Australia's recycling crisis

Australia’s recycling crisis

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

How do we deal with the changing conditions and growing problem around disposal and recycling of our waste?


Recycling is a deeply ingrained habit in Australia, with a remarkably high 98% of households engaging in it to some extent. Roughly 60% of the country’s waste is either recycled or composted. The environmental benefits include embodied energy savings, achieved by manufacturing from recycled materials. These are highest for aluminium, at 95%, followed by plastic (88%), glass (75%), steel (60-74%), paper (50%), and cardboard (only 24%). The use of recycled materials by industry curbs water requirements, and demands less from finite non-renewable resources.

Against this encouraging picture however, Australia’s recycling industry is currently in a state of upheaval that may require some time to resolve.

China stopped taking our waste

In July 2017, China announced major changes to its policies regarding the recyclable materials that it accepts, taking effect from January 1st 2018. This involved restricting the import of 24 waste categories. This includes scrap mixed plastics and unsorted paper, both lower-grade materials where the permitted contamination rate has been rigorously tightened to 0.5%. Australia’s kerbside recycling contamination averages 6-10%, making China’s new threshold very difficult to attain.

The reasons behind tightening this restriction appear to be pollution concerns, the low price of natural gas and oil – which make virgin plastic cheaper to produce – and China’s growing middle class ramping up its own waste production. Given China’s former role as a major waste importer, ripple effects have been felt across the affluent world.

Over time, Australia, along with many other countries, has become dependent on China as an export market for recycled materials. In 2017, we exported to China a total of 1.25 million tonnes of recycling waste, much of which was in the form of paper (29% of the national total) and plastics (36%). In both cases, China represented about 65% of the total export market for these materials. Recently the value of unsorted paper collapsed completely, from $124 to $0 per tonne. Scrap mixed plastics have been badly impacted too, dropping 77% from $325 to $75 per tonne.

A short-term response

Despite the advanced notice, Australia’s recycling industry has largely been caught without a plan, and short-term solutions are being pursued. In place of exporting to China, some companies are selling to other Asian countries, whose markets may also become full. Elsewhere, materials are being stockpiled, a problem from an economic perspective due to the cost of renting large storage spaces. About two hundred ‘dangerous’ fire-risk recycling stockpiles have been identified in Victoria alone.

As the economics have shifted, waste companies are sometimes paying to have their recyclables taken away. They have been asking for increased financial support from local governments, sometimes leading to disagreements. In states where it is permitted, councils may be passing on their increased waste costs to ratepayers, and some Victorian councils have already announced such rate rises. Both New South Wales and Victoria have allocated rescue packages to save the industry, but these may be cut off at the end of the 2017-18 financial year.

In April 2018, Ipswich discontinued its recycling system, instead diverting everything to landfill. This controversial and widely unpopular move was justified by low or non-existent waste prices and an extremely high contamination rate of 52%. Contamination had apparently blown out as a result of negative media about recycling, which in turn discouraged residents from being careful with sorting. On a brighter note, however, recycling in the Ipswich area resumed in May, minus the glass collection.

Container deposit systems are running in NSW, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. Others are scheduled to begin soon in Queensland, Western Australia, and the ACT. Because the recyclables accepted are very uncontaminated, this facilitates their sale to buyers.

Closing the loop

Much of Australia’s manufacturing capacity has been lost overseas, a lot of it to China. This in turn has limited our appetite for recycled materials. There has been insufficient investment in sorting capacity and recycling plants. Furthermore, as a country we have been fairly lazy at finding innovative end uses for recycled materials.

Among the constructive solutions that have been raised, one of the most intelligent is for Australia to ramp up the level of recycled content in products such as paper and PET plastic bottles. Government agencies in particular have been urged to drive this process through preferential ‘Buy recycled’ policies that have been effective overseas. Australia’s voluntary approach has resulted in weaker outcomes than jurisdictions such as California where it is mandated for agencies to buy recycled-content products, and for some products to contain a minimum recycled content.

