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China’s recycling ban is a huge blow to Australia into a tangled waste crisis

Environmental Minister from the Federal Government Josh Frydenberg is meeting with his counterparts from the state and territories today. What’s on the agenda? The recycling crisis was triggered by the China “ban.”

Councils and states across the country have had to struggle following the imposition of import restrictions, which exclude all recyclables that Australia had previously sold to China.

Read more: Curious Kids: Where do my recycled items go?

Hopes are high that the federal government will step in and take a clear role. Proposed solutions include investing in onshore processing facilities and local markets, incentives or mandates to use recycled content, and grants and rebates for innovative approaches that go beyond recycling to designing for prevention and reuse.

What is the significance of the ban? Why is it a problem?

What is the China ‘ban’?

“ban,” as it is known “, is actually a set of import limitations imposed through China in their Blue Sky/National Sword program. It follows on from its earlier Green Fence program, introduced in 2011. It gradually intensified inspections to decrease the volume of hazardous materials that enter the country.

National Sword takes this a step further by limiting the import of 24 streams of recycled materials. The process involves setting high “maximum contamination thresholds” and restricting the amount of import permits given to Chinese firms.

Read more: Why you’re almost certainly wasting time rinsing your recycling

Of key importance to Australia are the restrictions on paper and plastics, which now have contamination thresholds of just 0.5%. While not a ban in theory, this is virtually a ban in practice because it is currently unachievable when processing household wastes like plastic.

What is the amount of Australian recycling affected?

Recent estimates made by the Federal government indicate that of the recycled materials collected by households, industries, businesses, and households in 2017, Australia exported 3.5 percent in the direction of China (about 1.25 million tonnes).

However, the percentage is higher for two major sources of daily kerbside recycling. 29 percent (920,000 tonnes) of all paper, and 36 percent (125,000 tonnes) of all plastics that were collected have been shipped to China in the year 2017. The figure is around 65 percent of the market for exports for each. The rate of contamination for Australia’s kerbside recycling ranges from 6 to 10 percent although even after sorting in a recycle facility, it is generally higher than China’s 0.5 percent threshold for acceptable levels.

Australia has very few local markets for household recyclables such as glass, plastics, and paper and plastics, which is why we heavily rely on markets in the world like China to purchase and process the trash. In the end, losing the market for about a third of our plastics and paper, like many other industrialized countries, caused shock waves through the world recycling market. Insufficient supply has caused the average cost for mixed-paper scrap to drop from around AU$124 a tonne and to A$0 per ton (yes absolutely the price is zero!). The price of mixed plastics scrap has dropped from about A$325 a Tonne to about A$75 per.

For many recycling firms, they will find that the profit they could earn through kerbside recycling is likely to be less than the expense of providing the service.

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Jane S. King

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