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Australia's recycling build-up

Waste recycling collection crisis

June 2018

Australia urgently needs a smart waste management solution

As you would have heard, late last year China introduced new restrictions on receiving foreign recycled waste. They significantly tightened their import restrictions to dramatically reduce the amount of contaminated materials entering the country. This was an attempt to lower pollution, protect the environment and public health.

This has had a flow-on effect across Australia, as China was Australia’s biggest buyer of recyclable waste, taking in more than 600,000 tonnes of material each year. In fact, worldwide they were taking in more than “30 million metric tonnes of waste”.

“On average, each Australian resident generates close to three tonnes of waste each year. About 60 per cent of that is recyclable. China was taking as much as 70 per cent of our discarded plastic, cardboard and paper.” 4

According to Cleanaway (one of Australia’s largest waste management companies), domestic household waste is up to “18 per cent contaminated." With China's new restrictions, the waste "now has to be lowered to 0.5 per cent before it can be sent to China.” 1

“Cleanaway said its processing costs have risen by as much as 50 per cent” since China’s new restrictions, “which is why it is being forced to negotiate new recycling charges.” Cleanaway’s David Williamson said the “biggest factor in the cost increase was the need to remove contaminated material from the collected waste. "That's really the biggest driver here, (and) China have done what they did because of high levels of contamination," he said. "So that's forcing us to employ a lot more people and pull that material out the best we can and as difficult as that is. "The contamination going into the bin actually causes damage, we're getting items that aren't supposed to be there and then you've got the storage element as well.” 2

“States and councils around the country have been struggling since the imposition of import restrictions that exclude 99% of the recyclables that Australia previously sold to China.” 3

“Australian state governments supplied emergency funding to recycling firms. But that is not the best solution in the long run, for it does nothing to motivate people to minimise waste and to reuse materials.” 5

In the past “waste collectors would sell the vast majority of their recyclables to commodity traders who then on-sell to overseas markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea and China for re-manufacture.”

Australia needs a smart and long-term strategy to manage waste. Perhaps we could learn from Europe. They have been investing “money into waste management strategies and policy and recycling. They’re not just collecting it, they’re looking at what you do with it once you collect it, which is the really important thing.” “Germany sorts 65 per cent of its waste into colour-coded bins: blue for paper, yellow for plastic, brown for composting and black for general waste.” 6


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