So why does recycling get sent to landfill?

The most up-to-date stats show Australians generated 67 million tonnes of waste in 2016-2017.

Of that, about 54 million tonnes is known as “core waste”, and is dealt with by the waste and resource recovery industry.

The rest is things like ash from electricity generation, mud from refining, manure from farming and liquid waste like sewage — stuff that can’t be picked up by a rubbish truck on bin day.

While a lot of the focus is on households, more than a third of our waste comes from the construction and demolition industry, and the same amount comes from the commercial and industrial sector.

Compared with other similar developed countries, the Department of Environment says we generate “more waste than the average” and recycle “a little less than the average”.

“We have way too much of a view that it’s just waste and you just throw it out,” says Gayle Sloan, the CEO of the Waste Management Association of Australia.

Where’s it all going?

Jenni Downes, a researcher at Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute, says what happens once rubbish is put in a bin remains a mystery for many people.

She says a big part of that is the fact that waste companies have “designed their services to be almost invisible”.

“They’ve tried to make it as simple and convenient for householders so that you put your waste in the bin, and it disappears. Poof, it’s gone.”

For what goes into general waste bins the outcome is pretty simple — in most instances, it goes straight into landfill.

A large portion of that — about 6.7 million tonnes — is organic waste like food and garden waste, which creates methane-rich greenhouse gases as it decomposes.

Only about 2 per cent of our waste is converted to energy, a much lower rate than some European countries.

And it’s estimated about 130,000 tonnes of Australian plastic ends up in waterways and oceans each year.

The three main ways it ends up there, according to WWF, are littering, products like wet wipes being flushed and plastic flying away from landfill processing.

What’s the recycling process like?

There are generally quite a few steps before recycling can be what the industry calls “manufacture ready”.

An illustrated graphic showing a yellow-lid bin, a rubbish truck and a building.

PHOTO: Kerbside recycling is first taken by a rubbish truck to a material recovery facility. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

An illustrated graphic showing a flow-chart of sorting in to different recycling bins.

PHOTO: It’s then sorted into different streams, and often sorted again into sub-categories. With plastic, that’s where those little numbers on the packaging come in. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

An illustrated graphic showing how plastic is processed into pellets.

PHOTO: Plastic is then shredded, granulated, washed, dried, decontaminated and finally made into pellets that can be used in manufacturing. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

So why does recycling get sent to landfill?

Where your recycling ends up really depends on what kind of material it is.

A graph showing the rates of recycling for different materials, including 90 per cent for metals and 12 per cent for plastics.

PHOTO: Most of Australia’s metal gets recycled, but other materials don’t have the same fate. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

A graph showing the rates of recycling for different materials, including 52 per cent for organics and 12 per cent for plastic.

PHOTO: A large portion of our plastic is sent straight to landfill — often due to the way plastic creeps into so much packaging. (ABC News: Andrew Harrison)

Even once your recycling goes into the right bin, a lot of it is unusable due to contamination — broken glass, food, plastic bags, rubbish and liquids all increase the chance of the material being eventually sent to landfill.

“The difficulty is that over the past 20 years or so, our packaging has become much, much more sophisticated, and the types of materials and the way they’re put in have become way more complicated than when we first learnt to recycle,” Ms Downes says.

Things like plastic-lined paper, tissues and glassware often don’t make the cut.

The recycling company Visy calls this “wish-cycling” — where people hope materials can be recycled, but their presence actually dooms other perfectly good recyclables to landfill.

To combat this, Infrastructure Victoria has recommended a six-bin system so all the separating is done at home.

It’s more of a problem with kerbside recycling, as business and construction often get charged more if their waste isn’t up to scratch.

Large cubes of plastic waste bundled in a huge warehouse.

PHOTO: Lots of recyclable goods sit in warehouses or sorting facilities for a long time before they reach a final destination. (ABC News: James Oaten)

And even if it’s totally pristine, there’s no guarantee it’ll actually be recycled at the end of the process if there isn’t a buyer for it.

A 2017 Four Corners investigation found hundreds of thousands of tonnes of glass — which at the time was expensive to recycle — was sitting in New South Wales warehouses because there was “no viable market” for it.

In recent months, major Victorian company SKM Recycling went insolvent. While a number of councils and the State Government scrambled to find a solution, an estimated 780 rubbish trucks’ worth of recyclables were sent to landfill in a week.

Read More:

Recycling crisis prompts call to switch to six-bins system for Victorian rubbish collection

Victorian households could be separating rubbish into six or more bins — instead of the usual two or three — to help solve the state’s recycling crisis.

