“It’s come back to bite us”

Environmental experts are calling on the government to encourage the development of a circular recycling economy after Malaysia announced it would send back contaminated waste to Australia.

Greens member for Mining and Pastoral region Robin Chapple says Western Australia’s thriving recycling industry in the eighties is now non-existent.

“Economics came into play and it was cheaper for us to dump rubbish overseas,” he says.

“I have no issue with other countries getting fed up with us dumping our waste on them and wanting to send it back.”

He says while the WA state government displays a genuine interest in improving recycling methods, it’s time to act.

“The government does seem to be talking the talk, what we’ve got to do is convert that to walking the walk,” Mr Chapple says.

“There is no point putting this material into landfill any longer, no point incinerating it, we’ve got to come up with policies that reduce waste in the first instance … and making sure any waste that is produced goes into a recycling stream and we create a market for that recycled material.”

The Greens MLC would like to see the establishment of our own recycling and reprocessing industries.

“They’re [other countries] just fed up with it and it’s come back to bite us in the bum,” Mr Chapple says.

Experts say a circular recycling economy would help deal with Australia’s waste left behind. Photo: Steven Thomas.

“An opportunity for Australia”

Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association Australia CEO Gayle Sloan says the answer is to deal with recycling onshore, leading to the creation of local jobs.

“The issue is we’ve never fully grown a re-manufacturing capacity here due to that overseas demand and they were paying very good prices … but also we don’t have the clear market signals we should value recycled content over virgin content,” she says.

“Yes, I would absolutely love that we did everything onshore and we created 9.2 jobs for every 10 thousand tonnes we turn into product.

“That would be the ultimate solution.”

Head of Planet Ark’s sustainable resource programs Ryan Collins says a circular recycling economy, where materials are recycled and reprocessed, is something Australia must work toward.

“In Australia we should be aiming to deal with our own waste more and more rather than exporting overseas,” he says.

“I see this as an opportunity for Australia in terms of trying to develop our own capacity to recycle materials.”

Gayle Sloan agrees and below you can hear her explain the concept of a circular recycling economy.

Video: Steven Thomas.

Ms Sloan says Malaysia’s recent decision was to be expected and everyone has a part to play to make the circular economy a reality.

“We need to think about our packaging choices and designs so we are designing for reuse … consumers need to think about preferencing those materials they know are recyclable or reusable and create that demand for it,” she says.

“The government needs to be able to say to industries that you must use recycled content in your packaging, so creating that demand, and prioritising its own spending habits to focus on recycled content.”

She says the government and companies should grasp this opportunity to establish our own re-manufacturing facilities in Australia, just as China has.

“All China has done is said we’re going to create a circular economy, we’re going to reduce our carbon emissions, we’re going to increase our own jobs, use our own products that we’re disposing of and recognise those resources and re-manufactured them themselves.” Ms Sloan says.

“Everyone else needs to do the same and you manage your own re-manufacturing chain and your own job creation.”

Planet Ark’s Ryan Collins says along with benefits to the environment, there would also be economic advantages.

“We’d be less impacted by global commodity prices if we’re able to deal with our own waste, so the price of glass, plastics, paper and cardboard have dropped rapidly so that has an impact on the local industry especially for exports, so if we’re able to have our own circular economy and close the loop on those materials in Australia, that’ll be beneficial for us,” he says.

He says recently announced federal funding for Planet Ark to create a circular economy hub will help support businesses with information and research.

Mr Collins adds individuals also have a role to play in order to make fast progress in developing effective waste management in Australia.

“I’m sure other Asian countries are looking to clamp down on imported waste,” he says.

“Malaysia and Thailand have announced a ban on plastic waste imports by 2021 and Thailand also announced an e-waste ban as well.

“India, Indonesia, Vietnam are all tightening the restrictions on imported waste, so really we wont have those markets to export our waste in the future.”

The Greens Robin Chapple says his party will be pushing for action from the government.

“We will be pressurising the government as much as we can, but it’s going to be up to the government of the day, at the end of the day,” he said.

A collection of Australian recycling facts from the WA Waste Authority and the 2016-17 Australian plastics recycling survey national report. Video: Steven Thomas.