There are critical issues to be faced by the meeting of the Environment Protection and Heritage Council in Perth on 5 November – not least the collapse of the valuable recycling industry and the scandal of our export of toxic rubber tyres to Asia, says Ruth Hessey.

The stigma around the waste humans generate where ever they venture, from the kitchen to outer space, is fast dropping away as our society creates so much of it we can no longer pretend it magically disappears in a hygienic white flash.

Not only must we face it, we have to do something about it. Urban landfills are turning into mountains of contaminated mush emitting greenhouse gases and leaching toxins into the soil and water tables. Container loads of reject waste are filling the world’s shipping lanes as harbour authorities reject permission to dump, and even those who are getting away with using the ocean as an illicit dumping ground are coming up against increased international surveillance.

We are running out of time to solve the waste issue, and we can no longer afford to waste anything – from precious petroleum by-products, to essential minerals and even the nutrients in soil.  All over the world we are running out of natural resources which have been exploited carelessly, without thinking ahead.

Recycling is clearly the most sensible and achievable option if we want to maintain and even share our current levels of prosperity and toys, let alone provide for future generations. Recycling and its attendant reprocessing and remanufacturing activities can help save finite raw materials, and will generate new jobs, while boosting the global economy as well as our own.

So why is Australia’s recycling industry on the brink of collapse? It’s not the global financial crisis, although the industry did suffer from a massive drop in scrap prices – it’s the Rudd government’s CPRS.

The Rudd government is so preoccupied with compensating the polluters (the coal industry and the like), that it can’t see how the CPRS in its current form is threatening the future of the recycling industry – even though recycling is doing more than anything else to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

The Rudd Government is pricing the Australian recycling industry out of existence by making it cheaper to use new raw materials rather than recycled waste, and cheaper to export the recycling materials and business offshore than deal with it here. If for example this occurs with the paper industry and Chinese mills use our waste paper, an extra 380,000 tonnes per year of greenhouse gas emissions will result.

This is madness. At the macro level the current benefits of recycling to the economy are well established – a $12 billion a year industry directly employing over 10,500 people in Australia. On average every tonne of waste diverted to recycling creates some $950 in productive economic output.  By comparison, waste that is landfilled creates only $120 of value.

Now consider the scale of the waste problems we have. While recyclate collection has improved, over 20 million tonnes are still landfilled every year. Right now 243 million items of electronic waste are on their way to landfill. And millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases escape from landfills each year.

This is why the Australian Council of Recyclers and Boomerang Alliance have joined forces to promote the National Recycling Initiative – a proactive support package to significantly increase recycling/reprocessing in Australia and boost jobs and economic activity.  In addition specific industry associations in the tyre and electronics industries have worked with environment groups to push for product return policies.

How will the government respond to these efforts to move the recycling industry from bust to boom? This is the challenge the environment ministers and their governments must face when they meet in Perth on 5 November for the Environment Protection and Heritage Council. The ministers will decide the fate of recycling schemes for electronic waste, tyres and beverage containers, and if that sounds mundane and even dull news, be assured their cogitations will have historic and wide reaching ramifications.

They’ll also be working on a National Waste Policy – 17 years after the last one was issued. It’s this sort of pragmatic infrastructure – instead of fantastic technological breakthroughs – which is likely to save us from wasting the future away. Let’s hope the environment ministers know exactly what they are doing, when the time comes.

Ruth Hessey is communications director
Total Environment Centre