Australia’s recycling sector began to unravel following severe import restrictions placed by China on recycled waste from January. China had imposed a contamination threshold of just 0.5% on paper and plastics.
This standard is virtually a ban as the contamination of kerbside recycling averages about 6-10%. China’s requirement is currently unachievable when processing household waste.
About 1.3 million tonnes of Australia’s recycled waste is affected, which accounts for 35% of recyclable plastics and 30% of recyclable paper and cardboard.
At the meeting, the ministers agreed to reduce the amount of waste generated and to strive to make it easier for products to be recycled, and to work with the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) — representing over 900 firms — to deliver the 2025 target.
The move was quickly welcomed by Nestlé Australia’s CEO, Sandra Martinez, who said: “We welcome this announcement from Minister Frydenberg (Minister for the Environment and Energy), as we recognise businesses must step up and find improved solutions to reduce, re-use and recycle.
“Nestlé is proud to be a member of APCO and is working collectively alongside industry to achieve 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.”
The challenge now is to develop policies that will make it happen.
Other government initiatives will include encouraging waste reduction strategies through greater consumer awareness, increasing domestic recycling capacity and exploring waste-to-energy and waste-to-biofuels projects.
They also hope to update the 2009 Waste Strategy by year end, which will include circular economy principles.
Role of stakeholders
Said Jenni Downes, research consultant of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, “However, for a truly circular economy, we also need governments to take this opportunity to go beyond recycling and invest in waste reduction and reuse.
“Grant programs and incentives for manufacturers to design for disassembly and reuse are a great idea, as is support for businesses moving to reusable products and systems, like refillable bottles and returnable food containers.”
Australia has been under pressure as recyclable waste has been mounting and is being stockpiled in warehouses and sent to landfills, and more people are looking at food manufacturers and importers to address the issue further upstream.
According to The Age and The Guardian, there currently are about 200 over stockpiles in the state of Victoria alone.
The Green party, which recently released a AU$500m national recycling plan, said that Australian households “have been doing the right thing for years” in recycling their rubbish, but the “system is failing and the industry is in crisis”.
“Big packaging companies have avoided responsibility and this federal government has been asleep at the wheel,” said Greens spokesman Senator Peter Whish-Wilson.
Aside from plans to “reboot recycling” in Australia, The Greens hope to tackle pollution and waste by working towards the phasing out of single-use plastics.
A survey released by the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) the day before the meeting showed that 88% of Australians support government action to assist the recycling sector.
Said Pete Shmigel, CEO of ACOR, “Australians especially support: having a first-ever national plan for recycling; governments buying more recycled content products, and; making it compulsory for the packaging industry to produce goods that are both recyclable and contain recycled content.”
APCO, endorsed by the government to take the lead, is a co-regulatory organisation that partners with government and industry to reduce the harmful impact of packaging on the environment. It represents 950 member firms covering the entire product life cycle and supply chain.
Brooke Donnelly, CEO of APCO, said, “The China issue presents a significant opportunity for Australia to shift to the next level in packaging resource recovery, recycling and end use. We applaud the federal, state and territory governments for stepping up as key players in the global movement to create sustainable packaging solutions that drive accountability, transparency and shared value for consumers, industry and government.”