Transport’s macroeconomic headwind

When the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials decided it would no longer accept imports of 24 categories of solid waste, it sent a shock through Australia’s transport and waste industry. 

In July of this year, China notified the World Trade Organization that it plans to ban the import of 24 different types of solid waste from Japan, USA, Australia and other source countries, in a bid to reduce pollution. The ban is expected to take full effect by the end of 2017.

When looking at plastic waste alone, in 2016, China imported 7.3 million metric tons of plastic waste worldwide worth $3.7 billion, accounting for more than half of global imports, according to figures from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Economist reported that China imported 45 million tonnes of scrap metal, waste paper and plastic from overseas countries in 2016, which together is worth more than $18 billion. Locally, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found in its 2013 Waste Account data that China received 32 per cent of the total value of Australia’s waste exports in 2011-12. That same financial year, Australia’s main export to China was metal, which account for 31 per cent of all materials, while China received 64 per cent of its Australian from paper and cardboard.

The decision to ban the 24 categories sparked concern from the Australian Peak Shippers Association (APSA), which is still grappling with the consequences as it collaborates with the federal government on trade issues. A report by the Freight & Trade Alliance indicates that the list of some of the affected products in Australia includes plastic waste from living sources, unsorted waste paper, vanadium and waste textile raw materials. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has indicated it will still allow some kinds of steel and non-ferrous scrap, while items to be completely banned include tyres, textiles, plastic, glass and old medicines.

ASPA Secretariat Travis Brooks-Garrett says that although the ban does not extend to all waste products, it is the most severe move to date under China’s anti-foreign garbage campaign. He says the ban could have significant consequences for the way Australia treats waste domestically, in increasing our landfill task, but may also signal further bans on imported waste products. Travis says that any such move would need to be closely scrutinised against China’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations.

He says APSA has been working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in response to the announcement, alongside the major waste industry bodies. Travis says that the Federal Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held a roundtable with industry representatives in August and will follow up with the relevant Chinese authorities to seek further information regarding the many questions raised.

“The response from both the office of Steve Ciobo (the Federal Minister for Trade) and from the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, was immediate and reflected the concerns of industry, and for that they should be commended,” he notes.

Industry consultant, Mike Haywood, says he was able to foresee the ban. The writing was on the wall, he says, with previous crackdowns on plastic waste through policies such as National Sword 2017. The policy was launched earlier this year, as China’s General Administration of Customs announced an intention to reduce and eliminate the illegal smuggling of foreign waste. For years, China had already been clamping down on its inspection of secondary commodities. From February 2013 to November 2013, the national custom agency launched Operation Green Fence, a plan to prohibit the import of unwashed and contaminated materials from entering China.

“We are pushing down the track of a circular economy and while we’re doing that the main market for our commodities is slowly but surely closing up,” Mike says.

Read the full story on page 59 of Issue 14. 

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