How China's recycling ban is hurting Australia

The fallout from China's crackdown on foreign waste is taking its toll here in Australia.

A recycling facility in western Sydney

A recycling facility in Western Sydney. Source: AAP

Australia’s recycling waste is likely being sent to landfill as waste companies are forced to stockpile amid the fallout from China’s crackdown on foreign waste, experts say.

In addition, there are warnings that excessive stockpiling of unwanted recycling will create dangerous fire hazards, as ratepayers in Victoria prepare to pay more for their recycling waste disposal.

China is Australia’s biggest market for recycling waste but since January it has restricted imports of Australian plastic, textiles and mixed paper because of its high contamination rate.

Up until the ban, Australia had been sending 619,000 tonnes of recycling waste to China every year - almost 12 times the weight of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The fallout from China's crackdown on foreign waste is taking its toll here in Australia
The fallout from China's crackdown on foreign waste is taking its toll here in Australia Source: Rashida Yosufzai

Now there are concerns the unwanted waste is being relegated to landfill with no solution to the problem in sight.

Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association NSW’s Tony Khoury told SBS News: “It is very, very likely that we may see the landfilling of some unprocessed recyclables in the short term for us to be able to get through this very difficult period”.  

Recycling being stockpiled

Without its biggest market to sell off to, waste companies are being forced to stockpile the materials.

At least two NSW councils - Newcastle and Lake Macquarie - have confirmed to SBS News its contractors have been forced to horde the materials.

A recycling facility in Western Sydney
A recycling facility in Western Sydney Source: Rashida Yosufzai

“Due to the recent downturn in the market for plastics and paper, some of these materials are now being temporarily stored in Sydney,” a spokeswoman for Lake Macquarie City Council said in a statement.

“Glass is temporarily being warehoused in Victoria. Council is confident that sufficient and safe storage is available for temporary stockpiling of recyclate in the short term, while solutions to stimulate markets are developed.”

Newcastle City Council said its contractor is stockpiling materials at various locations around the country. And it was also ready to help other councils with landfilling if required.

“Council owns one of the largest landfill facilities in NSW with enough capacity to last the city several hundred years,” a spokeswoman said.

“As a result, we stand ready to support other councils should they ultimately find themselves in a position where their kerbside recycling services are adversely affected by China's new minimum recycling standards.”

Stockpiles 'could ignite'

Mr Khoury says stockpiling could be dangerous as materials become mixed with flammable objects such as aerosol cans and batteries.

“If they're left for any period of time in an unprocessed fashion could ignite and they could become very, very serious fire hazards,” he said.

In Victoria, there have been warnings that householders will be slugged with higher rates as a result of China’s crackdown, as commodity prices for recycling companies plummet.

'Show me the money'

Mark Smith from the Victorian Waste Management Association said where previously recycling facilities were paying councils to receive those commodities, it’s now the reverse.

“They’re now requesting councils to pay for that material to be received,” he said.

“Somebody does need to pay for the additional disposal costs and it’s likely those will need to be paid by the person generating that waste. That includes businesses and it includes households.”

State governments have responded to China's ban by promising millions of dollars to help local councils deal with the problem. NSW has dedicated $47 million while Victoria is contributing $13 million.

But contractors say they’re still waiting for the details of the funding plan.

“At this stage, there’s been no money handed out,” Mr Khoury said.

World’s first e-waste microfactory

While Australia is struggling with processing its own recyclables into new materials, it may be leading the world in managing electronic waste.

The world’s first 'e-waste microfactory' has been launched at the University of New South Wales, allowing discarded smartphones and computerware to be transformed into valuable materials that can be reused for 3D printing.

UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla demonstrates the technology behind the world's first e-waste microfactory.
UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla demonstrates the technology behind the world's first e-waste microfactory. Source: Rashida Yosufzai

Veena Sahajwalla, the UNSW Professor, behind the innovation, said e-waste is a challenge not just in Australia but globally.

“We have become sort of too complacent as a society in a global context to buy new phones and new computers and in a way not think about what happens to our old devices.

“And this really is a world-first solution because it says just because something stops working as a phone or laptop computer it doesn’t mean that all the materials in it have lost their value.”

Households should clean up

In the meantime, Australians are being encouraged to better manage their recycling waste, instead of waiting on alternative Asian markets to open up their channels for garbage.

Environmental foundation Planet Ark sees the crisis as an opportunity for Australians to become more conscientious recyclers by reducing contamination in their recycling materials.

It's CEO Paul Klymenko said: “We need to educate the community to recycle better, to invest in our recycling facilities and obviously we need to invest in ways of reprocessing that material onshore”. 

5 min read
Published 7 April 2018 at 11:53am
By Rashida Yosufzai