While Australia has been able to find alternate buyers for it’s commingled recycle in the wake of China’s “National Sword” policy, other Asian nations are following China’s lead, putting Australian recycle under fire - and back to square one.
As Australia shifted it’s attention to India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam to solve it’s recycle crisis, the Asian nations are busy implementing new policies to prevent their countries from becoming an international dumping ground.
Following an earlier decision to issue a stop on all new recycle import permits, Vietnam has now banned all further e-plastic imports, indicating further restrictions were to follow.
Thailand and Malaysia, also concerned with the sudden influx of recyclables, have implemented plans that would see a ban on all plastic imports as early as 2021.
Commenting on their plan, Thailand's Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Surasak Kanchanarat, said Thailand needed “... to ensure that domestic and plastic waste is used by the recycling industry first, before importing these materials from other countries.”
And it’s not just legal recycling causing concern. Malaysia in particular has seen a huge increase in the number of illegal plastic sorting facilities, shutting down over 140 operations since early last year.
Now India, Australia’s fourth largest importer of waste, has put an end to plastic imports entirely in a bid to close the gap between waste reprocessing and generation. With close to 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste produced each day, India has enough material to support its own recycle industry without importing any material.
The issue facing Australian recycle has gone far beyond simply finding other countries to accept it’s recycle. This past year has seen the price of Australian (and indeed, the world’s) recycle drop significantly, with a large oversupply in the global market.
While prices have started to steady themselves, the news of National Sword brought the price of recycled paper down to $0/tonne for May, June and July of 2018, recovering now to roughly $8 - $10/ tonne. Plastics and cardboard, while still at least retaining value, dropped 76% and 40% respectively.
A recent report from 60 Minutes suggested the folly of Australian recycle, that it wasn’t ‘really’ recycling and equating it to a ‘waste of time’. This type of reporting is sensationalistic, and does nothing to help anyone. As I see it, the key issue from the program that aired Sunday night (apart from the known struggles in the aftermath of China’s National Sword policy), were the unscrupulous Australian exporters of plastic recycle selling to illegal reprocessing facilities in Malaysia.
Who are these exporters? Why have they been allowed to sell their material to illegal waste facilities? But these questions were nowhere to be seen, with 60 Minutes instead suggesting our recycle industry was a ‘con’. For the plastic sent overseas to legitimate recycling facilities, it’s no con.
Clearly Australia’s reliance on selling recycle overseas, as well as our oversight on exporters, is not ideal or sustainable. The Australian government needs to invest significantly in our domestic recycle reprocessing and sorting if we are ever going to own our own recycle process end to end.
The recycling efforts of Australians are not a waste of time, and it’s an embarrassing statement to stand behind. While admittedly the industry is not perfect, throwing our hands up and proclaiming our recycle is nothing more than a con job solves nothing.
Australians have never been the type to give up easily; when the going gets tough, we roll up our sleeves. If we start investing more in our infrastructure and focus on industry legal reforms, we can only move towards a brighter future.
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