China’s Waste Ban May Just Be An Opportunity

From March 1, China is no longer importing certain “foreign garbage” from countries including Australia and New Zealand. China has been the world’s largest importer and recycler of plastic, paper and scrap metal, a decision that has wide-reaching impacts.

Up to now China has imported recyclable materials, taking in more than 30 million metric tonnes of waste from all over the world, including from the US, EU, Japan, and Australia. Unfortunately much of what arrived in China was dirty or contaminated or mixed. Included in the ban are 24 types of solid waste, any rubbish that is imported in the future needs to be processed and uncontaminated. China’s ban on foreign plastics is as a result of a combination of the government taking a harder line on pollution, with environmental controls getting stricter as well as the influx of contaminated waste landing on its shores.

In Australia 619,000 tonnes of materials worth $523 million and in New Zealand $21 million of waste a year is expected to be impacted by the Chinese ban. With much of the discussion and articles being in regards to what to do with the mountains of waste that will start building in globally, the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) believes that the ban can lead to some fundamental changes in the reduction and treatment of waste. Change can lead to immobilisation or to innovation.

 Interim Solutions

At an Australian state level, the Victorian Government for example is assisting local councils affected by China’s ban with $13 million to help them manage their rubbish. But they will be on their own from July 1. Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the money would give councils, and their contractors, time to develop solutions and renegotiate contracts. The Victoria State Government also announced a taskforce would be established to help the industry adapt to the new landscape which doesn’t include sending rubbish to China.

Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA) said industry had signalled to government for a long time that relying on the export markets for recyclables was dangerous and now it find itself, with the change in China’s legislation, walking towards this inevitability.

 Doing Things Differently

Generally, recyclers make money if they can get rid of plastics and other recyclable material for more money than it costs to collect yet not all recyclers follow the same model. TerraCycle is an innovative recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste. TerraCycle takes a different approach, it works directly with companies like L’Oréal, Colgate, Nestle and Unilever to collect and process hard-to-recycle materials. TerraCycle sells the material as plastic pellets or metal alloys to be made into things like plastic garbage bags, frisbees, dog bowls and benches. For this reason, the China ban will not impact its business model as much but the cost will increase. More importantly,  as TerraCycle’s Tom Szaky  states, “We can’t recycle our way to sustainability. We have to think purchase differently. There is the ability for us to affect this whole thing.”

Time to Reduce Waste

China was the world’s dominant importer of plastic waste. A senior EU official stated, he now expected the waste to go to other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and Malaysia. The question for Australia and New Zealand is whether commencing to send waste to another country is really the long term solution required. First and foremost waste reduction should be at the top of every Australian and New Zealand’s policy makers list.

Governments, introducing sustainable procurement nationally would demonstrate that government are willing to model these behaviours. Sustainable consumption should be the main focus of future legislation, including the reduction of packaging on products that do not actually require packaging. Industry could be legislated to use recycled or compostable plant based content wherever possible, while consumers could be encouraged to choose recycled  or compostable packaging through the introduction of clear labelling disclosing the degree of recycled content or Certified compostability. Governments, local, state and federal are also key drivers in the development of organic recycling industry, shifting valuable waste from landfill and creating a usable product – nutrient-rich compost.

Creating New Industries & New Jobs

The WMAA is looking to potential opportunities.  The WMAA proposes investment in new recycling infrastructure which create construction jobs and economic activity that provides a real boost to local economies. The WMAA also believes that the change to a circular economy will not only bring long term employment, through green-collar manufacturing, but also sustainable economic growth. As an example, with Container Deposit Schemes being introduced nationally and WMAA said the key is that the recycled product made in Australia is re-used by the beverage companies that participate in this scheme.

The WMAA would like to ensure that packagers are using recycled products as an input in all they do but understand that governmental support is imperative. The WMAA wants the Federal Government to assist in establishing a circular economy by helping industry and encouraging consumers.

In South Australian data has shown that an extra 25,000 jobs would be created over five years by recycling and reusing our waste rather than dumping or exporting it.

Sydney-based Re.Group recently invested $8 million to open a new recycling operation at Hume in the ACT and is stepping up its campaign to grow its local customer base. At the Hume facility Re.Group process all the glass that it receives which is made into sand that can be reused locally. This stops new raw material being sourced, as instead of mining a beach or a river bed and getting new sand, a more sustainable product for building all kinds of infrastructure like roads.”

What About Bioplastics?

Bioplastics are not new and the benefits of bioplastics in a circular economy are gaining more attention. With a vast range of products from bags, to phone covers, to plant pots, to dog toys, to food containers  and much more, all being made from bioplastics it demonstrates that bioplastics can replace many things made from conventional plastic.

In Australia, with numerous Councils implement FOGO (Food Organics and Green Organics Recycling), bioplastics especially certified compostable plastics are starting to become more predominant in our communities. Certified Compostable plastics bags are used to capture food waste for recycling at compost facilities or in home composting.

Food services companies are also looking to change. With our busy life styles Australians are predicted to spend US$1,342m delivered / take away food in 2018, this equates to a lot of take-away containers and a lot of single use plastic. Companies such as ABA Members BioPak, Dzolv Products Pty Ltd and Novamont already produce compostable take away food containers, coffee cups and food service ware, which can be sent to industrial compost facilities rather than landfill.

With big names including Amcor, Ecover, evian, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Walmart, Werner & Mertz, Procter & Gamble, Puma, Samsung, IKEA, Tetra Pak, Heinz, Stella McCartney, Gucci and retail leader Iceland UK all implementing large scale bioplastics products and packaging solutions overseas, bioplastics is here today and for the future.

 Acting On The Future

China’s change in legislation to not accept certain recyclable materials will create an impact in Australia and New Zealand. The question is, how will legislators and industry in both countries react? For Australia and New Zealand the future is about protecting jobs and ensuring every household and business has confidence to continue recycling whilst reducing our waste and personal footprint. Hopefully it is also about creating a robust circular economy that can benefit both Australia and New Zealand.