A State of Crisis

Unpacking the national response to the great recycling crisis of 2018

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Words || James Booth

More than a year since China’s National Sword Policy took effect, Australian governments have failed to find a solution to our stockpiles of recycled materials. China, who had previously accepted 1.25 million tonnes of Australia’s recycled material in 2016-17 alone, implemented its National Sword Policy from the 1st of January 2018. This meant that China would refuse to accept 99% of the world’s plastic waste materials, combating the nation’s previous acceptance of more than 30 million tonnes of international waste annually. The Australian industry had grown reliant on the acceptance of our waste by China, and the implications of National Sword have left the industry and nation in a state of crisis.

The introduction of a 0.5% contamination threshold for recycling is largely responsible for the refusal to accept Australian recycled waste. Failures in our domestic facilities to efficiently sort out contaminated materials, as well as a lack of awareness by the population as to what contaminates recycled materials, has resulted in most of the recycled waste produced by Australia not meeting the new standard set by National Sword.

While it may be easy to blame China for this crisis, it should be understood that the crux of this issue lies in the historical reliance on developed nations such as Australia to use developing nations to perform industry and resolve problems that we aren’t ourselves. Now that China has developed enough to hold economic power internationally, it is now empowered to refuse the waste products of the western world. It easily could have been foreseen by governments that the use of China as a place to transport our waste would have been a temporary solution, and that Australia would one day be required to develop and fund our own recycling industry.

So what has Australia been doing to try and overcome the effects of National Sword? Well the answer isn’t all bad, on the 20th of March 2018 a $47 million support package was offered by the New South Wales government to help support recycling in the state. The funding was to enable councils to offset costs associated with kerbside recycling collection, improve the tendering processes to increase the production and use of recycled products, and to fund community education initiatives to reduce kerbside recycling contamination. The NSW Environment Protection Authority has also issued temporary increases to stockpiling limits on a case-by-case basis, the aim of which was to allow extra time for solutions to be found and ensure that these recycled materials do not go to landfill.

Speaking to the Guardian, Local government NSW President Linda Scott notes that “New South Wales urgently needs a big investment of funding from the waste levy to begin the process of growing a domestic recycling industry”. Scott’s belief that more funding is still needed, highlights that, one year on from the introduction of National Sword, there has still been little to no development of a NSW domestic recycling industry. For a government seeking to build “Tomorrow’s Sydney” with infrastructure, transport and motorway developments, there seems to be little evidence or acknowledgement that a growing population within Sydney will only see an increase in recycled waste production, and as such an increased need for a domestic recycling industry.

Both the NSW environment minister, Gabrielle Upton, and the Federal environment minister, Melissa Price, refused to answer any specific questions asked by the Guardian on the recycling crisis. Upton reinforced that the “NSW government has taken the lead by establishing an intergovernmental taskforce to progress a longer term strategic response to National Sword”, whilst Price noted that the plan resulting for negotiations will include a coordinated approach to waste levies and will address “waste management priorities including plastic pollution, support for industry development, increasing demand for recycled materials, and national approaches to waste policy and regulation”. The blanket statements from both individuals give very little insight into what the plans are going forward to overcome the recycling crisis, and whether the exact plans and their implementation has been finalised.

While we wait for a solution, the evidence is clear that recyclable materials cannot stockpile forever and are subsequently impacting the ability of domestic industry to address the problem efficiently. Western Australia has remedied the effects of National Sword by instead sending their recyclables to South-East Asian nations including Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, which is only prolonging the problem further. On the 7th of July last year, stockpiled recycling bales, kept at Melbourne’s SKM Recycling plant, caught fire causing evacuations of the area. Whilst in the Australian Capital Territory, around 250 tonnes of stockpiled commingled material was ordered by the territory government to be dumped in landfill, following a shutdown of the Hume Recycling Centre due to safety concerns. It seems that only South Australia is close to getting recycling policy right, as their higher quality recycling has allowed for some of their recyclable materials to still be sent to China.

It is unclear what the state and federal governments intend to do to overcome the recycling crisis resulting from the implementation of the National Sword Policy in China. Moving forward it is uncertain whether more funding will be provided to develop the domestic recycling industry to process our own recycling, or whether better funding and training is provided to workers to better clean recycling to meet China’s stricter standards. However what is clear is that not enough has been done within the last year to overcome our state of recycling crisis.