Alas, sometimes things need to be broken for us to realise that we need to make changes.
Just before Australia Day a number of regional/rural Victorian councils received serious news from their kerbside collection contractor Visy. It was no longer going to sort the loads of paper, cardboard, cans and bottles.
The implications for these and other councils, our costs, landfills, contracts and public confidence in recycling could be major.
Australians love recycling. It is always rated our number one sustainability activity. Every fortnight we wheel out our bins believing we are doing our bit.
So how could any council stop this loved ritual? What would we to do with our recyclables? Is this cancelled contract the dead-end sign for kerbside recycling, or is it a near miss?
The news created a flurry of many serious discussions. The affected councils have urgently assessed costs and options to send collections to other sorters, and other councils have sought assurance that they are safe. Contracts, breaches, lawyers and robust discussions are circulating in government and private sector on immediate and long-term costs and actions.
Why has this happened?
In mid-2017, China announced a ban on a list of specific imported low-value materials, effective 1 January 2018. They would not be budged on this despite numerous protestations, particularly from Europe.
The ban has serious global implications as China has been the biggest importer of these materials from not only Australia but UK/EU and other continents. China’s growing industrialisation has gobbled up growing quantities of our recyclables for the last 10-15 years, but now they do not want our dirty and unsorted stuff; they have lifted their standards.
For years millions of container loads of baled stuff have been shipped to China and its neighbours. Not only our kerbside packaging but also electrical cable, computers, metal scraps, tyres, textiles and clothing have been going in ever greater volumes. It has been up to them to do the essentials to sort, wash, granulate and reprocess the materials ready to make new products.
However, the Chinese people have been protesting against environmental pollution demanding better practices. They have been demanding changes to practices that have resulted in litter in streets, waterways, giant landfills and new mountains of residual materials, and air pollution from burning plastics and textiles.
At the same time, two other major drivers have brought about the change.
The Chinese people have been generating more of their own material for recycling, and it makes good sense for the Chinese to process their own rather than import ours. Secondly, the market price for these commodities has fallen due to major new gigafactories producing materials at record low prices. The price for virgin plastics and metals, for example, has squeezed the margin out of recycling and reprocessing.
These are not sudden events; they have been trends increasingly evident in news reports and industry data. And in the same way that the Chinese have been closing dirty and inefficient local coal-fired power plants and closing districts while they install sewage and wastewater treatment plants, so too have they now closed sorting plants that receive our baled kerbside recyclables.
So is this the end of recycling in Australia?
China will continue to import – but now demands that the material is ready to become quality product. For example, with plastics, they want recycled polymers in pelletised form. According to industry, a number of Chinese sorting facilities have moved to neighbouring Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. This has shifted some of the sorting and pollution problem elsewhere.
As outlined above, the bigger problem is structural, particularly in Australia. We have high rates of consumption, and low-cost products and materials. We have also gradually whittled down our own reprocessing and manufacturing industries where material can be absorbed to mix or be a substitute for virgin materials. While it seemed great at the time, this has become a high-risk strategy and now we recognise it is potentially high cost.
Let’s look at plastics facts as an example. In 2015-16 our plastics consumption was about 3 million tonnes a year – enough to fill 40 per cent of the MCG stadium each year. For a decade our plastics recycling rate has been static and low – about 12-14 per cent (329,000 tonnes, which includes quantities sent direct to China) and Australian reprocessing of plastics was finally overtaken by exports (in tonnes) in 2011.
Recycling plastic produces between 50-85 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than using virgin materials. Like everything, if materials are not circulated back into the economy to be reused or make another product, they make a straight line to landfill.
In Australia, we have a choice – do we want a more circular or linear economy? More reprocessing, jobs and positive environmental outcomes? Or more landfills and some very expensive incinerators?
Reading the trends, in 2015 the European Commission published the world’s first Circular Economy Strategy. This built upon their suite of initiatives that includes industry product stewardship, recycling levies and schemes, landfill bans and directives on recyclable packaging.
If we choose to deal with the threat of further cancelled recycling contracts in Australia by going circular, our changes should be both immediate and long term:
- In our homes and workplaces we must change what we buy selecting long-life products and packaging
- We need renewed action ensuring packaging and products are designed for recycling and repair
- The disposal cost of products and packaging should be included in the purchase or disposal price
- Both government and industry procurement and tenders should specify recycled content and repair
- We must develop government and industry strategies and partnerships for the circular economy in Australia
We can ignore the warning cannon fired from China and the major drivers, or build upon our foundations.
We have product stewardship schemes, reprocessors and manufacturers hungry for clear direction, and a growing understanding of the need for a more sustainable and productive circular economy within government, industry and the community.
Helen Millicer is principal at One Planet Consulting, a Churchill Fellow and graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.