Crisis talks on waste are under way after China banned mixed plastic and paper waste – and the fear is palpable, Total Environment Centre’s Jeff Angel says.
Just as a new consciousness about our wasteful practises is emerging – prompted by programs like the ABC’s War on Waste and the alarming plastic pollution of our oceans – a counterforce appears.
It’s being stimulated by the Chinese Green Sword ban on mixed plastics and paper, in other words contaminated waste from western countries. China gave warning (and has good reason for the new policy) but we ignored it and now we have lost a major export market that was supporting our kerbside collections. But it goes deeper than that.
The introduction of the co-mingled waste bin has always been a problem. Crushed glass contaminated the paper and cardboard and plastics fetched low prices compared to clean recyclate. There were regular calls to source-separate so the material was of better quality; and of course wasn’t it shortsighted to depend on exports instead of building our own bigger reprocessing sector?
We took the lazy way out – “she’ll be right”.
In the last few weeks I’ve been to crisis meetings with all stakeholders and the fear is palpable. It’s not a time for the glacial processes that have so far characterised waste policy development.
But before I turn to the positives this dire situation presents – it could get worse.
Already in the media we have seen industry players talk up the prospects of more landfill and waste-to-energy plants. If we really wanted to destroy the recycling ethic built up over the last 40 years and compound the impact of the China ban on public support, telling the public we are sending their recycling to the lowest forms of disposal will shut the coffin.
More landfill? Where?
Most urban centres are running out of space and establishing a new dump is highly controversial. So too is waste-to-energy – easily called incineration because mixed waste risks toxic pollution spikes; and the new facilities demand long-term access to material suitable for genuine resource recovery.
Incineration has toxic risks
Recent attempts to develop waste-to-energy facilities in the ACT and Western Sydney have run into serious problems with the community and regulators.
We have no choice. We have to take the quantum leap into the circular economy future. I believe the community is ready. So what does this mean?
Clearly economics is the heartbeat of the desire to recycle. Domestic markets need to be established to take up the resources in our bins. That means setting recycled content rules for packaging and other products. This will require national standards.
While the Australian Packaging Covenant has recently moved towards a label that will help the consumer, it’s voluntary and must be brought into the mainstream. The slow regulatory process that has characterised national policymaking and stifled so many good product stewardship arrangements must be given a jolt.
Container deposit scheme is working because product is separated from contamination
It’s telling that the drink container resources being collected by our expanding container deposit schemes are finding markets, because they are being separated from contamination. But it took 13 years before one state, NSW, moved.
Message to curb recycling is not going out
Neither governments (local, state or national) nor industry can afford to give out the message that we need to curb recycling. They need to take the lead from community sentiment and build policy and economic instruments that will advance our recycling: accelerated depreciation for new investment; using more of the waste levy bucket (and Queensland must introduce one!) to support new industry; government and big business driving change through their procurement practises.
None of this is new. What’s changed is we are waking up. And the Boomerang Alliance with its 47 allies is gearing up to hold industry and government to account and work with stakeholders who want to move into an environmentally sustainable future.
Jeff Angel is executive director of Total Environment Centre and convenor of the Boomerang Alliance.