July 23, 2018
China's restriction on the import of waste materials has presented a short term challenge but in the long term, the Australian recycling sector has the potential to flourish as consumers, businesses and the government build a circular economy.
China’s restriction on the import of waste materials has presented a short term challenge but in the long term, the Australian recycling sector has the potential to flourish as consumers, businesses and the government build a circular economy.
Initially dubbed the ‘National Sword’, the restrictions, announced in July of 2017 by the Chinese government, took effect on 1 January 2018 and stopped the import of 24 categories of waste material above a specified contamination level. For paper/cardboard and plastics, the contamination rate has been set at 0.5%.
Whatever drove this decision should have a positive impact on the environment in China and Australia. It should lead to Chinese manufacturers turning to their domestic market for recycled materials.
It has been reported that in Australia alone, 1.27 million tonnes of materials per annum may be affected by the restrictions, including paper, cardboard and plastic. To put this into perspective, this is only about 3% of total recycling in Australia when you include commercial and industrial, construction and demolition, and kerbside recycling. The big impact though is on kerbside recycling with about 29% of paper and 36% of all plastics collected affected by China’s policy.
China’s decision has also has led a recycling division with some waste companies no longer accepting kerbside recycling. Some of these materials will be stockpiled until it is viable for them to be processed in Australia, or sent overseas to countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam for recycling. Unfortunately, some will probably be landfilled.
This is everyone’s challenge to face. Recycling is considered an essential service by the community and the War on Waste has demonstrated that people want to do the right thing.
Households can reduce recycling contamination by making sure that they’re recycling right, and help support the domestic waste and manufacturing sector by buying products made from locally recycled materials.
Businesses can design their packaging for recyclability and work together to increase the amount of recycled content in their products and packaging. The Australasian Recycling Label through the PREP Design tool will help encourage this.
Governments could support councils affected by the restrictions and provide incentives for Australian businesses to recycle and manufacture products made from recycled materials to support a domestic circular economy. This will not only bring long term employment but also sustainable economic growth. There have been calls for Federal leadership on this issue and a monitored and updated National Waste Policy is key to this.
By collaborating and investing in recycling education, separation systems to reduce contamination, increasing the recycled content of products, as well as research into new material uses, we can make real progress to becoming a world class circular economy.
Planet Ark encourages Australians to use these resources and play their part in reducing recycling contamination and building the circular economy:
Ryan is the Head of Circular Economy Programs at Planet Ark. After nearly a decade working in the banking and finance industry Ryan was drawn to a career in environmental conservation that saw him work in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji. With a background in psychology and environmental management, Ryan’s role at Planet Ark since 2012 has been focused on developing engaging and positive environmental behaviour change programs to help organisations and households find solutions to reduce waste.