If someone were to ask where your waste goes after the rubbish company collects it, would you know the answer? Well, up until recently, there’s a good chance that a large portion of it was actually ending up in China. That’s right, the country with the largest population and more people per square metre than any other country in the world, is also the world’s biggest importer of recyclable materials. In fact, the nation was taking in as much as 30 million metric tonnes of waste from countries across the globe, including Australia, Japan, the US and the EU.
However, China has decided it will no longer accept ‘foreign garbage’ and is banning the import of 24 categories of solid waste in a bid to protect the environment and the health of the Chinese population.
But what does this mean for Australia?
Well, the industry is taking a positive approach to China’s changing waste regulations, with the ban being recognised as a trigger for us to take responsibility of our own waste, so we can transition to a cleaner community.
“The real opportunity in Australia is to create that circular economy that’s happening overseas and that’s what China is moving towards, where they’re saying we produce that material, we actually want to recycle that material and reuse it back in the economy,” Gayle Sloan, the chief executive of the Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) told ABC News.
What Happens Now?
The changes – which started to be enforced as of January 1 this year – will mean Australia will have to cope with an extra 619,000 tonnes of waste – worth $513 million – that will be recycled in Australia, instead of being exported to China.
Moving forward, China will only accept recyclable waste with a contamination level of equal to, or less, than 0.5 per cent. A contamination level this low is virtually impossible to achieve, as when processed, even household items like plastic bottles can’t meet these stringent guidelines.
Ms Sloan admits that this will create challenges in the beginning, but as the economy adapts to the increased recycling and repurposing demands, it will completely transform the industry as we know it, hopefully for the better.
The concept of reduce, recycle, re-use has never been as important as it is now, with the Australian market needing to increase the facilities we have access to, so we can take trash and turn it into re-usable products. There also needs to be a market for these products. For instance, glass can be recycled into sand, which can sustainably build infrastructure like roads. By effectively utilising products we already have, the cost and environmental toll of sourcing new materials will also be reduced in the long-term.
This is the attitude China is taking to their recent changes, as even though the industry could potentially face a shortage in manufacturing materials, environmental protection and creating circular uses for resources is a top priority for President Xi Jinping.
According to Liu Hua, a Greenpeace campaigner in Beijing, “This is the very first step to change the global recycling system, to disrupt the trading chain from exporters to importers, so China not only improves its domestic recycling but also raises environmental standards.”
In Australia, coping with the changes will be a little more complicated. Presently, the federal government is steering clear of the issue, saying it’s a matter that should be dealt with at a state, territory and local level. While there is room to increase the amount of materials being repurposed, concern lies in the fact that there isn’t really a market for these products, especially since recycled goods are typically more expensive for the consumer.
One overwhelming benefit to the changes is that an extra 25,000 jobs are expected to be generated over a five-year period for Australians.
While definitive next steps are yet to be set in stone, it is clear that there is an urgent demand for a more circular economy, and that the pressure to generate this can’t be left at a business and start-up level, and should be driven by government bodies at both a state and federal level.
In the meantime, our team at Bulk Waste Collection will continue to follow our sustainable waste development practices, and will be actively working towards creating a more secular process that will help Perth cope with the changing waste industry.