You’ve probably missed one of the biggest stories to affect Australia in the twenty-first century. Australia’s relationship with waste is about to monumentally change.

China is the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. It takes in 30 million tonnes of waste from around the world. But in July last year, China pulled up stumps. It would no longer be taking ‘foreign garbage’, banning 24 categories of solid waste.

The ban will likely affect an average of 619,000 tonnes of materials in Australia – which is worth about half a billion dollars. So it’s a massive hit to the waste industry and to the economy.

Australia’s Waste Industry

Some business leaders have tried to be hopeful about this change. It’s ultimately a warning for Australia to take responsibility for its waste. But waste is a complicated industry, made up of private businesses and all three levels of government.

The Turnbull government has shrugged off responsibility to State and Local governments. Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has said: “Waste management and recycling is primarily the responsibility of state, territory and local governments. While China’s ban is going to put pressure on some industries, it could provide opportunities for others in the recycling industry.”

But part of the problem is that there’s not a large enough market for products made out of recyclable materials here in Australia. Many in the waste industry are trying to pressure the Federal Government to introduce nation-wide incentives for businesses to use recycled materials and to label products with greater clarity.

In September of last year, ABC’s 4 Corners reported on recycled glass. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of glass are being stockpiled and put into landfill instead of being recycled – simply because recycling plants say there is nowhere else for them to go. Businesses that might buy and use recycled glass say it’s too expensive compared to other materials. It’s actually cheaper to import glass bottles than recycle them. Polytrade, a recycling company, has blown the whistle, saying the problem is ultimately a failure of government regulation. (You can watch the whole program here.)

Around the country, businesses and government are attempting to catch-up to wide-spread volatility. (In July, for example, the Queensland Government is banning light plastic bags.)

How to Recycle Better

On a consumer level, there remains wide-spread confusion about what is or isn’t recyclable, and what’s allowed in particular bins. And it’s a high-risk situation – one person putting incorrect material into their yellow bin, in a worst case scenario, may result in a whole truck-load going unprocessed. About 10% of material in recycling bins shouldn’t be there.

A few major pointers are to empty your bottles or containers of food or liquid and remove lids before placing material in the recycling bin. Also, don’t put ropes or garden hoses in the recycling bin – they’re a nightmare for the machines to deal with at the other end

Remember the following items can generally be recycled:

  • Newspaper, glossy magazines, phone directories, junk mail
  • Cardboard boxes and general cardboard, such as toilet rolls
  • Office paper, scrap paper and other general paper, such as envelopes
  • Liquid paperboard such as milk and juice cartons
  • Plastic products with identification codes 1-7
  • Empty steel cans, aluminium soft drink cans, clean aluminium foil and pie trays, empty aerosol cans
  • Empty glass bottles and jars

But then there’s confusing matters, such as pizza boxes. Pizza boxes with food or grease still on the bottom may or may not be recycled, depending on your local council. If your council is still shipping waste to China, then these boxes can’t be recycled and should just go in your normal bin or put into compost. Some recycling companies are also saying no to greasy pizza boxes, because they’re too difficult to process. It’s important to check with your local council about what your regulations are. Check out the websites for Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne – or simply google your council and search ‘waste’.

With that in mind, here are a few things that generally can’t be recycled:

  • Paper and cardboard heavily contaminated with food or grease
  • Bases and other takeaway packaging
  • Tissues
  • Wax coated cardboard, such as fruit boxes
  • Plastic bags and any ‘soft plastics’: bread bags, pasta bags and dry cleaning bags.
  • Nappies
  • Ceramics, cookware and crockery
  • Oven-proof glass, medical glass, light bulbs, broken drinking glass

And then there’s green waste.

According to Clean Up Australia, more than 47% of Aussie’s waste is made up of food or green waste. Many councils now have green bins upon request for food and green waste.

For extra brownie points, you can start your own compost at home and chuck it on your garden. The results will be spectacular for any homegrown herbs, vegetables, fruits or flowers. You can visit Clean Up Australia’s guide to composting, or disappear down a YouTube vortex of your own accord.

The Future

Governments and the recycling industry are hurriedly catching up to the new market. The ABC has had a huge effect on consumer’s knowledge by launching ‘War on Waste’ – a successful cross-media program.

The 4 Corners episode from last year is rare for the waste industry, in that it provided a scandal-filled headline to draw media attention. However, because this is a relatively boring matter of government policy and something that calls upon the personal responsibility of the consumer, the waste industry rarely captures full media attention. With half a billion dollars at stake and a nation-wide shake-up that is inevitable, our relationship with waste will actually be one of the most important stories of 2018 and beyond.

So this weekend, Slow News Weekly highly recommends grabbing a Bunnings sausage and a compost bin and having some fun in the garden. You may have more of a positive impact than you could ever realise.

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