my bin is recycled?’. Information provided by councils and regional waste organisations is inconsistent, inaccurate and misleading.Councils should be putting in place a requirement for independent auditing of all companies that collect recyclables to determine whether materials are actually recycled and provide feedback to ratepayers.

Article by Peter McGlone, TCT Director