18 March 2018

Recycling crisis is a chance to slash waste

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China’s decision to slash imports of recyclable rubbish has roiled the global recycling market – causing short-term shocks including the near-collapse of the Australian industry, but creating a long-term opportunity here and elsewhere to improve environmental outcomes while generating revenue and employment.

It is also a chance to reduce the amount of waste by providing financial incentives to households and individuals. At this level, too, China, which is facing dreadful pollution problems, is taking a lead by banning all non-reusable containers. It is not far-fetched to imagine we could slash waste by giving paramount importance to reusing, rather than recycling. Further, innovations around the world include furnaces that generate electricity from waste. Many nations, including Australia, are banning plastic bags.

Financial incentives would make it in everyone’s self-interest to minimise waste and maximise reuse and recycling. These include re-introducing deposits on glass bottles and other recyclable containers, and charging households according to the volume of waste they produce. Deposit schemes work. In Germany, plastic and glass bottles are washed and sterilised and refilled dozens of times, which is obviously cheaper than recycling after each use. Consumers get the deposit, and businesses have an incentive to put their products in multi-use containers.

State government subsidies can help manage the crisis and accelerate the transition. Waste collectors and local recycling companies have been in turmoil since China’s decision in the middle of last year, and are seeking to extract more revenue from councils. This will put pressure on rates unless we radically reduce waste, as the end of the China option forces local recyclers to take more expensive solutions. Companies including Visy and Wheelie Waste responded to China’s ban by demanding councils pay large sums of money to cover the extra costs of collecting and cleaning the material.

Meanwhile, community confidence in the environmental value of separating rubbish has been crushed by news that most of the waste ends up in landfill these days anyway. That is a shame, but it can be turned around. Australians clearly have a strong underlying desire to get this right: we recycle about 60 per cent of our waste.

Source: The Age, https://tinyurl.com/ybhrcq8z