Australia's recycling crisis or amazing opportunity? - Part 1 - The China 'ban'

April 28, 2018

Australia's recycling crisis or amazing opportunity? - Part 1 - The China 'ban'

Did you know, when you diligently sorted your recycling, that a large portion of it was sent to China? 

We didn't.  

Interestingly, since the 1980’s the world's most populous country has been the primary destination for recyclable materials from all over the world, including from the US, EU, Japan, and Australia.

It is estimated that Australia generates roughly 50 million tonnes of waste a year, around 50-60% of which is recycled.  In 2017, 29% of all paper and 36% of all plastics recycled from households, business and industry were sent to China.  Let’s rephrase that – a third of all of the paper and plastic we put into recycling is sent to China. About 620,000 tonnes a year.

Why were we sending it to China?

Australia doesn’t currently have the capacity to handle the volume of recyclable waste we produce so we rely heavily on overseas markets (like China) to buy and reprocess it for us. China buys the material to help feed their booming manufacturing industry (they are the world’s biggest manufacturer) and Australian businesses receive a significant amount of money for the materials. More than A$500 million each year.

The arrangement seemed to work for everyone.

Why can’t we send it anymore?

In recent years, rather than continuing to be ‘the world’s rubbish dump’, Beijing has turned its focus towards improving its environment. In 2011, to reduce the amount of contaminated materials entering their country, which were causing serious pollution, China introduced progressively tighter inspection efforts. This year, they have taken it a step further by limiting the number of import permits provided to Chinese businesses and by setting ‘maximum contamination thresholds’.

Of most importance to Australia are the restrictions on paper and plastics, which now have contamination thresholds of just 0.5%.

The current contamination rate of Australia's kerbside recycling averages between 6% and 10%.  This means that up to 10% of the materials we put in recycling don't belong there - plastic bags, green waste, polystyrene (Styrofoam) and general rubbish. Even after sorting at a recycling facility, contamination still sits well above the new 0.5% threshold. 

So, while it is not actually a ‘ban’, Australia believes that the new threshold is currently unachievable, as even a plastic bottle with a lid or label would be rejected under the new restrictions.

Thank you to Newport Paper for the photo.