Recycling across Australia is facing collapse, following China’s move to restrict the import of recyclable materials.

For years households have been told that individual efforts to recycle are helping the planet. But the crisis has exposed how the market has failed to ensure waste is recycled.

Last year 36 per cent of our plastic and 29 per cent of paper recycling went to China for processing.

Previously, collection companies could make money by selling recyclable waste to Chinese companies. Now that they have stopped buying it, the price waste companies can get from selling the materials has plummeted. So companies are asking for higher fees to collect recycling from local councils—with no guarantee the waste will actually be recycled.

Some companies have been able to sell materials in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore instead. But recycling facilities there will soon be overloaded, waste management companies told The Australian.

Other councils and recycling companies are stockpiling glass, paper and plastic in the hope they can find a use for them later.

Warrnambool Council’s chief executive Bruce Anson admitted, “We don’t know how much of our recyclables are recycled and how much is stored. There’s a lot of storage going on at the moment all over Australia. There’s sheds full of bottles, there’s sheds full of paper”.

Ipswich council in Queensland spent a month dumping recycling waste in landfill, before backing down in April when residents found out this was happening. The council had baulked at having to pay recycling companies an extra $2 million a year for household collection.

In Perth recycling company Cleanaway, which processes waste from 20 local councils, is insisting on a four-fold increase in its fees. “We’re right at the tipping point of having to make a decision to either in some instances, not collect the bins, or not process or divert to landfill,” its Solid Waste Services general manager David Williamson told the ABC in May.

The Victorian, South Australian and NSW governments have announced funding to allow household collection to continue, until local councils can increase rates to cover the cost.

Dysfunctional system

Recycling in Australia was already dysfunctional. Investigations by Four Corners and Fairfax media over the last year have found large amounts of material collected for recycling has actually been dumped in landfill.

Recycling company Polytrade told Four Corners last September that enormous numbers of glass bottles were being collected but, “at the moment is there’s no viable market anymore, there’s nowhere for the glass to go.”

Four Corners discovered that some companies had dumped glass in the open or simply sent it to landfill.

In February Fairfax reported that thousands of tonnes of recycling was being trucked from NSW to Queensland each week and dumped.

All this shows how ineffective it is to simply “do your bit” as an individual and recycle what you use.

NSW and Queensland are both introducing new container deposit schemes, paying consumers ten cents to collect plastic and glass containers.

But packaging company Visy has warned this will simply “further exacerbate the glass challenges”. In other words, the containers won’t actually be recycled.

The same is true of plastic. In the 2017 financial year only 11.8 per cent of plastics consumed in Australia were sent for recycling. And just over 60 per cent of that was sent overseas for processing, according to the latest Australian Plastics Recycling Survey.

Very little recycling is done in Australia because it’s cheaper to simply produce glass, plastics and paper from scratch.

Mark Jacobsen from recycling company Replas told The Guardian that, “Recycling in Australia is dead in the water”. His company will only recycle plastics if the waste supplier is willing to buy back the finished product.

A meeting of federal and state governments in April pledged to make 100 per cent of packaging recyclable by 2025. But at the moment there is nowhere to recycle it. They also made vague promises to “examine opportunities” for more recycling facilities and increase government purchases of recycled goods.

But leaving responsibility for recycling to the free market has failed. Companies simply can’t make money out of it. And packaging companies will only use recycled material if the government subsidises it—or forces the companies to use it.

The government should take on responsibility for owning and running recycling services. New recycling plants may not be profitable, but they are urgently needed and should be built with public money. Plastics that can’t be recycled should be banned altogether.

So far, councils are simply demanding that ordinary people pay more through higher rates. The corporations who are polluting the world through pumping out packaging and waste should pay the bill for the clean-up.

By James Supple

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