Bans at the border

With the first wave of export bans set to commence in July, Waste Management Review speaks with industry stakeholders about investment expectations and the globalised waste economy. 

When the Federal Government announced it would ban waste exports in August 2019, China’s National Sword was old news for most in the resource recovery sector.

While its consequences were still being felt, many industry stakeholders had grown tired of government platitudes about the circular economy.

The Council of Australian Government’s announcement therefore functioned as a jolt – a suggestion to industry that government was finally listening to calls for state intervention.

Praise was quick, with both the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) and the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association (WMRR) releasing statements highlighting the ban as a step towards a sustainable domestic recycling industry.

Despite widespread support for the ban as a concept, many, including ACOR and WMRR, cautioned that for it to be successful, it would need to be backed up by analogous infrastructure investment.

Rose Read, National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) CEO, for example, suggests the regulatory measure will fail if not supported by market investment for plastics and paper. Rose adds that while the export ban’s intent is noteworthy, its achievability is seriously constrained without parallel support.

Similar concerns have been expressed by multiple stakeholders, highlighting a schism between regulatory measures and industry viability.

Mike Ritchie, MRA Consulting, for instance, argued that the Federal Government should introduce recycled content rules for domestic manufacturing. Likewise, Gayle Sloan, WMRR CEO, said the ban should be supported with mandated government procurement.

Following the Meeting of Environment Ministers in November, the Federal Government announced a nationwide timeline agreement.

Ministers agreed on a phased approach, with glass banned by July 2020, mixed waste plastics by July 2021 and whole tyres, including baled tyres, by December 2021.

Additionally, remaining waste products, including mixed paper and cardboard, will be banned by no later than 30 June 2022.

Of the timeline, Rose says the plastics and paper enforcement dates are unrealistic, particularly given the packaging industry is only working to achieve 30 per cent recycled content by 2025.

“We are very concerned that the regulatory focus is being crudely placed at the end-of-pipe, and not at the source of the issue, i.e. brands and producers,” she says.

“Currently, there is no regulation requiring manufacturers or the packaging industry to achieve these targets or penalties if they don’t. This is far from equitable.”

According to Rose, APCO’s packaging targets need to be brought forward to 2022 and mandated under the Product Stewardship Act – as proposed under senator Whish-Wilson’s Product Stewardship Amendment (Packaging and Plastics) Bill 2019.

“This is essential to ensure all packaging manufacturers, brands and retailers meet their producer responsibilities,” she says.

“It will create markets for locally recovered plastics, glass and paper and will remove problematic packaging, including plastics and composite materials, that can’t be recycled due to lack of technology or markets.”

Rose adds that given the ban’s intent, to prevent environmental and human harm, the Federal Government should consider banning whole crushed car bodies, white goods and waste motor oils exports.

“The NWRIC believes the current export of these materials is having substantial impacts on the environment and human health overseas, due to poor recycling and uncontrolled practices similar to that for whole baled tyres,” she says.

“These wastes are being harvested or burnt, with many of the by-products dumped or emitted, polluting the environment and putting human health at risk.”

Rose adds that Australia has the capacity to process these materials locally.

“Currently in NSW, steel mills are importing scrap from interstate and New Zealand to meet their feedstock needs, while whole car bodies are being exported to the Middle East and Asia,” she says.

Alternatively, the NWRIC does not support the banning of single resin/polymer plastics that have been processed, nor the banning of baled paper and cardboard.

“Both these recyclates have legitimate overseas markets, clearly demonstrating they are value added products that will not have a negative impact on human health or the environment,” Rose says.

FREE TRADE?

While concerns over implementation are common, the ban as a concept has been largely well received.

John B Cook, from John B Cook & Associates, however, suggests a blanket ban on exports is counterproductive. He adds that much of the material domestic materials recovery facilities receive is packaging produced from overseas.

“We’re in a situation now where glass bottles are being imported from Singapore. If we are importing packaging from overseas, we shouldn’t say, well you can’t send the packaging back and complete the loop,” he explains.

John admits that while recovered resources are a credible commodity, waste is a difficult industry.

“The market has failed in relation to waste. It [was] thought landfill was an inexpensive, easy option, and we’ve been dealing with that ever since.

“That said, we’re now moving away from a disposal culture. People want a circular economy, they want recycling, plus they don’t want to live next to landfills. So the market failed, and the reality is government intervention is required.”

John says however that the devil is in the detail. He adds that while there should be a ban on exporting “garbage”, completely closing the borders is unsustainable.

“Contracts need to be developed that ensure we are adding value and recovering resources instead of exporting dirty plastics, which we seem to have been doing,” he says.

“We should be washing and processing the material here and exporting bales or pallets at low contamination levels.”

The Federal Government also needs to facilitate market development, John says. He adds that while those markets are developing, exports need to occur to a specification that is adhered to.

