Treading carefully on waste exports

Treading carefully on waste exports

It’s time we transformed into an economy that values all our resources and takes accountability onshore, writes Matt Genever, Director Resource Recovery, Sustainability Victoria.

The announcement by the Council of Australian Governments in August that Australia would ban the export of certain types of waste came as a surprise to most in the industry.

Global markets are already closing their doors to some degree, but Australia is still exporting around four million tonnes of material annually despite import restrictions set by China and other countries. Thus, the decision will certainly have implications for Australia’s domestic sector and the impacts will depend on how the ban is enacted and what materials are targeted.

Waste versus commodity

The intent of the ban is clear and easily justifiable. The images seen across media earlier in the year of mixed Australian waste, including soiled nappies, turning up at multiple Asian ports were not well received by the community. The social license of this great sector is already under siege and these images certainly didn’t help.

However, the situation is much more complex than this. It is unlikely that anyone could successfully argue that soiled nappies represent a tradeable commodity, but it does beg the question of where, and how, we draw the line between a waste and a commodity.

The recyclables being targeted as part of the ban include plastics, paper, glass and tyres.

Over the years, we’ve become more opportunistic in moving large volumes of plastics and paper offshore, which has led to less work being done locally to fully separate or “add value” to these resources.

In the case of tyres, there are valid questions being raised about where whole tyres, in particular, end up and how they are treated.

It’s this idea of “value adding” that offers the greatest opportunity for Australia, and equally where the most work needs to be done from the perspective of defining the boundaries of the ban.

How far does one need to go to add value? Is it simply separating material into different material types or is it fully commoditising it into a manufacturing-ready feedstock?

This is a conversation that Australia, and other nations, has been having for years.

In fact, there is a whole document dedicated to this called: Australian Waste Definitions: Defining waste related terms by jurisdictions in Australia. It is certainly not bedtime reading, but it is worth looking at the many and varied definitions we have for waste across each state and territory.

Words like “rejected”, “abandoned”, “surplus” and “discarded” commonly appear, as does the phrase “where not intended for recycling”.

In a world where one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, there is a fine line that must be walked here in developing these definitions.

Balance is everything

The complexity in defining a waste and how and when it becomes a commodity should not be the driving force that diverts us from this course of action. Like so many things in this system, it’s really all about balance.

We have an obligation to protect human health and as global citizens this needs to extend far beyond our own ocean-locked borders. Having said that, we also have an obligation to ensure that we are positioning our sector to develop its own domestic capacity and have the ability to participate in a thriving global commodity.

The sweet spot in here offers pause for some very optimistic reflection. There are already strong signs that industry is in a state of growth.

New investments are coming online and many businesses have already taken the leap toward commoditising the materials they collect. From hot-washed PET going into new bottles to government procurement of glass sand, the tide is most certainly turning.

So, Australia’s collective decision to ban exports needs to support and accelerate the change underway but at the same time consider our place in a global marketplace – one where we already have high operating costs (energy, in particular) and high
labour costs.

When one door closes, a window opens

Regardless of definitions, the idea of value-adding or commoditising our resources is one that is appealing. The opportunities for economic growth, new skills, new infrastructure and new jobs in the recycling sector are significant, but are only the tip of iceberg.

When we start commoditising our resources domestically, a whole range of opportunities for local manufacturing emerge. I was immensely pleased with the level of interest in Sustainability Victoria’s recent Buy Recycled Conference 2019.

I spoke with a number of manufacturing businesses that have the capacity right now to absorb more recycled content but are unable to source it from the local market. With the door to exports closing, its heartening to see the window into our domestic manufacturing is well and truly open.   

While there are probably more questions than answers in the commentary above (in the spirit of walking a fine line, I too must traverse my own path of balance), there is no doubt in my mind that the rewards here far outweigh the risks.

We’ve got to get the definitions right. We’ve got to get the balance right. But it’s high time we transformed into an economy that values all our resources, takes accountability for their management onshore and is focused on adding value and commoditising material when it reaches end of life.

This article was published in the December 2019 edition of Waste Management Review. 

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