In response to the global recycling crisis caused by China’s recent ban, Australia has looked into new ways to combat its waste problem. Its main concern? Keeping recyclables out of the Pacific.
To do so, Australia wants to reuse and recycle its waste completely on-shore. In the past, the country exported its recycling overseas, which led to ocean pollution. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has therefore pledged to ban exports of waste plastics, paper, glass, and tires. Instead, Australia plans to handle it all domestically. In addition, Australia is finding new ways to transform its waste into long-term recycling solutions.
Why Australia’s recycling process needs reinventing
For over three decades, most of the world’s countries — including Australia — relied on China to accept and process their recycling waste. But last March, China surprised the world with increased regulations on what waste they would accept in their facilities.
These requirements for recycling imports rose to a “nearly impossible [standard],” according to More Recycling CEO Nina Bellucci Butler. Indeed, the rise in recycling waste over recent years has led to inefficient processing in China. The country’s industry no longer profits from accepting the world’s waste due to an increase in labor cost, its own waste, and processing mistakes.
So without China to rely on, Australia is now forced to rethink its recycling process — a long-overdue task.
A report published last year by Australia’ environment department reveals Australia’s lagging recycling system. Only 12% of the plastic Australians put in their curbside recycling bins actually gets recycled.
And without China recycling the 620,000 tons of waste Australia used to send them each year, Australia needs a new approach. A few potential solutions look promising: on-shore processing and engineering waste into long-term solutions.
Australia’s PM vows to recycle all waste at home
After a Council of Australian Governments meeting last Friday, PM Scott Morrison vowed to eliminate exports of recyclable waste “as soon as practicable.”
This comes in response to high levels of plastic waste from Australia ending up off its coasts in the Pacific. The PM commented that continuing to export its waste to Vietnam, Indonesia, and China “runs the risk of [it] floating around in our oceans.”
But is this truly achievable?
The current plan involves transforming waste into packaging, furniture, railway sleepers, roads, and more. But Australia’s recycling industry will need a complete make-over to do this.
Since Australia has always relied on exporting its recycling, it has no at-home method for sorting its recyclables. That’s because it was always more economically efficient to have it sorted abroad, so Australia’s curbside recycling system just isn’t equipped with a sorting process. The country also only has 21 plastic recycling plants. So for PM Morrison’s plan to take off, major change is in order.
This plan will do more than just limit ocean pollution, though. PM Morrison also pointed out that domestic recycling would boost Australia’s economy by creating new jobs. “There is the work on the science but there is also the work on the economics,” he said.
That said, the recycling economy is currently in a ditch, with the value of discarded plastic and paper almost nothing at the moment.
Australia recycling its waste in new, creative ways
Beyond enlarging its domestic recycling industry, Australia is pursuing new ways to utilize its recycled materials.
Outside of Melbourne, Australia constructed the first road in the world made of Reconophalt. This material combines recycled plastics and glass with asphalt to create more sustainable infrastructure. So far, the road has used about 200,000 plastic bags, 63,000 glass bottles, and 4,500 printer cartridges, according to the New York Times.
A National Container Deposit Scheme
By enlarging their container deposit scheme to the national level, Australia could incentivize more recycling and help its sorting problem. Certain Australian states already have the system in place, but federal supervision could increase efficiency and lower costs. The vending machine-like depots allow you to recycle plastic bottles and aluminum cans for a 10c refund.
Taking after Sweden, Australia is developing a Waste-to-Energy (WtE) plant that will convert household waste into electricity. Although these facilities lead to air and water pollution, the effects may be offset by the benefits of waste disposal. While this isn’t a perfect solution, it would reduce Australia’s reliance on nonrenewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions created by waste.
Traditional recycling factories are large, expensive, and only capable of manufacturing certain items. But new technology in Australia could lead to the micro-factory: a portable recycling site that’s about 50 square meters. This project is off to a good start. Two e-waste recycling micro-factories began operation last year at the University of New South Wales. The micro-factories “offer a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age, while delivering new job opportunities,” according to project leader Veena Sahajwalla.
This is only the beginning
Despite these efforts to increase decrease waste, Australia still has a lot to do before it catches up with other developed economies. In comparison, Australia lags behind, recycling less and creating more waste.
So going forward, Australia will need to financially incentivize businesses to use recycled materials, whether through increasing landfill levies or subsidizing the cost to recycle. It will also need to invest in more recycling facilities, processing plants, and a new method to sort recyclables.
Another issue is the lack of national organization. A 2018 report revealed that only about half of Australia’s 544 councils actually accept all seven types of recyclable plastics at curbside pick-up. The country will need to set national recycling standards if it truly wants change.
Australia has something to prove.
Ari is a Staff Writer at The Rising and an Acting and Political Science student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.