The idea of sustainable exports, John says, works in tandem with developing domestic recycling markets. He suggests investment in the infrastructure and technology required to produce high-grade pure materials for exports has a flow-on effect.

That said, lack of federal investment is a central industry complaint surrounding the ban.

While it’s too soon to tell, the Federal Government’s recently opened $100 million Australian Recycling Investment Fund might alleviate these concerns.

Speaking with Waste Management Review in June last year, Assistant Waste Reduction Minister Trevor Evans said the fund was designed to support recycled content product manufacturing.

Administered by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Minister Evans said the government will provide guidance about the mandate and how to best invest in new industry.

While the fund was announced in May 2019, applications didn’t open until December. This followed criticism from Labor Assistant Environment Spokesperson Josh Wilson, who said the Federal Government was not doing enough to support the export ban or build the National Waste Strategy.

“We know the so-called recycling investment plan is predominantly bulked out with prepackaged or repackaged funds,” Mr Wilson said.

“The hundred million dollars in the Australian Recycling Investment Fund consists of nothing more than a fresh label on existing clean energy finance moneys.”

Rose says while the NWRIC welcomes the Australian Recycling Investment Fund, its investment criteria means it will only be capable of supporting a few major infrastructure projects.

“Smaller projects, for example those less than $10 million, won’t have access to the fund directly, but will have to seek loans through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s aggregate programs,” she says.

A GLOBAL PROBLEM

Despite ban conversations understandably centring on Australian markets, Michele Acuto, Melbourne University Global Urban Politics Professor, says industry and government need a global perspective.

Drawing on research from the World Economic Forum, Michele says retreating into an export ban is paradoxical to the notion of a circular economy.

“The problem with the ban is that it’s similar to immediate conversations after China’s restrictions. The rhetoric is quite nationalist, and more explicitly, about domestic solutions to an international problem,” he says.

“I want to be very clear that I’m not saying Australia doesn’t require strong infrastructure investment – but we do need to be thinking in terms of a global circular economy.”

The ban, he says, is diametrically opposed to this approach, and a recognition of waste as a global series of networks and industries.

The World Economic Forum suggests to create a global circular economy, system change needs to enable blended financing models, particularly in developing countries, policy framework adjustments and public-private collaboration.

For instance, Michele suggests a more collegial and strategic relationship between Australia and its neighbours could move global networks in the right direction.

He adds that while there is little agreement on waste definitions between Australian states, let alone sovereign bodies, the Federal Government should attempt to work in tandem with Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“We’ve turned another opportunity for leadership into a statement of inward policy. It’s very tit for tat and smells like 1980s Cold War policy. There’s an ocean of difference between the ban and a strategically based national plan,” he says.

The World Economic Forum suggests similar, albeit more controversial, solutions. Recycling is linear, the NGO argues, and out of touch with the extended lifecycle goals of a circular economy.

Reusing, redistributing and/or remanufacturing strategies are the preferred approach, it argues.

Additional points include moving away from activities that devalue materials, relocalising and resizing activities closer to consumers, and developing strategic partnerships with service providers.

While it’s hard to argue against future-focused attempts to restructure our approach to waste and consumption, the challenges of today still require action.

At a recent meeting with Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, the NWRIC members discussed how to build local demand for recovered materials for packaging, products and infrastructure.

According to Rose, new obligations must extend beyond the waste and resource recovery sector to include organisations importing products to Australia.

“A circular economy requires all parts of the supply chain participate,” she says.

This article was published in the February edition of Waste Management Review. 

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NWRIC calls for paper and cardboard export ban exemption

The National Waste & Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) is calling on the Council of Australia Governments (COAG) to ensure clean, high grade paper and cardboard are exempt from waste export bans.

According to NWRIC CEO Rose Read, while industry supports banning waste glass, whole baled tyres, mixed plastic and mixed paper exports, the NWRIC does not support banning clean paper and cardboard exports.

“Australia currently exports close to 1.1 million tonnes of clean, high grade paper and cardboard every year, approximately one third of the material we use. This export market is estimated to be worth more than $230 million,” Ms Read said.

“Without the capacity to export clean paper and cardboard, recycling services could fail, including household kerbside collections.”

Ms Read added that Australia does not currently have the capacity to locally remanufacture all the paper and cardboard it generates.

“Australia’s domestic paper mills that process recycled paper are in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. These mills do not currently have sufficient capacity to take all of the recycled paper and cardboard generated on the east coast. Let alone that generated in SA, NT and WA, who rely on overseas markets,” she said.

“Recycled paper is only purchased by a small number of reprocessors, limiting competition.”

The NWRIC is inviting COAG to work with the waste and resource recovery industry to develop national scrap specifications for metals, plastics, paper, cardboard, e-waste and other recycled materials.

