Let's Talk about Trash, Baby



In January of this year, China banned 24 categories of foreign waste imports including waste paper, textiles, plastics and certain metals. This ‘foreign garbage’ crackdown has sent waste management and recycling industries across many developed countries into turmoil.

The quick fix solution to ship unwanted materials to China has now become obsolete. Previously, China was the world’s top importer for plastic wastes, fuelling the recycling industry by importing 56% (by weight) of the world’s waste plastics. USA, Japan, Germany, the UK, Australia and many other nations relied heavily on China to deal with their unwanted goods – a significant 87% of the European Union’s plastic waste exports once went to China. The world’s greatest waste generation nation per capita, Ireland, previously sent 95% of its plastic waste to China. Whilst other countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia may import some of what China once did, they are not welcoming foreign trash either. In March this year, Vietnam stopped issuing waste import permits.

Last year, Australia alone sent 1.2 million tonnes of waste to China, equivalent to 30% of Australia’s recyclable waste.

China’s ban is a slap in the face to our deficient recycling systems, however it offers an opportunity for vast improvements.

Ipswich council in Queensland has already decided to send all recyclable waste to landfill, in light of the extra $2million each year that would be needed to recycle residential waste. Copious amounts of valuable recyclable goods heading to landfills or incinerators must be avoided. Domestic recycling industries must become robust waste-to-resource machines. Effected nations are demanded to transition to circular economies where waste is processed and re-used on-shore.

Recyclable materials are economic and environmental assets. Even without China’s ban, significant amounts of these valuable assets were not being utilised. A Four Corners' investigation last year surveyed large amounts of recyclable materials being dumped in landfill. Recycled glass was shut out of the glass market as imported glass bottles were cheaper. Without appropriate industry regulation, recycling companies were forced to stockpile or landfill huge amounts of valuable glass. These valuable stockpiles grow at unprecedented rates, especially as Australia consumes 1.36 million tonnes of glass packaging each year.

Australia generates around 50 million tonnes of waste each year. According to the World Bank, as a high-income nation, each Australian generates approximately 2.1kg of waste per day. Per capita, Australians generate over three times more waste than populations in low-income countries.

Income level and waste generation are strongly correlated. As disposable incomes increase, consumption of goods and services increase and more waste is generated. Urbanisation is also a factor of waste generation; urban residents produce double that of their rural counterparts.

So how do we incentivise Australians to reduce their waste in the first place?

Transparent wheelie bins have been proposed as a visual aid to make citizens more accountable for their waste. This idea has received much backlash from the public due to questionable privacy. Landfill tax levies could also incentivise residents and businesses to reduce how much waste they are putting in their bins. Regulations must be made on a federal level, as in the past, discrepancies in waste laws have only led to lucrative business opportunities. Freight companies send waste by road and rail to Queensland to avoid paying the high NSW landfill levy of $138 per tonne.

What are the countries with high recycling rates doing differently?

Germany is the world’s best recycling nation, recycling or composting 65% of its total municipal waste, followed by South Korea (59%), Slovenia (58%) and Austria (58%), with Australia at 41%. Governments who promote recycling provide efficient waste management systems that aid households in their recycling of waste, utilise financial incentives and are sufficiently funded. Performance targets are clear and transparent, and policy making supports this. For example, Switzerland mandated taxed trash bags, which cost $1.50 for a 4.5-gallon bag. Recycling at the source has been Germany’s economic advantage to aid the recycling system. Separating waste into 6 different coloured bins is a practice ingrained in German citizens; black for general waste, blue for paper, yellow for plastic, white for clear glass, green for coloured glass and brown for composting.

Increasing recycling rates is one thing, having a recycling industry that wants these recycled goods is another. Decreased per capita waste generation must be exercised to curb the environmental effects of imminent waste landfill and incineration. Personally, we should be recycling more rigorously at-source to optimise material re-use and recycling potential. Foremost, governments are being called on to invest in resilient waste management systems. A robust recycling industry on-shore will ensure recycled goods can always serve another use.

Alexandra Devlin is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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