Australia bans exports of waste amid moves to boost local recycling

Australia produces high amounts of waste, almost three million tonnes per person a year.
Australia produces high amounts of waste, almost three million tonnes per person a year.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Australia has imposed a ban on exports of recyclable waste as it tries to boost recycling in the wake of a Chinese import ban that left Australia with mounting piles of rubbish.

The new legislation bans exports of unprocessed plastic, paper, glass and tyres and has been accompanied by a push by Federal and State governments to develop domestic recycling facilities and to encourage businesses to use recycled products.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the ban would help to protect the environment and promote jobs: "The export ban sends a strong message that it is time to take responsibility for our waste, to seize the economic opportunities of transforming our recycling industry and to stop sending problem waste overseas.

"By doing this we can play an important role in reducing the millions of tonnes of plastic that pollute the world's oceans.

The legislation follows a sudden ban imposed by China in 2018 on imports of 24 types of waste - a move that caused stockpiling in Australia and led to recyclable waste being sent to landfills. China previously bought about 30 per cent of Australia's waste exports but banned imports over concerns that some materials entering from overseas were overly contaminated and posed a risk to the environment and public health.

China's ban prompted a rethink in Australia about how to deal with its waste and led to moves to create a more self-reliant sector.

Australia produces high amounts of waste - almost three million tonnes per person a year - and has relatively low recycling rates. About 60 per cent of waste was recycled in 2019, according to official data. Last year, Australia exported almost 4.5 million tonnes of waste overseas, mainly to Indonesia, India, Vietnam, China, Bangladesh and Malaysia.

The new Australian law bans glass exports from January 1, followed by bans on exports of plastics and tyres by 2022 and cardboard in 2024.

The Government is also seeking to boost recycling capacity. It is investing AUD$190 million in an AUD$600 million scheme - also supported by states and the private sector - to develop new facilities for sorting, processing and remanufacturing waste. The initiative is expected to create 10,000 jobs.

The National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, which represents waste management businesses, welcomed the export ban, saying the move - along with the new investment scheme - could help to boost domestic waste recycling and recovery rates. But it said the Government should also consider incentives to encourage use of recycled products, such as imposing a tax on new plastic waste - similar to one being introduced in the European Union - or rebates for firms recycling used plastics.

"We see the legislation as an opportunity to develop the resource recovery sector and recovery rates in Australia and to create more business opportunities," council chief executive Rose Read told The Straits Times.

"But there has to also be a financial incentive to grow demand for recycled plastics."

Environmental groups largely welcomed the legislation but urged Canberra and the states to do more to discourage the unnecessary use of materials, particularly plastic bags and cutlery.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society welcomed the move to stop shipping the country's waste burden to other nations but said the laws "will not reduce the plastic flowing into our oceans".

"To really deal with the plastic pollution crisis in Australia we must make targets to cut plastic packaging mandatory," said society spokesperson Shane Cucow. "We need a nationwide framework for eliminating the most lethal plastics for ocean wildlife, like plastic bags, straws and cutlery."

Some states are looking to ban single-use plastics. The first such ban will start in South Australia in 2021. The State Government says it will initially ban cutlery and straws, before applying the measure to takeaway containers, coffee cups and carrier bags.