“These would give the waste management and recycling sector clarity and certainty on what can be exported, and manufacturers confidence in the recovered material being supplied,” Ms Read said.

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Think tank asks if Victoria’s ready for the e-waste ban?

With just over a month to go, Ewaste Watch questions how prepared Victoria is to realise the benefits of the e-waste landfill ban.

Victoria will become the third jurisdiction in Australia to ban e-waste from landfill on 1 July, following in the footsteps of the ACT and South Australia.

Ewaste Watch director Rose Read said while the state government has made efforts to increase the number of convenient drop-off locations, she is unsure if communities and businesses are sufficiently aware of new collection points.

Ms Read also said critical questions had not been answered, including, will householders and businesses have to pay for the recycling? What controls are in place to ensure waste is properly recycled? What will happen to data left on electronic items? And can householders and businesses take their electronic goods back to manufacturers for free recycling?

“Finally, will local councils who are left to implement the landfill ban be able to field the many questions and provide collection services that meet the expectations of residents and businesses?” Ms Read said.

“If not, there is a real risk we may see an increase in illegal dumping, problematic stockpiling and general non-compliance with the ban.”

Ewaste Watch’s second Director John Gertsakis believes the ban is only one part of the e-waste solution, and that federal government must expand the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme to include all electronic and electrical products not covered by an industry product stewardship scheme.

“Councils need the support of manufacturers, brands and retailers to ensure recycling is free, and that community-friendly options are provided for electronics reuse, repair and recycling,” Mr Gertsakis said.

“The Victorian e-waste ban is a great opportunity to adjust consumer behaviour, build a circular economy and provide a clear signal to the electronics and battery industries to produce more durable and sustainable goods.”

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WA’s plastic bag ban enforcement to start in 2019

The Western Australian Government will begin enforcing its lightweight plastic bag ban will from January 1, 2019, with fines of up to $5000 for retailers that continue to supply plastic bags.

Plastic bag suppliers and manufacturers that provide misleading information when selling bags to retailers also risk prosecution and fines.

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The ban includes any bag made of plastic with handles and a thickness of 35 microns or less.

WA Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said the state’s plastic bag ban has been well supported by the community.

“From January 1, 2019 it will be an offence for retailers to supply lightweight plastic bags – this includes small retail shops, takeaway food outlets and markets,” Mr Dawson said.

“Consumers can help by remembering to take their own reusable bags when they go shopping.

“Taking lightweight plastic bags out of the litter stream is a significant step towards protecting our environment.”

Potential emergency plastic tax by 2021: report

The plastic waste crisis is expected to deepen, potentially leading to a federal response in the form of an emergency tax by 2021, according to global wealth manager Credit Suisse.

It argues that reactionary policy measures are highly likely in the short term and could include a tax on virgin resins or additional tariffs placed on imported plastic goods in its report, The age of plastic at a tipping point.

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With too much plastic waste domestically and with no large export markets available, Credit Suisse estimates there will be a sharp increase in plastic being sent to landfill and illegal dumping.

“Our headline view is that things will get worse before they get better: the policy initiatives in the National Waste Strategy won’t take hold until FY20/21,” the report said.

Credit Suisse expects bans on single use-plastics to be extended to the six most common plastic packaging and tax incentives to be provided to help hit the 2025 target of 30 per cent recycled content in packaging.

The long lead time from policy approval to implementation is problematic, particularly for new waste infrastructure, which the company said will likely lead to a more supportive project approval environment for waste infrastructure.

Waste managers are expected to benefit from this scenario, with short term potential from council re-negotiations and long-term potential to fast-track waste infrastructure approvals, according to the report.

“Plastic has infiltrated almost every aspect of human life. It is the most prolific material on the planet, growing faster than any commodity in the last 33 years,” the report said.

“Plastic packaging has become one of the most intractable environmental challenges of our age. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable; they accumulate in landfills or the natural environment rather than decompose.

“To curtail the situation in the short run, it is a matter of when, not if, we see reactionary policy measures,” the report said.

EU Parliament endorses ban on single-use plastics

European Parliament has endorsed a proposition to ban 10 single-use plastic products which are commonly found on Europe’s beaches and seas, including drinking straws, cutlery and abandoned fishing gear.

The 10 products targeted also include plastic cotton buds, plates, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons and form up to 70 per cent of all marine litter items.

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Single-use drink containers made with plastic will only be allowed on the market if their caps and lids remain attached.

Under the rules proposed in May, member states will be obliged to reduce the use of plastic food containers and drink cups. This can be done through national reduction targets, making alternative products available at the point of sale or ensuring that there is a charge attached to single-use plastic products.

Certain products will require clear and standardised labelling that includes how to dispose of the waste, the negative environmental impact of the product and the presence of plastics in the product.

The European Commission has also teamed up with the United Nations Environment Programme to launch a coalition of aquariums to fight plastic pollution.

