Australia's rubbish woes pile up amid China's curbs

Waste warehouses overflowing since China cut imports of reusable waste last month

A Chinese worker sorting out bottles for recycling. China, the world's biggest importer of waste, is curbing its waste intake.
A Chinese worker sorting out bottles for recycling. China, the world's biggest importer of waste, is curbing its waste intake.

China's curbs on importing waste have taken a heavy toll in Australia and prompted warnings of a looming national rubbish crisis that could lead to the demise of household recycling.

Australia, which has long been a leader in household recycling, has relied for years on China as the main foreign buyer of its reusable waste.

Each year, Australia sends China about 30 per cent of its recyclable rubbish, amounting to around 600,000 tonnes. This waste, which is converted into reusable raw materials, is worth about A$523 million (S$562 million).

However, China, the world's biggest importer of waste, last month began curbing its intake, saying this would boost local recycling, prevent pollution and improve public health. It has effectively stopped accepting 24 types of waste, including paper, plastics, textiles and some metals.

The ban has left waste warehouses in Australia overflowing and is likely to lead to higher garbage collection fees for households. This is because collection companies will struggle to find buyers for their waste and may need to store, burn or bury it - all of which are more costly.

Hunter Resource Recovery, a waste collection firm north of Sydney, warned that the sector faces a "critical point" within months unless a solution is found.

"We can't keep picking it up if there's nowhere for it to go," the firm's head, Mr Roger Lewis, told ABC News on Feb 8. "There are only so many warehouses where you can put stock, and to lease warehouses is expensive."

The treatment of waste in Australia is overseen by state and territory governments, but the collection is overseen by local councils.

Councils first began kerbside recycling in Australia in the 1980s. In most areas, residents receive several different coloured waste bins, which are used for paper, plastics and metals, and general waste.

Typically, councils hire firms to collect the waste and sell it to recyclers. But there are concerns that the collection firms could double or triple their rates - a hike that would likely be passed on by councils to households.

Dr Trevor Thornton, a waste management expert from Australia's Deakin University, said the crisis could lead to reduced recycling and force waste companies to burn more rubbish or put it in landfill - both of which came with a greater environmental cost.

He said it could also prompt the authorities to take the drastic measure of asking households to stop recycling their rubbish, noting that it could then take years to encourage the public to resume the practice.

"There is a little bit of panic around the place," Dr Thornton told The Straits Times. "We are on the edge of facing up to whether our recycling system remains viable. If you stop asking people to recycle, it is hard to get people to start again."

Some analysts said firms are likely to stockpile their waste and state governments will try to help find other foreign buyers. Possible buyers include Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam.

Australian households recycle about 51 per cent of their waste, according to environmental group Planet Ark. The European Union average is 42 per cent.

There have already been calls in Australia for households to find ways to reduce the amount of paper and plastic that they put in recycling bins.

In the state of Victoria, the Macedon Ranges Shire Council has said it is preparing to tell people to avoid buying items that use recyclable packaging.

"We'll certainly be calling on our community to - until we get a solution - to try to think very carefully about purchasing things in recyclable containers - plastic bottles, for example," the shire's mayor, Ms Jennifer Anderson, told The Age.

"We need to minimise what's going into recycling bins. It will have to be an effort from everyone."

Visy, the Australian packaging and recycling giant, has stopped collecting waste from numerous council contractors in Victoria. The firm reportedly cited the China ban for the move.

Dr Thornton said the authorities in Australia had failed to develop plans for dealing with waste ahead of the commencement of the Chinese ban.

"We should have been discussing this five years ago," he said. "The state governments are saying everything should be all right, the local councils are worried because they do the collecting - and the residents don't know what to do."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline Australia's rubbish woes pile up amid China's curbs. Subscribe