For the plastics export ban transition to be successful, we need local, state and federal Governments to work proactively with the resource recovery sector, writes Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council.
The 2021 ban on exporting mixed plastics relates to those that are not of a single resin or polymer type or have not been processed into a value- added material.
The ban on exporting single resin or polymer plastics that have not been reprocessed comes into effect in 12 months’ time on 1 July 2022.
In 2018-19, Australia exported around 149,000 tonnes of mixed plastics – excluding those of polymers of ethylene, styrene or vinyl chloride, which form part of the 2022 ban – and in 2019-20, around 75,000 tonnes were exported at a value $19.3 million.
Approximately 83 per cent of these plastics will be banned from 1 July 2021 unless they are processed further.
From 1 July 2022, a further 37,544 tonnes of plastic waste valued at
$12.06 million will no longer be exported. This means that in a little over 12 months, Australia’s waste and resource recovery sector will need
to deal with at least an additional 100,000 tonnes of waste plastics if not more.
While NWRIC is supportive of the waste export bans, there are still questions around the practical side of the bans in terms of onshore processing capacity, local market demand, export specifications, enforcement and ensuring a level playing field.
The ban on mixed plastics will come with a raft of requirements that industry must meet should they wish to export reprocessed plastics, along with other general export and trade rules. These will be similar to what we have seen come into force with the ban on unprocessed waste glass from 1 January this year.
While industry and business will move quickly to meet the requirements of the ban in terms of licensing and specifications, we also need to focus on the intent of the bans, which is not exporting waste to overseas countries, local job creation and building a more sophisticated waste and resource recovery sector here in Australia.
Federal Government modelling has shown that the regulation of waste exports is expected to see the Australian economy grow by $3.6 billion in turnover and $1.5 billion in value-added – or GDP – in present value terms over a 20-year period. The waste export bans provide an enormous opportunity to turn waste that had been exported to other countries into high-value commodities that will stimulate our economy.
However, Australia has limited plastic re-manufacturing capacity, insufficient infrastructure to collect, sort and process the plastics to an acceptable standard that is commercially competitive with virgin plastics and overseas secondary plastics.
There is obvious concern across the sector that without local processing capacity or markets, this will turn an existing revenue stream for material recovery facilities into a cost, which will have to be passed on to local councils and businesses until local processing capacity and markets are developed and use of non-recyclable plastics phased out or banned.
The roll out of the Recycling Modernisation Fund by Commonwealth and state governments to develop new and innovative recycling infrastructure has been slow to get off the ground, as summarised in Table 1.
The ACT and Western Australia are the only jurisdictions where projects have been approved to either upgrade existing or build new facilities with sufficient mixed plastics processing capacity to match existing mixed plastics exports from those states.
Victoria and NSW still have a way to go, with both states still needing to increase processing capacity by an estimated 35,000 and 42,000 tonnes respectively.
Queensland is of the greatest concern, as at the end of March this year they had still yet to sign off on a Recycling Modernisation Fund agreement with the Federal Government.
Based on 2018-19 exports, we are still looking at an initial shortfall of around 60,000 tonnes as the bans on mixed plastics are completed.
With insufficient local processing capacity in place by July this year, material recycling facilities options
are either to stockpile for up to 12 months or landfilling, both of which put material recycling facilities finances under significant strain, resulting in gate fees to local councils increasing.
It also increases the risk of disreputable traders looking to illegally export mixed plastics as there are still overseas markets for these plastics.
To ensure this does not occur, it is imperative that well-funded and best practice enforcement is in place to ensure the bans are policed from the start of the ban.
The waste export bans are a step in the right direction, but exporters that fail to comply with the ban need to know they will be caught and penalised if they do the wrong thing.
The next 12 months will be a challenging time for all.
For this transition to be successful we need local, state and Federal Governments to work proactively with the resource recovery sector in fast tracking grant and planning approvals for processing facilities, prioritising the specification of recycled plastics in government procurement contracts, phasing out the use of non-recyclable and problematic packaging and products, and stringently enforcing the export bans – sending a clear message that illegal exports will not be tolerated.
Table 1 – 2018-19 exported mixed plastics* versus RMF Investment into mixed plastic processing
MIXED PLASTICS EXPORTS 2018-19 (TONNES)
RMF PROJECTS PROCESSING CAPACITY AT 31 MARCH 2021 (TONNES)
1,8000 (MRF upgrade)
16,000 (Suez) + Grant process underway
Grant process underway
35,000 (3 projects)
Grant process underway
* Phasing out exports of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres (response strategy to implement the August 2019 agreement of the Council of Australian Governments March 2020)