China’s change of policy skewers Australia’s waste illusion

China is reducing its importation of other countries' waste.

In the 2009 kids film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a joke revolves around the illusion that waste products can be sent to a dump called Mount Leftovers. The joke turns dangerous when the dump suddenly bursts and spews forth.

Australia has been treating China as its Mount Leftovers for decades — 76% of paper and 88% of plastics went to China in 2011.

Nearly all Australian councils offer recycling services and householders have become used to it. According to ABS figures, 40% of paper in Australia is recovered and half of all plastic. 

Container loads of paper, cardboard, scrap metal, electrical waste and plastics have been profitably sent for supposed recycling in some of the most polluted centres in the world. Most facilities are located in eastern Zhejiang province and include plastic, paper, metal and textiles processing plants with appalling safety and pollution standards.

However, Mount Leftovers has come home to Australia. On January 1, China instituted a policy called National Sword as part of a crackdown on industrial pollution. 

Now, only 24 categories of solid waste can be imported for recycling. China has told the World Trade Organisation that it wants to prevent low quality recyclables from entering. 

The Ministry of Environmental Protection said it had found “large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials.” From now on only 0.5% contamination will be allowed. Australian recovered waste contains an average of 5% contamination.  

According to the authoritative Resource Recycling website, during the first two weeks of July last year Chinese authorities investigated nearly 900 facilities with licences to import scrap plastics. 

Authorities permanently shut 53 locations and 590 others were closed for a year and will have to apply to the Ministry of Environmental Protection before reopening. Another 383 closed down when word of the inspections spread.

The Chinese government is also cracking down on the smuggling of waste into the country.

The Chinese policy has caused a massive over-supply of recyclables world-wide and prices have tumbled. Mixed paper has averaged $200 to $250 per tonne for about 10 years. Now it ranges from $80 downwards.

Fifty to 60% of Australian recycling is paper and cardboard. Its sales, along with glass bottles, aluminium and some types of plastic have subsidised the recovery of other items.

The entire cost structure of Australian recycling has been demolished. Already Australian councils are feeling the effects. Paper giant Visy has cancelled its recycling contracts with 11 western Victorian councils and more will follow.

Writing in the October/November, 2017 edition of the Australian industry journal, Inside Waste, Plasticity Sydney director Trish Hyde ruminated on the options for Australian exporters: “For Australia, exporting of plastics will rely on the speed and viability of establishing new operations proposed for Vietnam and Malaysia.”

It appears that faced with a crisis of over-production of recyclables the answer is to simply move the location of Mount Leftovers.

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