plastic bottle waste

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”.

Crisis talks

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.

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  1. I think a more top down solution needs to be found. It’s the manufacturers creating this problem by over-using single use plastic for packaging almost every product. They profit from producing ridiculous amounts of a product which will never fully break down but as it fragments and chokes the waters it has infiltrated and is sickening every form of life.

    Plastic needs to be outright banned, phased out over two years. Sustainable, fully compostible and biodegradable packaging needs to receive a lot of government research, development and rewards so choices and examples are there for manufacturers to adopt. Plastic might still be essential in a medical setting etc but foods have use by dates and their packaging can break down totally shortly after that. The polluters cannot profit from their degradation and get off scott free any more. They must pay for what they have done with a clean-up levy on all plastic packaging gloing to the government. The supermarket chains must exert pressure and pick and choose what they stock based on packaging, themselves phasing in that outright ban.

  2. Hi Jeff. I must say as a member of the public I am disappointed to hear that it sounds like most of my recycling for the last 20 years has been exported to China. That doesn’t sound sustainable and suggests the kerbside recycling program has been mostly greenwash. Naomi Klein did some good analysis on environmental lobbying – negotiating with major corporates has been a long term failure. The 1970s policies of just saying no were much more effective. One of the policies that has to go on the table is Australia stops accepting packaging solutions that are not efficiently recyclable. This will also create an incentive for packaging companies to themselves invest in recycling technologies. The policy is if it can’t be cost effectively recycled it can’t be sold.

  3. Why don’t we go back to using hemp as a packaging material. We could grow our own shopping bags. We import hemp material why not grow our own. When I was young everything came in sacks there was no plastic.

  4. Thanks for your work Jeff.
    Back in the days of glass bottles it was easy enough to take bottles back to the shop for a refund. Why is our (Victorian) government so reluctant to introduce a deposit scheme? It wouldn’t be corruption would it?
    I have seen demonstrations of plastic to oil machines on Youtube, are the machines too expensive to be considered in Australia? Here is a title for the Youtube search:
    3.0 generation plastic-to-oil units running in Japan
    Step O’Rafferty

  5. This is a complex problem, to be sure. The government has long decided to leave it up to private business to make it work, and now we realise, with escalating costs to households and local council’s unable to cope, that state and federal government should have long ago invested in the solutions to this problem. A large part of it is how consumers buy, and while much of the USA and many EU countries have long since switched to paper bags and more sustainable packaging, Australia is languishing in our own growing garbage piles — legislation to force manufacturers and retailers to slash unnecessary plastic packaging, and requiring a container collection deposit on all glass and plastic containers, are long overdue (Victoria & Tasmania are the worst offenders in the list:

    Co-mingled waste was never sustainable, other countries like Japan and USA separate all waste into numerous different collection bins, Australians are stuck in the past with just two, which are often as not even used correctly — contamination is a huge problem here. Clearly, labelling has to be revised, the numbered plastic triangles are often absent, hard to find or read and even then it’s unclear to most what to do with them, while plastic bags are recycled but most Aussies don’t even realise where to take them. Paper, cardboard, glass and metal are simple enough, but they are used less and less as plastics take over, and supermarkets are usually the worst offenders are pushing their use.

    1. Agreed that comingled recycling isn’t sustainable – but I disagree that the US “separates all waste into numerous different collection bins”. Many if not most US communities who have curbside programs have moved to comingled collection over the past 20-30 years, with possibly the exception of glass. And still only a minority of states have a container deposit law, which is a successful way of souce separating the stream.

  6. Keep up the great lobbying work!?
    And I really support getting serious with source separation. The standards of waste bin infrastructure is extremely low, with Australian colour coding rarely observed or practised,even at any level of government.