The Tragedy and Opportunity of Australia's Waste Crisis

29 June 2018 Katherine Smyrk

The Tragedy and Opportunity of Australia's Waste Crisis

How does Australia deal with all its plastic? It’s an issue that this country is finally having to face. But, as Katherine Smyrk found out, it’s not all crisis – there is great opportunity here, too.



It's barely light, the pink sky still has dark edges. A sound cuts through the pre-peak-hour quiet. A loud crash, shrill beeping and the grunt of machinery. It’s rubbish day, and hulking council recycling trucks are navigating my narrow suburban street. I put a pillow over my head and go back to sleep. By the time I leave for work, all the bins on the street are empty.

I never used to give it much thought, where my rubbish goes. But this morning I stand in the driveway looking down at my recycling bin; it’s on its side, yellow lid hanging like a tongue onto the road.

At the start of 2018, the news was littered with articles about an ominous sounding policy out of China called “National Sword”. Once you push past the nationalistic euphemisms, it’s quite simple. China is placing firm restrictions on the recycling waste it imports from other countries, including Australia, effectively stopping the practice altogether. This announcement was followed by reports that local councils don’t have the capacity to deal with increased costs and processes involved in managing our own rubbish, including Ipswich Council in Queensland saying they will have to dump recyclables in landfill (they later reversed that decision).

“Well, what’s going to happen to all this plastic?” asks one woman in my building’s bin bay, clutching a bulging bag of rubbish. “Maybe I shouldn’t bother recycling, if they’re just going to chuck it away.”



Dr Trevor Thornton a lecturer in hazardous materials management at Deakin University, says that very few Australians know where their recyclables end up.

“In Australia, waste management is putting your bins out at night and by the morning the rubbish fairies have come along nicely and all is well with the world,” he says. “But if I go out the following week and it’s not empty, I jump up and down. And that’s how most treat waste management.”

Dr Thornton gives a basic run-down of how it actually works. Once the trucks make their noisy exit, they take the recyclables to a materials recovery facility, where the great stew of paper, plastic, glass and cardboard is sorted, by hand and mechanically. The recyclables then get bailed up and shipped off to whoever will pay for them. Most paper and cardboard will get processed in Australia. Some plastics, too.

But every year up to one million tonnes of recyclables, primarily plastic, is stacked onto the back of container ships and taken to China. There, the bails are bought by factories to use as materials to produce the products that people in China, and all around the world, buy. This process was echoed in many countries, including the UK, Japan and the US.

Except now China doesn’t want our rubbish. They used to pay a good price for it, subsidising our rubbish collection services and taking the problem off our shores and out of our minds. But they don’t need our recyclables to use in their factories for materials any more. They’ve got their own.

“They’re doing it for good purposes,” says Gayle Sloan, the CEO of the national peak body for the waste and resource recovery industry, Waste Management Association of Australia (WMAA). “We know that waste generation has a strong correlation with affluence. Because China’s middle class is growing and purchasing, they’ve decided to move themselves towards a circular economy,” she explains. “They’re not doing anything that dissimilar to what other countries, especially in Europe, are doing: managing their waste. So they’re catching up, and we’re a bit behind.”

Are we ever. China’s National Sword policy was announced in June last year, and people in the industry had known it was coming a year or two before that. But still we seemed to be caught unawares.

“It probably goes back to the time of recycling when they were selling it for a reasonable price and people didn’t think too much into the future as to what was going on and probably had their fingers crossed,” says Dr Thornton.

Sloan agrees: “I think there’s just a question of competing priorities,” she says. “While it’s been front of mind for us in the industry for a long time, sometimes it’s a bit like, well it’s not broken, we don’t have to fix it.”

Given that oceans are being asphyxiated by rubbish – great oily islands of plastic floating like nations, millions of sea animals killed each year – and that the world is continuing to generate about 450 million tonnes of plastic every year, more rubbish ending up in landfill is the last thing anyone wants. 



But before you fall into a pit of rubbish-filled despair, imagining garbage bursting out of golf courses and stormwater drains like in the episode of The Simpsons when Homer becomes the town’s Sanitation Commissioner, all hope is not lost.

Every single expert or peak body I speak to on this topic points to one thing: a circular economy. This is the idea that all of the rubbish we generate, we use. Rather than shipping off our excess detritus across the sea, we put it back into our manufacturing and use those recyclables as source material for things we are making. Think playground equipment made out of plastic shopping bags, but on a larger scale. That’s where China is going, where huge parts of Europe are going and where, according to Sloan, Australia should be going. “We put products into the yellow bin, but for quite a long time we’ve actually had a challenge in having markets who will buy back the recycled products,” she notes. Australia’s manufacturing industry primarily uses virgin plastics, which are still cheaper to buy than recycled plastics.

