Could National Sword be our greatest gift, asks APCO

China’s ban on waste imports offers challenges, but with every challenge comes opportunity, writes Brooke Donnelly, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation.

First came the Green Fence Initiative and now National Sword – China’s latest policy shift to limit the acceptance of 24 categories of recyclable materials. As China’s demand for our waste material continues to wane, there has been much speculation about how Australia will sever its dependence on the nation and take responsibility for our own waste and recycling.

It is undeniably a serious issue that we must address, but I firmly believe we are far from the tipping point and as the adage goes – with every challenge comes opportunity.

For me, the most immediate and perhaps the most crucial obstacle that has not been addressed is the risk of reduced confidence and participation in recycling. Some local councils calling for a reduction in waste going to recycling and recent news headlines touting the possible demise of our recycling industry have created a sense of fear and doubt, not only within the industry but among consumers as well.

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It is our responsibility to ensure that the love affair with recycling continues – just as it should. As a nation we have accomplished so much over the past 30 years in kerbside recycling. Today we’re recycling more of the waste we produce than ever before. In 2014-15 we recycled approximately 60 per cent of waste produced, compared to just 52 per cent in 2006-07, according to the Federal Government’s National Waste Report 2016.

To throw it all away now would be a grave mistake and I firmly believe that with the right policies and systems in place, we can create new opportunities which benefit both the environment and the economy.

As CEO of APCO, I’m excited by the fact that our organisation is in a unique position to help both industry and government navigate these challenges and find viable solutions. We are already rolling out several initiatives to address these issues.

In the long term, we have launched the APCO Packaging Recycling Label Program, which will directly contribute to delivering a smaller, cleaner packaging waste stream driven through reduced contamination and increased visibility to consumers.

In the medium term, we are reviewing the Sustainable Packaging Guidelines, to help business reduce the environmental impact of their packaging. We see this as an ideal mechanism for industry to introduce a standardised voluntary approach to recycled content in packaging.

In the short term, we are working with members to undertake an independent impact assessment to contextualise the “China issue” and develop both quantifiable metrics and a framework for navigating it for both industry and government. We are also encouraging all members to communicate with consumers to reaffirm the importance of recycling in Australia.

Aside from the work APCO is doing, there are a range of innovative programs such as REDcycle and many other end-of-life recovery programs, which are already contributing greatly towards recyclability, sustainability and waste reduction. Looking at REDcycle specifically, the soft plastics they collect and reprocess are turned into furniture for schools and public places across the country. What’s more, the reprocessing is all done here in Australia.

This shows us that recycling isn’t just beneficial to the environment, but highlights its important economic benefits as well. Research conducted by Planet Ark (So you think you can recycle report) estimates that for every 10,000 tonnes of waste recycled, there are approximately 9.2 direct full-time jobs generated. Importantly, these types of jobs are generally resilient in times of recession. They also provide fantastic opportunities for social enterprises such as Resource Recovery Australia and Soft Landing to offer jobs for our long-term unemployed in regional and metropolitan Australia. These outcomes only further strengthen the case for expansion and increased capacity for the industry locally.

We can also look to other traditional Australian industries and how they are adapting to change for inspiration. In manufacturing, for example, local organisations are rapidly incorporating new technologies and processes to enhance their competitiveness and create new and exciting markets.

How can we take some of these learnings and apply them to the waste and recycling industries, safeguarding them and the environment into the future? The potential value of a circular economy created locally is $26 billion, as estimated by the World Economic Forum in 2015. An opportunity of this size should not be ignored.

Creating a circular economy and end market for our own recycled materials should be our goal, and in order to achieve this we need to have clean recycling streams and reduced contamination. With this important issue now thrust into the public spotlight, now is the time to create new opportunities through greater industry and government collaboration and a defined focus.