A recycling plant in Coolaroo, Victoria. Picture: Andrew Tauber
A recycling plant in Coolaroo, Victoria. Picture: Andrew Tauber

Recycling crisis reaches tipping point

CHINA is sick of taking our cr*p - and now we're up to our waist in waste.

Local councils and state governments around the country have been struggling to deal with how to manage our recyclable waste material since China stopped taking it more than a year ago.

Australia still ships waste to other countries in Asia but as they are expected to follow China's lead, local councils and sustainability experts are calling for state governments to invest in infrastructure and jobs to urgently deal with the growing "recycling crisis" facing the country.

As the days tick by, stockpiles of recyclable waste continue to grow as the industry holds out for a viable solution. Some facilities have stopped accepting local recyclables because they are at capacity while more than 200 dangerous stockpiles of recycling waste were identified across Victoria last year.

NSW has been accused of falling behind other states as it struggles to deal with its growing mountain of waste, which experts say is outpacing population growth.

"If the state government was committed to working with regional councils to have a sustainable recyclable industry, we would see a growth in recycling, more jobs for NSW and world's best practice in managing our waste," says Linda Scott, president of Local Government NSW (LGNSW), the peak body representing local councils.

"Instead we are seeing skyrocketing prices, due to the China policy and a risk that recycling will be lost."

SKM Recycling centre in South Geelong recently stopping taking recyclables locally as it is at full capacity. Picture: Alan Barber
SKM Recycling centre in South Geelong recently stopping taking recyclables locally as it is at full capacity. Picture: Alan Barber

A summit held in Sydney this morning organised by Ms Scott, brought together councillors, industry experts and waste management officers to help address the problem ahead of the upcoming state election.

They were joined by state politicians including the NSW Minister for Environment Gabrielle Upton, the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Heritage Penny Sharpe, NSW Greens Environment spokesperson Cate Faehrmann, and local Sydney mayors.

The event was part of a Save Our Recycling campaign run by LGNSW which is calling on the state government to reinvest 100 per cent of the waste levy it collects to help fund a state-wide approach to recycling. The levy is collected from licensed waste facilities and residents via council rates.

"Last year alone the waste levy totalled $727 million dollars, of that communities paid $300 million through their council," Ms Scott told news.com.au.

"Only 17 per cent of that $300 million was returned back to councils for the management of waste.

"We want to use the global recycling crisis as an opportunity to have a landmark investment in new recycling facilities and new jobs in NSW."

Part of that could help fund innovations from the likes of UNSW that has developed world first "microfactories" to take recycled materials put out in council bins, along with other waste streams, and convert them into materials such as metals alloys, plastic filament for 3D printing and glass panels for building products.

The Government has committed more than $800 million to waste management and recycling over nine years but local councils are calling for more.

"We want to see them reinvest the waste levy back for the purpose for which it was collected and that is for the recycling and management of waste," Ms Scott said.

Waste builds up at a SKM Recycling plant in Coolaroo. Picture: Andrew Tauber
Waste builds up at a SKM Recycling plant in Coolaroo. Picture: Andrew Tauber

China's policy change came into effect in January last year and restricted the import of all but the highest quality of recyclable waste, effectively banning most Australian rubbish.

Prior to that, 30 per cent or 1.27 million tonnes of all recycling sent overseas for processing by Australia was exported to China, according to a study of ABS statistics commissioned by the federal government.

The change in Chinese policy has put pressure on Australian waste facilities and prices. While some councils in Australia face increasing fees, in NSW passing costs on to residents isn't always an option as rates are capped.

To prevent a number of councils from abandoning kerbside recycling altogether (which temporarily happened in Ipswich last year before huge public outcry) the NSW government announced $47 million in funding to help industry and councils in March last year. However the funding was diverted from other waste management efforts.

Professor Damian Giurco from the University of Technology's Institute for Sustainable Futures would like to see more long-term solutions provided.

"China's policy has meant we're scrambling to catch up … As Sydney gets towards six and seven million people in the next decade, it's important that we think much smarter" about how we deal with our waste which is "outpacing" population growth, he told news.com.au.

"We need to go more towards where we can have better re-use and re-manufacturing into new products."

An October 2018 report by the Australian Council of Recycling claimed some 500 jobs in Australia would be created by re-manufacturing in Australia just 50 per cent of waste formerly sent to China.

Prof Giurco, who spoke on a panel at this morning's event, agrees with the notion that "much more" money collected from the waste levy should be reinvested in a new recycling initiatives and waste infrastructure.

He points to a circular economy policy draft released by the NSW government in October, exploring the Holy Grail idea of a system almost without waste where products are designed and optimised for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. The draft policy was part of the government's response to China's waste ban.

"Achieving a circular economy will minimise our waste, reduce our impact on the environment and is an opportunity to boost the NSW economy," the government said.

But that's a utopia that is hard to see from here.



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