“You cannot continue to draw down on fossil fuel. At present, the world plastic production industry takes eight per cent of fossil fuel, which is actually equivalent to the global aviation industry. Just plastic packaging. They’re huge sums when you think about it. And when you think that 95 per cent of plastic packaging produced is single use, that’s just not good,” explains Sloan. “So circular is about saying, we want to take those commodities that we take out of the environment, and we want to use them over and over again.”

Dr Thornton thinks it’s also a matter of the issue of waste being taken more seriously.

“It’s an important health, environment and economic issue that needs wider discussion at commonwealth, state and local government level,” he says. “Waste management needs to be made part of essential services.” Both agree that the worst outcome would be that people stop recycling because they think it’s pointless.



And so, out of the literal piles of rubbish quickly gathering in our communities, rises an opportunity.

The Boomerang Alliance is a collective of more than 40 organisations working across all levels of the community to reduce single-use plastics and keep waste out of the ocean. They are pushing for the government to introduce mandatory requirements for recycled materials in items manufactured in Australia. Deputy director Jayne Paramor points out that even if it was just required that all items purchased by the government – from office supplies to park benches – had a that alone would be a huge driver for the recycled materials industry.

“This is where we think the government really needs to step in to start creating that industry and making sure that we don’t have to rely on sending this stuff overseas,” says Paramor. “And it’s not just about plastic in the ocean. A report came out from the Australian Council of Recycling talking about the fact that if we invested the amount of money we spend on shipping stuff to China in the industry here in Australia, there’d be 500 jobs off the bat, straight away. And we’d be reducing our emissions to the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road. There are huge positive impacts that could happen, but we need the government to set some benchmarks.”

Sloan agrees. The WMAA predicts that expansion of local demand could mean that we would be able to process 90 per cent of our recyclables here.  
“I think we can get there, there’s a real willingness,” she says.

“The other really good thing about it is, we know that if we recycle in Australia, we create 9.8 jobs for every 10,000 tonnes. Whereas if we landfill it, it’s 2.8. We lose. At a time when people talk about manufacturing closing, this is a really good chance to grow manufacturing in Australia, by buying Australian recycled products.”

The Boomerang Alliance is also pushing hard for communities to start thinking about how they reduce their waste, as well as how they manage it.

“It’s gotta come from both sides,” says Paramor. “The community at the end of the day is the consumer, is the purchaser, is the audience that these products are being pushed at, and the more we go down this path the more we see people demanding change – they want to see things happening.”

The Alliance has started a campaign called Communities in Control, where towns and regions move to become plastic free. So far there are pilots being run in Noosa, Wollongong and one starting soon in Byron Bay.

“The idea was that we wanted to talk to communities about trying to eliminate those single-use items,” explains Paramor. “It’s the plastic bottles, plastic bags, takeaway containers, coffee cups, straws, plastic cutlery – they’re the six key items that we focus on.” The Alliance will soon be releasing tool kits for other communities who want to take part.

“People are now stepping back and looking at what they’re buying and thinking, Oh my god, I don’t need all that stuff, all that plastic. They’re really starting to question why it’s there in the first place,” she continues. “Soon any community that wants to go down this path will have the necessary materials and understandings, and can create that community-based movement from the bottom up.”

Other initiatives are popping up all around the country, from small-scale campaigns to ban plastic bags in local shops to container deposit schemes being rolled out across most states and territories (only Victoria and Tasmania are yet to come on board). The Boomerang Alliance is particularly excited about deposit schemes – where people receive a 10c refund for returning their cans and bottles to a recycling centre, or even using reverse vending machines (South Australia has been running a system like this since 1977). Paramor points to a CSIRO report from February this year, that looked at the impact of deposit schemes in coastal cities around the world. The verdict? It works.

“There was a 40 per cent reduction in the amount of plastic waste that was appearing on coastlines in those areas,” she says. “It’s a bit of a no-brainer really.”



Companies that turn plastics into fencing, furniture and building materials are flourishing. Scientists are developing neighbourhood recycling kits so communities can manage their own refuse. Initiatives like Plastic Free July are being adopted with gusto. Sloan says there is great appetite in the community for these kinds of solutions, pointing out that 96 per cent of Australians recycle in some way.

“The community wants us to manage this service responsibly, and I think increasingly people very much understand that we don’t want to create a negative legacy for the future,” she says emphatically. “We stopped leaving rubbish on the street because it was cheap years ago. We do what we do because it’s the right thing to do.”

Paramor agrees, laughing gently when I tell her that I have been feeling overwhelmed by the size of the problem.

“There is this amazing awakening that’s happening at the moment and, you know, crisis often brings the most innovative outcomes. This is an opportunity.”

I can hear her smiling down the phone.

“You know, here we are trying to deal with it on the highest government level, and then you realise there’s all these people down at the grassroots going, ‘No, we’re going to change this and we’re going to do it and we’re going to fix it.’ So don’t be depressed. There’s so much good out there.”

Katherine Smyrk is The Big Issue Australia’s Deputy Editor

Art by Jessica Singh

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This article first appeared in 'Turning the Tide on Plastic', issue #563 of The Big Issue