As we approach the two year anniversary of China’s World Trade Organisation notification that it would mandate and enforce stringent quality requirements from March 2018 for imported recycled materials intended for re-processing (to as low as 0.5% contamination for some commodities), and with the the 8 November Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) just around the corner, we once again pose these questions – what have we achieved in two years and how can we quicken our pace in building a sustainable domestic remanufacturing industry and markets for recycled products?
There is absolutely no doubt that Australia’s waste and resource recovery (WARR) industry has long preferred to manage our own waste and resources domestically as we know firsthand that relying on overseas markets is simply not sustainable, given countries are governed independently and have their own policies, adding to general uncertainty in global export markets. However, today, industry is still hamstrung by Australia’s linear culture (we take, use, and dispose), and we cannot change the national paradigm or grow demand and use of recovered resources alone! We need assistance and leadership from stakeholders who have responsibility for other aspects of the manufacturing supply chain, as well as our governments (at all levels).
The reality is, there is no quick or easy fix to this challenge but where others have thrived and we have failed is in the fact that many countries have grappled and responded to the challenge better and far more decisively that we have in Australia. In Asia alone, multiple policies were introduced to slow the import of recycled materials based on both quality of imports and importantly, the increased desire to manage their own recyclables in their own remanufacturing industry, with the additional stated goals in some countries being to reduce carbon emissions.
In Europe, we have seen genuine action backed by legislation to eliminate single-use items, impose a tax on virgin material, mandate required use of recycled content in packaging, and implement polluter-pays systems funded by the polluter (in many cases packaging polluters). We have also seen ongoing informed policy debate and action leading to the transitioning to a circular economy - if anyone has any doubt of where and why we need this transition, simply turn your attention to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and read some of their compelling research!
It is important to remember that this situation is not unique to household recycling (which still gets the nation’s greatest attention). I would put to you, that for too long in Australia, our measure of success has been ‘diverting from landfill’ and while this is important, the logic and reason behind diversion has been lost along the way. We divert so we can create! By not discarding (linear thinking) and placing products in the ground, we have the ability to turn that product back into what it came from (plastic into plastic, glass into glass or glass sand, food back into organics, paper into paper), reducing reliance on virgin materials and in the process, creating jobs. Just imagine if we measured based on what we recreated (remanufactured)! However in 2019, there isn’t a state in Australia that can accurately quantify what has been reprocessed and remanufactured, only what has not gone to landfill.
To be fair, there has been some movement in the last two years with a number of states acting and providing funding; SA and Victoria in particular have done the heavy lifting (very obvious why in the case of Victoria). However, unlike our overseas counterparts, we have not had one piece of legislation adopted and it is difficult to consider what has been adopted, the 2018 National Waste Policy, as “policy” when it contains no targets, actions or funding! What is still sorely lacking in Australia, which is the fundamental reason material has been exported in the past, is greater certainty of remanufacturing pull and local end markets.
This lack of emphasis (or understanding) by policy makers on the entire supply chain in many ways means that government has been slow to act. The national disregard of our industry as resource managers (not rubbish managers) has also meant that policy continues to be linear in thinking where industry is only (and often overly) regulated and materials measured only by disposal metrics, making it all the more challenging to recover – just think about the MWOO situation.
In the absence of national leadership, policy understanding and market development in Australia, why is it shocking that almost two years on, we are seeing ongoing stockpiles and challenges? After all, the materials, just like the trucks, keep coming in the front door but we don’t have the manufacturing pull onshore and the ships are running out of options offshore! So, what happens next?
In August, COAG said it will ban the export of paper, glass, plastic, and tyres. Industry has always said we don’t want to be reliant on international markets but how do we achieve this big stick policy? What we need now is no different to what we needed when National Sword hit us - we need to build a sustainable, long-term remanufacturing sector in Australia. We need more manufacturers to buy our materials previously demanded overseas, right here in Australia.
The first obvious solution is to require waste generators and producers of these materials to take responsibility for the products they design and to pay the cost of managing these materials at end-of-life, just as they already do in Europe. Significant national action on product design and material selection is also required now, not in 2025. Further, the Federal government has to address packaging nationally, strengthening the laws and framework around extended producer responsibility, and urgently move to a mandatory scheme that includes mandated percentages of Australian recycled content within the packaging, and designing out problematic plastics.
And yes, we need mandated government (at all levels) procurement, we need to move now to buying recycled materials: we know that right now – TODAY - we can put recycled glass into roads, recycled plastics into street furniture, recycled tyres into playgrounds – all of which reduces the need for new materials and creates viable markets for more of our recycled materials. We just need government to mandate this, creating market certainty and Australian jobs!
As we head into the only Ministers for the Environment Meeting for 2019 on 8 November 2019, we are hopeful that market development, mandated product stewardship and harmonised national Container Deposit Schemes are all on the agenda, as they are the only way we can move towards better outcomes. Let’s hope that if anything, the last 12 months has driven greater and deeper reflection and research on what should be in a National Waste Policy that we can be proud of and we do not simply get fed more of the same because we know that business as usual will get us nowhere.