International waste management trends and tracking

By Darren North

Although the avoidance and reuse of waste sits higher on the waste hierarchy, the recycling of materials applies to the largest proportion of recoverable material within most waste streams.

Globally recycling has been negatively impacted by China’s decision to stop taking low quality or contaminated ‘recycled’ materials from overseas. This decision has culminated from several actions and policy changes implemented by China since 2013 when China first introduced its “Green Fence” customs crackdown on imports which were actually enforcing regulations passed in 2006 and 2010.

In light of the China crackdown and the global knock on effects, the main issue facing Australia (and some other developed nations) is the lack of an established circular economy which provides an opportunity to process recyclable materials onshore. This has created a significant reliance on offshore processing which has come to an abrupt end.

Europe has been investing in the circular economy for many years and although there is still a significant reliance on offshore processing, there are many well established processors and end users of recyclables such as paper mills and plastics manufacturing. Although these industries are somewhat bolstered by the density of population and volumes produced, there is still an opportunity for Australia to introduce the principles of the circular economy in a more localised model such as groups of Councils or Regional business networks.

Principally the three main obstacles for recycling and the circular economy in Australia are Cost, Coordination and Understanding. Compared to the last decade or so of cheap ‘dumping’ of low quality materials on another country, the onshore processing of recyclables into usable raw materials or products will be expensive and will need significant investment into infrastructure and equipment and, unless the domestic market for the use of the outputs from that investment is stimulated or secured, there is little point in constructing a lot of white elephants.

This is where the other key issue of Coordination becomes critical. Government, Industry and Consumers need to be cohered into the circular economy and reduce the supply and purchase of cheap ‘throw away’ products. This step change in behaviour and societal expectation will require a significant change of mindset and strong Government decision and policy. Add in the cost factor to the habitual changes required and it becomes very apparent that changing the way recycled materials are produced and managed will require significant coordination and some tough decisions over an extended timeline.

There are several early adopters of the circular economy principles with some Councils re-purposing recycled materials such as glass and plastics into road base but sadly, in the grand scheme of things, these projects and programs are relatively tokenistic and have minimal impact on the vast majority of recycled materials that have no domestic use. The scale of the problem has been highlighted by many media reports and documentaries of late and unless support for the development of domestic uses for recycled materials is implemented, these early adopters, and the beneficial reuses they have implemented, will remain in the minority whilst the recycling situation deteriorates.

Understanding the scale and context of the problem is a key factor in driving change. Until recently most Australians were not aware of any impending issues or many of the problems facing the waste industry or Councils. The fact is, most Councils and Communities have very little understanding or information about the volume, processing or destination of their waste and recycled materials. The capture, monitoring and utilisation of waste and recycling data within most local Government is usually very basic and not used to provide community feedback or service improvements and efficiencies. This lack of accurate data and monitoring has allowed the current recycling problems to continue largely unnoticed by the community until now. Most Councils have ‘open and transparent’ policies and strategies but very few capture and share waste data with their communities with most only reporting tonnes to landfill and recycling rates. Up until the recent upheaval of the recycling industry Most Councils and Communities had very little idea of what went where or how it got there. Within Europe, the monitoring, tracking and accurate reporting of waste within local Governments forms and essential and intrinsic part of any contract or service. With some contracts lasting up to 30 years Councils have partnered with either specialised waste software data companies or waste industry experts to ensure the accurate capture and management of data from all aspects of their waste activities. This information is shared and presented back to the community to provide reassurance and improved service delivery or offerings. Without this level of detailed data in Australia it is very challenging for all concerned to monitor and track what, how and where waste is produced or where it ends up once disposed of.

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