It is one of several proposed ideas to rescue the state’s collapsed recycling sector, published in an interim report to the State Government by Infrastructure Victoria.

“It’s very important that we have very clean streams of materials that are easy to recycle,” Elissa McNamara, the project director at Infrastructure Victoria, said.

“The system where everything’s all put in the one bin has been around for 20 years, and we haven’t updated that.

“The glass gets broken, paper and cardboard get tiny particles of glass in it … they’re so mixed up and contaminated that it’s really hard to extract a high-value material that can be recycled.”

A row of unemptied wheelie bins.

PHOTO: The ubiquitous wheelie bin might become a thing of the past. (ABC News)

‘Global shock’ forces recycling rethink

It was that contamination that led China to make its momentous decision to stop importing foreign waste for recycling in 2018, sparking Victoria’s recycling crisis.

Since then, waste from Victorian recycling bins has either gone to landfill or been stockpiled, creating massive fire risks.

“In the past, we’ve really been able to just set and forget,” Ms McNamara said.

“Now, we’ve had this global shock that really requires us to urgently reconsider how we deal with our recycling.”

The proposed six-bins system could involve separating rubbish into stackable crates that would be carried out to the kerb on something similar to a removalist’s trolley.

Read More: ABC News

China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis

What is the China ‘ban’?

The “ban” is actually a set of import restrictions imposed by China under its Blue Sky/National Sword program. This follows its previous Green Fence program, introduced in 2011, which progressively tightened inspection efforts to reduce the amount of contaminated materials entering the country.

National Sword takes this a step further by restricting the importation of 24 streams of recyclable material. It does this by setting stringent “maximum contamination thresholds” and limiting the number of import permits provided to Chinese businesses.

Read more: Why you’re almost certainly wasting time rinsing your recycling

Of key importance to Australia are the restrictions on paper and plastics, which now have contamination thresholds of just 0.5%. While not a ban in theory, this is virtually a ban in practice, because it is currently unachievable when processing household wastes like plastic.

How much of Australia’s recycling is affected?

Recent estimates commissioned by the federal government suggest that of all recycling collected from households, business and industry in 2017, Australia exported 3.5% to China (about 1.25 million tonnes).

However, the proportion is much higher for two key streams from our household kerbside recycling: 29% (920,000 tonnes) of all paper and 36% (125,000 tonnes) of all plastics collected were exported to China in 2017. This represents around 65% of the export market for each. The contamination rate of Australia’s kerbside recycling averages between 6-10% and even after sorting at a recycling facility is generally well above China’s 0.5% acceptable threshold.

Australia has limited local markets for household recyclables like paper, plastics and glass, so we rely heavily on overseas markets like China to buy and reprocess the waste. Losing the market for a third of our paper and plastics – as have many other industrialised countries – has sent shockwaves through the global recycling market. Oversupply has caused the average price of mixed paper scrap to fall from around AU$124 per tonne to A$0 per tonne (yes, zero!). Scrap mixed plastics has fallen from around A$325 per tonne to A$75 per tonne.

For many recycling companies, this means that the money they can make from kerbside recycling will now be less than the cost of providing the service.

Adapted from APCO Market Impact Assessment Report

Short-term solutions

Despite this reduced market, over the past 12 months traders have been able to sell scrap paper and plastics to other countries in Asia. This is a stopgap solution, as these countries are likely to reach their maximum capacity soon.

Other recycling businesses are storing these materials in the hope that a better option becomes available soon; The Age has reported some 200 “dangerous” stockpiles in Victoria. New South Wales has temporarily relaxed stockpile limits to allow greater short-term storage.

Major recycling company Visy has invoked force majeure to stop accepting recycling from the collection contractor for ten regional Victorian councils, while others councils face increased fees. In response, the Victorian state government unveiled a A$13 million rescue package to help councils meet increased costs until June, when they can increase rates (which are expected to increase by 4.5%).

Read more: Australian recycling plants have no incentive to improve

Passing costs onto residents isn’t always an option, as in NSW where rates are capped. To prevent a number of councils from abandoning kerbside recycling altogether (as temporarily happened in Ipswich), the NSW government has announced A$47 million of funding to help industry and councils. However, this is money diverted from funds already aimed at better managing waste throughout the state.

In South Australia, some recycling is seemingly still being sent to China despite the ban because of the high quality of recycling in that state. However, this is not a realistic option for all, and industry associations have called for a A$7 million rescue package. The SA government is waiting on a report from a working group before committing to such a package, but has announced A$300,000 in grant funding for the development of secondary reprocessing infrastructure.

The Western Australian government has created a task force to look at solutions but it has so far not returned any findings.

Read More: The Conversation

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