Early in July this year the WA government announced funding of up to $20 million to improve local plastic and tyre processing across the state, which will be matched with Federal Government funding. Both materials will be affected by the Council of Australian Government’s (COAG) waste export ban that is scheduled to gradually start in early 2021 before all bans are in place by July 2024.
Many have welcomed the news, such as the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association Australia (WMRR), but at the same time there is a growing argument that much of the current legislation is overdue for significant reform.
Additionally, there are fears that local infrastructure may not be ready in time to cope with the demand of these recyclables.
Depending on the type of plastic used, Australia has only between one to two years before the ban on plastics commences; two years for single resin/polymer plastics and just a year for other mixed plastics. In addition to this there is only an eighteen-month window until the tyre ban is in place.
While it may sound good in theory if there are more recyclable and reusable materials circulating, this could literally be a wasted opportunity if these aren’t adequately processed.
Take for example in last August when 780 rubbish trucks worth of recyclable material in Victoria was sent to landfill in just one week. This was primarily caused by SKM Recycling being banned by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) from accepting new recyclable materials at one of their sites. SKM has previously rather dangerously stockpiled significant amounts of plastics, paper and glass which it was fined for early in 2019. This followed an infamous fire in 2017 at their Coolaroo site which burned for two weeks and filled Melbourne skies with toxic smoke.
Subsequently SKM went into liquidation, affecting 31 Victorian councils they had contracts with, and subsequently much of the waste went into landfill. Unsurprisingly this has affected households confidence in kerbside recycling.
This is devastating considering there is strong support for a more circular economy here in Australia.
A survey by the University of NSW found that 72 percent would recycle more if they confidently knew that their waste was being reliably recycled. Coupled with the fact that Australians actually generate less house waste per capita then the United States and even New Zealand, Australia may benefit quickly from a better recycled waste reprocessing system.
Recently that the Queensland Containers for Change scheme had hit the 2 billion milestone in just 20 months. This has improved Queensland’s plastics and can recycling rate from 35 percent in 2015 to 55 percent this year.
Additionally, by creating a new industry more than 700 new jobs have been created, not surprising given that recycling 10,000 tonnes of waste directly employs 9.2 full timers compared to 2.8 for landfilling.
This represents not just the environmental impact of recycling but also the enormous economic dividends’ recycling can reap. Given the fact Australia is currently experiencing its first recession in a generation this could provide us with a unique double-edged opportunity; reforms that could lead to a more efficient, effective and safer recycling system resulting in both favourable economic and environmental outcomes.
It is absolutely a win-win opportunity that we cannot afford to waste!