After years of relying on China to process our plastic rubbish into something useable, the new Chinese National Sword ban is set to have devastating effects on Australia's waste problem if nothing is done.
The introduction of the comingled waste bin has always been an issue, but in Australia we took the lazy way out – ‘she’ll be right’. In the last few weeks I’ve been to crisis meetings with all stakeholders and the fear is palpable. If China won’t take our plastic waste for recycling because it is contaminated in our bins, what will we do with it? More landfill and incineration? Right now is not time for knee-jerk reactions and the glacial processes for better product stewardship, that have so far characterised waste policy development.
Already in the media we have seen industry players talk up the prospects of more dumps and so-called 'waste to energy'. If we really wanted to destroy the recycling ethic built up over the last 40 years and compound the impact of the China ban on public support, telling the public we are sending their recycling to the lowest forms of disposal will shut the coffin.
More landfill? Where? Most urban centres are running out of space and establishing a new dump is highly controversial. So too is incineration because mixed waste is at risk of toxic pollution spikes; and the new facilities lockup long term access to material suitable for genuine resource recovery. Recent attempts in the ACT and Western Sydney have run into serious problems with the community and regulators.
We have no choice. A circular economy is the only practical solution to our resource problems. I believe the community is ready. So what can we do?
Setting recycled content rules for packaging and other products will require national standards - quickly. While the Australian Packaging Covenant has recently moved towards a recycled content label that will help the consumer, it’s voluntary and must be brought into the mainstream. All three levels of government must buy products made from recycled material. Waste levy funds can be used to build new reprocessing plants.
Neither governments (local, state or national) nor industry can afford to give out a message that 'we need to curb recycling'. They must take the lead from community sentiment and build policy and economic incentives that will advance our recycling. And rejecting single-use plastics through our Communities Taking Control program will be a critical step.
None of these ideas are new but what’s changed is we are waking up. The Boomerang Alliance with its 47 allies is preparing to hold industry and government to account and work with stakeholders who want to move into an environmentally sustainable future.
Jeff Angel, Director and Convenor