A large pile of rubbish, taking up two thirds of the picture, with a grey sky in the top third

Wasting our world’s potential: a call to arms for better waste management

Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Australia reminds us of the accountability every country holds for the degradation of our planet. In a statement made at Sydney Opera House on 1 May, the French President called for Prime Minister Turnbull to strengthen his commitment to greener policies in Australia, and that he not succumb to political and economic pushback.

There is a serious underrepresentation of pro-environment ideals in Australian politics at the moment – grave enough to garner even the attention of foreign leaders. Most ‘new’ environmental policies have failed to manifest the change we need: rather they have been allowing for business to go about as usual.

But if politicians were looking for a chance to salvage their sad reputation, the time is now.

China’s ban on ‘foreign waste’, effective from 1 January this year, has been raising serious concerns across the globe – even in our own country. For several years, many countries across the world, including those in the EU and Asia, have been exporting their recyclable waste to China.

The note posted by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to the WTO newly rejects 24 types of recyclables that had been being sent to their shores, arguing that this was posing serious threats to their environment and public health. ‘We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,’ it reads.

Environmental reform has been garnering more and more public support in the economic superpower, with documentaries like Plastic China highlighting the serious repercussions of 10 million tonnes of foreign waste.

In 2017 alone, Australia had exported more than 600,000 tonnes of plastic and cardboard to China, which is more than half of what was being collected through curb-side recycling programs. The United States, with a population about thirteen-and-a-half times larger than us, had been sending over 13 million tonnes of paper and 1.4 million tonnes of plastic.

In response to the ban, the EU has mentioned a possible plastic usage tax, while the UK has proposed redistributing its trash to Southeast Asian countries instead. The US, on the other hand, has been urging the Chinese government to ‘immediately halt implementation and revise these measures in a manner consistent with international standards’. The PRC has since defended itself on grounds of the Basel Convention – an international agreement prohibiting the transferral of hazardous waste from one country to another.

With China’s fervent push towards renewables, this ban does not come as a surprise. Worries over the environment and public health seem to be at the top of current priorities.

But the question still begs: if our recyclables are no longer ending up in China, then where is it going?  

In Ipswich, Queensland, residents have already been notified that their recyclables are now heading straight to landfill. Local councils have been struggling to process the unprecedented surge in recyclables due to a lack of funds and infrastructure, and have been forced to store their waste in warehouses across the nation.

To discuss potential plans-of-action, Australia’s environment ministers convened at the end of last month, with talks focusing on innovation around waste reduction and production, as well as increased investment in waste-to-energy technologies. ‘We’ve already got more than 30 [waste-to-energy] projects underway in Australia…and we look forward to expanding these over time,’ stated the Minister of Energy and Environment, Josh Frydenberg.

Scandinavian countries are especially famous for their use of such technologies, with Sweden sending around 50 per cent of its landfill to incinerators to produce energy. The country boasts a 98 per cent recycle-rate.

Though the debate continues, many experts deem waste-to-energy combustion plants as the last resort. Burning recyclables like plastic would mean foregoing precious resources that could otherwise be pumped back into the economy. This in turn means taking a step backwards from achieving a circular economy, which aims to minimise negative outputs from production processes. Investing in waste-to-energy also means diverting efforts and funding from renewable energy projects.

New technologies redirecting recyclables away from landfill are emerging, with national companies like Replas collecting soft plastics from supermarket-goers and turning them into outdoor benches and decking. Researchers at the University of New South Wales have also been developing ways to instantly reprocess plastics and metal alloys into feedstock for 3D-printers. This would allow us to recycle and repurpose more of our waste, and could potentially reduce our ecological footprints made by shipping and packaging as well. The initiative is, however, still in its infancy, and should not excuse our excessive use of valuable materials.

Who holds the most influence over our waste’s future remains unclear, but what is definite is that all parts of society have their own roles to play – now more than ever. Governments, the most able procurers of waste, must look into efficient collection and redistribution mechanisms within the private sector (where there is more funding available and less political obstacles to overcome). Firms must develop innovative ways to process their waste in the most economic manner possible, while individuals reduce the amount of waste they produce and make greater efforts to decontaminate recyclables before disposal.

The time has come to seriously question our use of Earth’s resources. With China refusing to be the world’s dumping ground, the rest of us must conquer our destructive addiction.