Australia’s recycling industry relied on the Indian and Chinese markets to export high volumes of plastic wastes for years but going forward, that won’t be the case anymore. Just a year after China instigated severe restrictions that caused a massive hit on the recycling industry, India has taken similar steps, and this has further widened the gap between the supply and the demand of waste plastics in Australia.
Until the end of last year, India was one of the four major destinations of Australia’s plastic waste. Thirteen percent of all waste exports from Australia went to India, and now that that’s no longer an option, there is a high probability that perfectly recyclable material could end up in landfills. In fact, the Australian Council of Recycling has already documented cases where local councils had to send kerbside recycling to dumpsites.
The amount of waste that Australia exported to China reduced by more than 40 percent in the last financial year, but since most other Asian market were open, Australia was able to make up for it by sending more waste to countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and of course India. However, Australia’s recycling industry finds itself in the same position that it was in when China banned certain waste imports, but now, there are fewer options to fall back on. As a result, recycling companies are stockpiling plastics and other recyclable material, and many of them are frantically looking for other overseas markets that could potentially take their collected wastes.
Even though there was a 4% net rise the exportation of recyclable wastes from the country, analysts and environmental experts project that more countries in Asia could reduce the amount of recyclable waste material that they import, and the recycling crisis in Australia could deepen further. The Department of Environment and Energy has warned players in the recycling industry that several Asian countries are in the process of reviewing their waste import policies, and more bans could devastate the recycling industry a lot more.
Experts project that if countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam went ahead and joined China and India in banning the importation of recyclable materials, Australia would have to figure out where to send close of 1.3 million tonnes of wastes. These wastes could be worth more than half a billion dollars.
Now that it seems that the future exportation of recyclables is in question, recycling companies and environmental expert are calling on the government to invest a lot more in the recycling industry within Australia so that the country no longer has to rely on other countries when it comes to recycling.
Some analysts have pointed out that it wouldn’t be hard for the state and federal governments to fund recycling infrastructure within the country because they collect about $1.5 billion in hidden levies when they provide waste disposal services. A portion of that money would be enough to create recycling plants, which would, in turn, create more regional jobs.
According to an official statement from the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia, the government should have taken China’s policy change as a wakeup call, and it should have acted promptly to avoid similar situations in case other countries made similar policy changes. Although the environment ministers have met two times since China banned low-quality recyclable material from Australia, the issue hasn’t been adequately addressed, and this has left the entire industry vulnerable.
The governments (both State and Federal) are planning to release a joint list of six national targets that are meant to help reduce waste. Although these targets were initially meant to come out last year, talks around the matter broke down, and some states refused to endorse the policy, claiming that it did not specify exactly how each target was to be achieved. The Federal Environment Minister has indicated that further talks will be held and that this time around, they will be able to come up with action plans and to set milestones, especially in areas where priority issues such as plastic pollution are concerned. The Minister also pleaded to increase the demand for recycled products by specifically ordering them through government procurement, so as to incentivise Australian manufacturers to use more recycled materials in their production processes.
We talked to Steven Molino, a leading environmental consultant and the founder of Molino Stewart – Environmental Consultants Sydney, about the current crisis in Australia’s recycling industry, and Steven suggested that one way to deal with the crisis is through public engagement. According to Molino, the government is more likely to act to solve the problem if the public is more informed about the ongoing crisis and it’s engaged in finding a solution. Molino said that consultancy firms like his “have used a wide variety of communication, engagement and facilitation techniques across the full participation spectrum with communities, employees, businesses, and government” because they understand that engagement is the key to solving recycling as well as other environmental issues.