recycling crisis
Protesters rail against plastic and cardboard going into landfill (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Recycling bins are being dumped into landfill across the country. Melbourne’s recycling stockpiles continue to burst into flames. And this week, an investigation by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed Indonesia is returning 13 tonnes of stinking, sludgy and maggot-infested plastic waste to recycling company Visy in Melbourne due to toxic contamination. 

Yet Australians continue to sort out their rubbish and recyclables, dutifully wheeling their commingled yellow bins out to the curb. And for what? 

Recycling has been around in Australia for over a century. Rags in 1815 were used to make paper, scrap metals have been reused since 1915, and plastics have been recycled since the ‘70s. We’ve had decades to learn how to do it right, so what on earth has gone wrong? 

Where does our recycling go?

Australia has become increasingly reliant on exporting our recyclables overseas, shipping our plastic troubles out of sight and out of mind. 

Here’s how it works. Local councils pick up kerbside bins through a collection contract with a material recovery facility. They then sort the different recyclable materials into individual bale types, which are generally sold or traded to remanufacturing facilities. In the case of plastic, most are shipped abroad where the recyclables are melted down into pellets and resold to Australia to manufacture new products. 

According to the latest government data, Australia exported about 3.12 million tonnes of waste between April 2018-19. Our waste is mostly shipped to Thailand, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, China and Indonesia.

Our recycling crisis began early last year when China changed the rules on what it would take. It now only accepts material with less than 0.5% contamination, ruling out 99% of the recycling Australia previously sold it

Malaysia and Indonesia have followed suit in tightening restrictions. Indonesia now inspects all paper products it receives, while Malaysia frequently sends back shipments which don’t meet their contamination requirements. 

Deakin University hazardous materials management expert Dr Trevor Thornton says recent rejections of Australian waste sends a message. 

“We’ve had this head in the sand mentality, where if China’s stopped taking it, oh, then Indonesia will,” he says.

But given these countries are now refusing our contaminated waste, “this [is] something we can’t do”.

Do we really have ‘toxic’ plastics?

The stinking recycling bale rejected by Indonesian customs contained B3 waste, categorised as “hazardous and/or toxic materials” that could “damage and/or pollute living environment and/or can harm human’s health”. 

But how toxic was it? 

According to Gayle Sloan from the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR), not at all. 

“I don’t believe for a second that it’s toxic, I believe it has more contamination than agreed upon,” she says. 

If contamination (the presence of materials other than those specified) is higher than 2% Australia deems the container hazardous, Sloan explains. A huge contributing factor is that most products contain a vast array of different plastics and materials.

“10% of a water bottle is the paper label. The lid is a different plastic. The bottom of a yoghurt pot has polypropylene — the lid has metal. Those are contaminants,” Sloan says. 

In April alone, Australia exported about 452,200 tonnes of waste, with a value of $559 million. To combat both the contamination and the sheer volume of waste, Sloan says consumers needed to make better purchasing choices, as well as be smarter about how they recycle at home. 

“We need to educate households about what goes in the bin and how”. 

This includes encouraging Australians to clean out their recycling before putting it in the bin. 

“Indonesia only accepts things that are empty and dry — throwing out a full sauce bottle is a contaminant,” Sloan says. 

Why don’t we recycle here?

China’s change in policy highlighted the fact that Australia’s capacity to remanufacture our own waste is still 1.2 million tonnes per year short of where it should be. But if we could make up this gap it would represent a huge boost to the economy.The recycling industry, according to WMRR, generates 9.2 jobs for every 10,000 tonnes of material recycled — four times the amount generated from landfill. 

Despite this huge advantage, Australia hasn’t got the remanufacturing infrastructure — and according to Sloan that won’t change anytime soon as the country lacks the economy of scale. 

“There are no market signals of ‘you must build it,” she says, adding that part of the problem is that recycling often isn’t very economical. 

“The price of virgin (non-recycled) plastics are based on supply and demand, with virgin PET prices fluctuating because it is oil-related.”

Prices aren’t mandated, meaning recycled products can often end up being more expensive than their virgin counterparts. 

“We need market demands and levers pulled to help drive that,” she says, stressing the need for government recycling incentives, such as bottle collection schemes or bonuses provided for companies which use recycled materials.