Aquariums around the world will organise permanent activities and be invited to change their procurement policies for their canteens and shops to eliminate all single-use plastic items.

The coalition aims to have at least 200 aquariums on board by 2019 to raise public awareness about plastic pollution.

EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella said the European Commission has been working for 18 months to instigate and build this global coalition.

“Aquariums are a window to our ocean. With their collections and their educational programmes, they show us what we need to protect, and they inspire the ocean lovers of tomorrow,” he said.

“Millions of people visit aquariums around the world every year. This will mobilise them to rethink the way we use plastic.”

VIC councils receive $16.5M e-waste infrastructure funding

The Victorian Government has awarded 76 councils a share of $16.5 million to improve the state’s e-waste infrastructure.

Funding will go towards upgrading more than 130 e-waste collection and storage sites and help local councils to safely store and collect increasing amounts of e-waste.

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The funding aims to assist councils prepare for the state’s ban on e-waste which will come into effect in July 2019.

The upgrades aim to ensure 98 per cent of Victorians in metropolitan areas are within a 20-minute drive of an e-waste disposal point and 98 per cent of regional Victorians are within a 30-minute drive from a disposal point.

Councils will receive discarded electronics which will then be stripped of components for reprocessing or sold on the second-hand goods market.

Applications will also open in November for a share of $790,000 to deliver local education campaigns, with councils able to apply for up to $10,000 in funding.

E-waste is defined as anything with a plug or a battery that has reached the end of its useful life, including phones, computers, white goods, televisions and air conditioners.

The amount of e-waste generated in Victoria is projected to increase from 109,000 tonnes in 2015 to 256,000 tonnes in 2035.

Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the funding will ensure the state has one of the best e-waste collection infrastructure networks in Australia.

“We’re delivering on our promise to maximise recycling and minimise the damage e-waste has on our environment,” she said.

Reusable bag campaign launches ahead of VIC plastic bag ban

The Victorian Government has launched a campaign to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags ahead of the state’s 2019 ban on lightweight, single-use plastic bags.

The Better Bag Habits campaign urges Victorians to remember their bag, wallet, keys and phone when leaving the house. The campaign will run on social media and radio.

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Some tips the campaign will encourage will be to store reusable bags in the car, at home, work to ensure customers are always ready to shop. It also encourages the use of foldable bags that can easily fit into a pocket, handbag or backpack.

Research commissioned by Sustainability Victoria found around three quarters of Victorians already carry reusable bags when food shopping.

Younger Victorians and those on higher incomes have been the slowest to say no to single-use bags, particularly when shopping for non-food items.

The ban on single-use plastic bags will come apply to shopping bags less than 35 microns tick after community consultation found a 96 per cent of the 8000 submissions were for the ban.

The state government is also working with other states and territories to phase out thick plastic bags to further reduce plastic pollution.

Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said Victorians are already saying no to plastic bags, but this campaign will encourage it to become a habit.

“We’re stopping plastic pollution and ensuring Victorians are ready to live without single-use, lightweight plastic bags.”

Building a more resilient sector: Sustainability Victoria

Waste Management Review speaks to Stan Krpan, Chief Executive Officer at Sustainability Victoria, about the organisation’s future approach to data capture, Victoria’s e-waste ban to landfill and the health of the waste sector.

Read moreBuilding a more resilient sector: Sustainability Victoria

Sustainability Victoria launch e-waste campaign ahead of ban

In the lead up to Victoria’s ban on e-waste to landfill, the state government has launched a $1.5 million public education and awareness campaign.

The campaign aims to help Victorians better understand e-waste and reduce the amount sent to landfill ahead of the 1 July 2019 ban.

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Regulatory measures were made in late June to update existing statutory policies to include e-waste as a material banned from landfill and an amendment which specifies how it should be managed safely.

Current practices show that at least 90 per cent of a computer, television or mobile phone can be recovered and reused.

Victoria currently has a range of collection points for e-waste, but there is the potential to develop new collection sites and expand the range of electrical, electronic and battery powered items to be recycled.

Managers of e-waste in Victoria have a year to adapt to the new regulatory measures and gives time for Victoria’s e-waste collection network to be operational.

Victorian councils can also apply for $15 million in grants to upgrade or build collection and storage facilities in 130 areas where need has been identified. Funding applications close 14 September.

Sustainability Victoria acting CEO Jonathan Leake said Electronic waste is growing up to three times faster than general municipal waste in Australia.

“Australians are high users of technology and among the largest generators of e-waste in the world,” he said.

“It’s estimated the country’s e-waste will increase more than 60 percent, to a predicted 223,000 tonnes in 2023–24.”

“Recycling captures valuable metals like copper, silver, gold, aluminium and other metals, as well as plastics and glass so they can be re-used in the next wave of technology rather than mining or making new materials,” Mr Leake said.

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