What does China’s ban on foreign garbage mean for local recycling in Australia?

China’s campaign against foreign garbage has hit the Australian recycling industry hard.

As part of the campaign, China has blocked the import of recyclable materials in which contaminants constitute more the 0.5% of the waste.

This is an extremely tough target to meet and places an effective ban on sending recyclables, mostly paper and plastics, to China for processing.

Australia is far from the only country affected. Europe, the UK and US have also relied on China to take materials rather than recycle them at home.

With China’s door now closed, all of these countries are experiencing similar consequences and scurrying to find solutions.

Immediate impacts

The companies that empty council recycling bins have been the first to feel the pinch.

With export to China no longer an option, large quantities of recyclables will either be stock piled or find their way into landfill.

Both options incur costs, and stockpiling also creates a real fire risk.

One widely predicted impact of China’s ban is an increase in local government rates as councils face higher waste disposal costs.

An end to current kerbside recycling collection has also been predicted, a move that would have disastrous consequences for community support for recycling in the future.

Responding to the challenge

China, of course, has every right not to be a dumping ground for waste from other countries.

However, in giving the world only a few months’ notice of the implementation of the new quality standards there has been little time for local waste and recycling companies to prepare.

Some state governments have provided packages to help local councils and industries develop longer-term solutions. NSW has offered $47 million, Victoria $13 million, and South Australia $300,000.

It remains to be seen exactly how these funds will be allocated and what they will achieve.

Some companies are looking to other countries, including India, Vietnam, Thailand and Pakistan, to take recyclable waste.

However, aside from it taking some time to develop the capacity to handle current waste volumes, this just moves the problems China is now seeking to avoid to these countries.

China’s rejection of low-quality waste issues a warning that it’s time for each country to become responsible for the full lifecycle of the waste it generates.

Actions should be based on the principles of the circular economy and closed-loop recycling wherever possible.

Efforts need to be made to phase out the use of plastics in many applications, and to ensure recyclability is taken into account right at the initial design phase of all new products.

Many recyclables unaffected

China’s actions primarily affect high-volume waste streams comprising paper, cardboard and plastic, and many recycling streams are unaffected.

Ecocycle Business Development Manager Daryl Moyle said the company doesn’t ship any waste to China.

“We make an effort to ensure we recycle as much as possible locally,” he said.

“Our mercury recovery process is a perfect example of closed-loop recycling,” he said.

The Chinese ban is a wake-up call for local recyclers Mr Moyle said.

“Much of this problem could have been avoided if recyclers had taken the opportunity to install available technology in their own backyards. The most environmentally responsible actions are the ones that take place here,” he said.

Mr Moyle points to the Basel Convention for inspiration.

While its key goal is reducing hazardous waste shipments, particularly to less developed countries, it is just as relevant to paper and plastic.

“This current crisis shows that you can’t solve a waste problem simply by closing a container door,” he said.


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