China waste ban: crisis or catalyst?

By Johanna Leggatt

China’s decision to ban the import of foreign waste has put pressure on Australia’s local councils, waste management and recycling sectors. We asked MLS community members to weigh in on what some are describing as a ‘recycling crisis’.

For years, many Australians have given little thought as to where our waste goes, how it’s recycled and where it ends up.

But that may have changed in recent months following China’s decision to no longer accept foreign waste imports, including paper, textiles, plastics and certain types of metals. The ban came into force in January this year.

China has long been Australia’s main end-market for recycling materials, but its decision to ban 24 categories of waste has been keenly felt by local recyclers and waste management companies.

Jillian Button (BA, LLB 2005), a planning and environment partner at law firm Allens.
Jillian Button (BA, LLB 2005), a planning and environment partner at law firm Allens.

China’s decision to only accept material with a contamination level of no more than 0.5 per cent — a tough standard for many households to meet — is particularly burdensome. This puts pressure on councils (and, subsequently, household rates) as waste management companies must consider more expensive recycling solutions.

However, as experts told MLS News, the ban is also an opportunity to look at our waste management sector and where we’re going wrong.

Jillian Button (BA, LLB 2005), a planning and environment partner at law firm Allens, identifies a number of fault lines.

“Compared to many places in the United States, Asia and Europe, Australia’s lower population density presents a challenge,” she  says.

In simple terms, more people means more waste, more waste means more gate fees [the fees payable to the   disposal or recycling service provider], and more guaranteed gate fees can enhance the capacity to invest in advanced waste technology.

Australia’s federal legal system is also a challenge, Button says.

“There’s no constitutional head of power for waste management, so it generally falls to the states and territories to determine their own ways of managing waste.

“As a result, there is huge diversity between the states in terms of waste management policy, landfill levy rates and strategic waste infrastructure planning.”

Melbourne Law School lecturer Brad Jessup is clear about where the main problem lies.

Dan Last (BCom, LLB 1995), the General Counsel and Company Secretary of recycling and waste management company Cleanaway.
Dan Last (BCom, LLB 1995), the General Counsel and Company Secretary of recycling and waste management company Cleanaway. Image supplied.

“In a nutshell, we produce too much waste,” he says.

“And for too long we have looked elsewhere to deal with our waste problems.”

The General Counsel and Company Secretary of recycling and waste management company Cleanaway, Dan Last (BCom, LLB 1995),  agrees.

He notes that while consumers are well-intentioned, there is still uncertainty about what can be  recycled.

“Coffee cups are an excellent example of the debate surrounding recycling,” Last says.

“Most cups can be recycled, but the process of recycling can be quite onerous.

“Containers with food waste still on them are also considered contaminated and will be rejected by China.

I think government has a role in ensuring that the community understands what can and can’t be recycled.

According to Button, the role of government in finding better mechanisms for managing waste is absolutely critical.

She cites the passing of federal product stewardship legislation — the basis for TV and computer take-back schemes — as well as the progressive banning of single-use plastic bags across states and territories, as positive steps already taken.

“There are a range of legal levers that governments might consider pulling to improve outcomes,” Button says.

Melbourne Law School lecturer Brad Jessup.
Melbourne Law School lecturer Brad Jessup. Image supplied.

“These include increasing landfill levies to fund more advanced waste treatment, requiring higher levels of disclosure from the industry, increasing enforcement or expanding the categories of sites that require Environment Protection Authority  licences.

“Jurisdictions could also work together towards harmonisation of key laws so as to reduce the incentive to transport waste interstate [where laws may be more favourable].”

Jessup believes a clear and progressive regulatory framework is needed for the local management of waste.

He says that at a Federal Government level this could include Australia joining the more than 80 other nations that have signed up to international laws preventing the movement of all forms of waste – including product destined for recycling – from wealthy countries to poorer ones.

the state level, Jessup is critical of what he describes as the slow pace at which the Victorian Government and Parliament have progressed on the issue.

That we no longer regulate waste consumption – including in simple and effective ways like a levy on drink containers, environmental restrictions on packaging and the very long delay in banning plastic bags – tells us that we are truly lagging.

Both planning and environmental laws will have a role to play, according to Jessup, in improving and developing the sector.

“Planning laws will have to deal fairly with proposals to build more recycling plants, and environmental laws will have to increase the standards we demand of waste facilities so that they are acceptable to hosting communities,” he says.

“We are going to have to develop clear standards for incineration and waste- to-energy plants, and come up with laws and soft regulations to reduce our generation of waste and to make plastics more easily recyclable.

“Some regulatory changes should be easy; for instance, prohibiting non-recyclable plastic sleeves that envelop otherwise recyclable plastic bottles, and encouraging drink manufacturers to use lids that make bottles easier – and cheaper – to recycle.”

Last notes that while other markets, such as India, Vietnam or Thailand, are available and would reduce Australia’s reliance on China, this must be underpinned by a healthy recycling market in Australia.

“People need to understand where their products come from and in particular be able to better support the use of products from recycled materials,” Last says.

Many consumers are more than happy to buy recycled goods if they know they’re recycled, so there should be a greater push to display whether something is made from recycled materials or not.

It would also help if more of us began consuming a lot less.

“Perhaps that is part of the solution too – an awareness of what we throw away each year and where that ends up,” Last says.

“Fast fashion, for example, is great in that it has made fashion accessible to so many people, but the downside is that it’s easily disposable.”

So does Last think the China ‘waste crisis’ has been ‘beaten up’ by the mainstream press?

Yes and no.

“I think it’s probably a little bit overplayed in some parts of the media, but I also think that it’s a long-term issue that needs to be addressed,” he says.

“It has highlighted the fact that there is room for policy improvements in the future.”

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 19, May 2018.