Australian recyclable waste is now going to the tip because of an import ban by China

A waste recycle station in Huaibei, Anhui province, east China. Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images
  • A council in Queensland says it’s going to send its recycleable waste to the tip.
  • The decision is the first major public fallout from a decision by China this year to ban the importation of recycled paper, glass and plastic.
  • In NSW and Victoria, the state government have put up funds to help councils keep collecting yellow top recycle bins but decisions will need to be made soon on whether to continue the service.

Australia’s system of yellow top recyclable waste bins is starting to unravel because of a decision made in China.

Ipswich City in Queensland is the first Australian council to go public on sending recyclable waste to the tip because China has banned the importation the contents of yellow bins.

Andrew Antoniolli, the local mayor, says his city is the latest domino to be affected by China’s ban on the importation of most recyclable paper, glass and plastics.

All councils will eventually be impacted by the viability of recycling household waste, he says.

Contractors told council the current rate being paid to them would skyrocket if recycling continued.

Costs would rise by around $2 million a year and mean a 1.5% to 2% rate rise.

Australian councils are under growing pressure to put up rates to cover the increased costs of kerbside pickup of recycled waste following the importation ban by China.

The impact is varied across Australia with pressure on some local councils just starting, while others have contractors pushing for new contracts because the value of the recycled material they pick up has plunged.

The state governments in both Victoria and NSW have put in cash to give local councils breathing space to work out what to do with waste which had been previously recycled.

Australia produces about 64 million tonnes of waste, or about 2.7 tonnes per person, according to government estimates for 2014-15. About 60% of that is recycled in some form.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in July last year filed a notice to the World Trade Organisation advising that low grades of recovered mixed paper, textiles, plastics and some metals would be banned from import.

The ban, an extension of China’s Operation Green Fence policy to prohibit the importation of unwashed and contaminated recyclable materials, came into effect in January, barring 24 categories of solid waste, sending already weak prices for recyclable material to rock bottom and making some materials unsaleable and ultimately destined for landfill or for stockpiling.

Last year China created what it called the National Sword program to stop smuggling of foreign waste. China now says this flow of waste has seriously polluted its environment. It wants its industry to deal with its own waste rather than process the world’s.

In Australia, picking up recycling bins is no longer profitable because much of what’s inside them can’t now be sold to China for processing, as the world has done for the past 20 years.

At Ipswich in Queensland, with a population of 200,000 just south of Brisbane, the council says contents from yellow lid recycle bins will be sent to landfill.

And by mid-year the council will call tenders to bid on waste-to-energy projects which will enable a portion of the city’s energy to be environmentally-friendly

“As a city, we need to move forward,” says mayor Antoniolli.

“We want to become a leader in the waste-to-energy space, which will in the medium to long-term provide us with an environmentally-friendly energy source, jobs and a better economic outcome for Ipswich.

“We’ve actually been looking at waste as an energy source for some time, and this gives us the ideal opportunity to be ahead of the game in that space.

“While it is fair to say the national recycling system broke sooner than we expected, Ipswich has been looking to the future. We’re making sure we tackle this issue head on.”

The council is urging people to continue to sort their waste as per normal. Bins will be collected on the same days, with yellow lid bins collected each fortnight.

The focus on recycling will now be about waste reduction.

Deputy Mayor Wayne Wendt said: “We were left with no other choice but to send yellow lid bin contents to landfill.”

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