Waste export bans are one part of the solution

The Prime Minister’s August announcement to ban the export several waste types is a welcomed development. It has the potential to reboot local reprocessing and markets for recovered materials, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council. 

First, just the facts. As part of the Council of Australian Governments communique on 9 August 2019, the Prime Minister, along with the states and territories announced:

“Leaders agreed Australia should establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres – while building Australia’s capacity to generate high value recycled commodities and associated demand.”

Further, the communique also said:

— “Leaders agreed the strategy must seek to reduce waste, especially plastics,”

— The government will work to; “decrease the amount of waste going to landfill and maximise the capability of our waste management and recycling sector to collect, recycle, reuse, convert and recover waste,”

— “The strategy should draw on the best science, research and commercial experience, including that of agencies like the CSIRO and the work of Cooperative Research Centres.”

These developments are a decisive push in the right direction. However, there are two key elements that need to be addressed to achieve its intention of stopping waste being dumped in developing countries, and stimulating Australia’s resource recovery industry.

These two elements are: building markets at home and clearly specifying how waste paper, plastic, tyres or glass must be processed to become a resource suitable for manufacturing.

Building markets at home

In regard to building markets, two key priority materials stand out. The first is plastics. In order to use the plastics we currently export at home, we will need to increase domestic reuse of plastics by more than 180,000 tonnes per year. To use those plastics here, every Australian would need to purchase products that contain an additional seven kilograms of recycled plastic per year. This still only represents seven per cent of the total plastic waste produced by Australians annually.

Using plastics in civil infrastructure will help. Examples include street furniture, decking by local councils and railway sleepers such as the recent project by Sustainability Victoria, Integrated Recycling and Metro Trains. Integrated Recycling say more than one million railway sleepers in Australia need to be replaced, so just creating railways sleepers from mixed plastics could create a market for up to one quarter the plastics we previously sent overseas.

However, clearly higher end markets for plastics are also desirable, especially putting PET and HDPE back into packaging. These higher end markets will create the necessary pull to stimulate development of Australia’s reprocessing capacity and the collection systems to ensure quality material.

The second market is tyres. According to the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, Australians generate in excess of 400,000 tonnes of end of life tyres per year. Plenty of scope remains for creating local markets for tyre derived products. Key products produced from tyres include rubber crumb, or explosives and adhesives. Likewise, waste tyres can become high quality engineered fuels for local or export markets.

Positive procurement by local and state governments as well as businesses including the waste and recycling industry is also urgently needed. As consumers of products and materials we must match our rhetoric with action by preferentially purchasing products with recycled content.

Clear specifications and definitions necessary

Clearly, the intention of these bans is to stop the export of unprocessed waste to countries that do not have the ability to process it responsibly. So to untangle this problem, the first step is to have a clear definition of waste.

State and Territory EPAs have done preliminary work in this area as part of their domestic landfill bans, which identify certain goods and materials that should be processed and not buried. Examples include whole baled tyres, whole cars and white goods, all of which are banned from landfill in South Australia.

The next step is to define and agree nationally what minimum material specifications must be met before each waste material type becomes a resource suitable for manufacture locally or overseas.

To some this may seem simple, but in reality it is quite difficult as currently each state and territory have a different approach to this problem. For example in NSW, ‘Resource Recovery Exemptions and Orders’ are used. In Queensland, there is an ‘end of waste (EOW) framework’ of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Act 2011.

This divergence in approaches will need to be resolved urgently, as national agreement on ‘waste’ and ‘resource’ definitions will be key for the COAG’s national ban on the export of waste paper, glass, plastics and tyres is to be successful.

In closing, this approach should also be harmonised with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, which has recently expanded its scope to include various plastics. It should be noted that the Australian Government has yet to ratify these latest changes to the Basel Convention.

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