In an Australian first, Hume City Council in the northern suburbs of Melbourne will soon be trialling the use of recycled materials in road construction. A street in Craigieburn will be made from 80% recycled materials derived from plastic bags, hard plastics, and glass. This has the added benefit of improving road performance and durability. Such local recycling cuts out the long-distance transport of waste. However, its disadvantage is that it is a form of downcycling (recycling a material into a lower-quality use.)

Waste incineration

With concerns about recycling, and the stockpiling of plastic, it is inevitable that the incineration lobby has become active. Unpopular in Australia due to pollution issues, there is only one operational incineration plant here. Modern incineration, now commonly known as ‘waste-to-energy’, is situated second-to-bottom in the waste hierarchy. Furthermore, it is considered environmentally worse than all other options except for landfill. Despite this, Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has talked positively about waste-to-energy, and has directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to prioritise it.

Some researchers, such as Jenni Downes and Elsa Dominish from the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney, argue that incineration is not a real solution to the recycling crisis. One reason being the current lack of waste-to-energy infrastructure, coupled with the time that would be required to build substantial national capacity. Once running, such plants would demand a feedstock, irrespective of future recycling conditions. These could compete with recycling facilities for materials. Figures from the US show waste-to-energy producing far more carbon emissions than natural gas, and nearly as much as coal.

One headache that the incineration sector cannot shake off is toxic ash containing dioxins and furans that are usually sent to special secure landfills. Although European incinerators are subject to stringent air pollution emission limits, Australia does not have a history of world-leading emissions standards for other polluting facilities such as coal-fired power stations, and is unlikely to suddenly tighten up its rules.

Recycling strategies for households

For people who want to continue recycling effectively, here are a few suggestions:

  • Keep recycling as normal.
  • Don’t slacken with the sorting, as this could increase the probability of loads being rejected.
  • Research what is recyclable in the local area, using resources such as the RecycleSmart app. Planet Ark’s Australasian Recycling Label is another useful sorting aid found on packaging. Items that councils never accept in their recycling bins include compostable and biodegradable plastics.
  • Keep your recycling as clean as possible. This was previously less of an issue, but now every bit of contamination counts.
  • Try to dry your recycling if it is unlikely to naturally dry within a short period. Dampness can breed bacterial growth.
  • Recycle it in a way that will ensure it actually gets recycled. Aluminium foil generally needs to be rolled into a tennis ball-sized lump. Where soft plastics are collected they will need to be bagged up.
  • Be alert to new instructions from the local council in response to changes in the recycling market.

Searching for solutions

Individuals, councils, governments, and NGOs all have a role to play in finding long-term strategies for the recycling sector. These could include:

  • Don’t buy as much stuff, and be more minimalist.
  • Minimising material usage through embracing the growing circular economy. We can do this by product life extension, product re-use, re-use of parts, and re-manufacture. Existing initiatives that fall within this framework include Repair Cafés and Libraries of Things.
  • ‘Reduce/avoid’ is at the top of the waste hierarchy, followed by ‘reuse’. Avoid over-packaged items. Shop at bulk-buy outlets, and fill up jars and paper bags. Bring your own coffee cup, shopping bags, water bottle, takeaway container, knife and fork.
  • Buy secondhand, as this helps divert items from landfill as well at cuts packaging.
  • Look for items with a high percentage of recycled content. Examples include copier paper, toilet paper, and water bottles.  
  • Use Planet Ark’s Australasian Recycling Label to locate products made from recyclable materials.

There has been an upsurge in awareness about the damage that plastic is doing to ocean life. As a result, bans on various types of disposable plastic items are being regularly passed in various jurisdictions. However, with the exception of plastic bags, Australia is being reluctant to match overseas efforts. A national opinion poll in April 2018 found nearly 90% support for government action in resolving the recycling crisis. As a breakdown in the ‘free market’ approach to handling waste, it is an ideal opportunity for a proactive regulatory response, despite going against the grain of Australia’s low-regulation culture.

In the meantime, there is a lot that households can do to make a positive difference.


Recycling Near You

RecycleSmart App

Australasian Recycling Label

Repair Cafés

Face Your Waste

About the author

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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