While there is no easy way out, some experts believe the crisis offers an opportunity to create a sustainable recycling industry in Victoria.
Frank Sufferini, from waste management company Cleanaway, is among those who argue a container deposit scheme would help address a key contributor to the current mess: contamination of recyclable material with non-recyclable material.
He said this drove China’s decision to stop accepting most of Australia’s recycled material from January 2018.
It was a moment which “changed the landscape”.
But the roots of the crisis were in the many years prior, during which China did accept Australia’s dirty recycling material – with contamination rates as high as 30 per cent.
That set a low bar and created an “artificial market”.
“Realistically, as a country, we never recycled, we diverted,” he said.
“Some companies were just taking recyclable material full of contamination, just sticking it in containers and shipping it to China.
“The Chinese were happy to take it at time, but it created massive environmental concerns. You can’t blame the Chinese, they did the right thing. They are more than happy to take our [recyclable] material – as long as it’s clean.”
Mr Sufferini said governments across the board needed to step up and create a framework so that companies like Cleanaway could invest in the recycling industry.
He provided a raft of suggestions, including the mandatory use of recycled material in government projects.
But he said the first step was reducing contamination of recyclable material.
This had been achieved in NSW over the 14 months since it implemented its container deposit scheme, he said.
The “Return and Earn” scheme is operated by Cleanaway and Norwegian multinational TOMRA. In its first year, the scheme collected a billion containers, including bottles and cans.
“The material is clean, it’s not contaminated with the other stuff people put in their recycling bins,” Mr Sufferini said.
“You can bale all the cans up, all the bottles up, so there is no stockpiling … even the export market is happy to take it.”
Last August, the Victorian government and opposition combined to defeat a Greens upper house motion to introduce a container deposit scheme.
On Sunday, Environment Minister Lily D’Ambriso said the government continued to “monitor and evaluate” the schemes in other states.
But the minister said the government had invested $37 million into the recycling system and placed the onus on the market and local government.
“Councils have an opportunity to overhaul their recycling contracts so there are contingency plans in place and to boost competition between processing businesses,” the minister said.
“We want competition in the market to encourage new operators to set up in Victoria and to invest in equipment [and] infrastructure upgrades.”
Friends of the Earth Australia’s ‘Transform Waste’ campaign director Anine Cummins backed calls for the container deposit scheme, saying it should be part of a series of reforms aimed at establishing an onshore recycling industry.
She said the majority of Victorians wanted to do the right thing and had been left fuming by a waste management system which recent events had revealed to be “unquestionably broken”.
She said years of government-led campaigning on recycling had been “guilt” messaging consumers, but the onus was on all tiers of government to create incentives for a local recycling industry.
“On an individual level, Australia’s rates of recycling are very impressive,” Ms Cummins said.
“It’s on a system-wide level that we’ve really failed.”
Among her proposals were a tax on “virgin plastics” and federal or state standardisation of recycling criteria. Currently standards can vary from council to council and are “horribly confusing”.
“If we had a container deposit scheme, this would not be an issue,” she said. “But the key thing now is to utilise this crisis as opportunity.”
Every state and territory except Victoria and Tasmania have or are setting up a container deposit scheme. Queensland became the most recent state when it adopted its scheme late last year and Western Australia expects its scheme will start in 2020.
South Australia implemented its scheme in 1977.
Victorian campaigner Dr Annett Finger claimed Tasmania would “follow in a blink” if Victoria joined the rest of the mainland.
“Then we could have a national scheme, harmonised between states,” she said.
“That would take a lot of pressure of our recycling crisis.”
Joe Hinchliffe reports breaking news for The Age.