Australian state governments will spend vast amounts of money to hold off council rate rises stemming from China's recyclable waste ban

Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images
  • The NSW Government has released a one-off package of up to $47 million to help councils cope with rising costs due to China’s recyclable waste importation ban.
  • The industry says recycling contracts with councils face default without action by state and federal governments.
  • Lobbying by Australian officials and politicians to get China to overturn the ban has failed.

NSW has joined Victoria with temporary funding to help councils with rising costs for picking up home yellow-topped bins following China’s ban on the importation of recyclable waste.

The current system of kerbside recycling has been under threat in Australia since January when China, the largest importer of recyclable products from Australia, banned imports.

The local waste industry says recycling bin pickup contracts with councils across Australia face default without urgent action by state and federal governments.

The impact from China’s ban is varied across Australia with pressure on some local councils just starting, while others have contractors pushing for new arrangements because the value of the recycled material they collect has plunged.

China’s sudden decision to stop importing waste material for recycling has turned the economics of recycling markets in Australia — and in other parts of the world — on its head.

Before the China ban, many councils were paid a fee by recyclers for each tonne of household recycling. This fee was often used to offset collection costs. The material was then sold to China, where the waste was processed, at a higher price.

China had been taking about 1.25 million tonnes of recyclable waste, the majority of it paper and cardboard, each year.

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.

Lobbying by Australian officials and politicians to get China to overturn the ban has failed.

The NSW Government has just released a one-off package of up to $47 million to support local government and industry to respond to China’s National Sword policy, a program to stop smuggling of foreign waste.

China now says this flow of waste has polluted its environment. It wants its industry to deal with its own waste rather than process the world’s.

Part of the NSW package is to allow some recycling facilities to temporarily vary their stockpile limits.

“The short-term need for increased stockpiles of recycled material during this critical time must be balanced with the safety of the community and the environment,” says State Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton.

Some bin collection companies have been stockpiling recycled waste, hoping that prices will improve in the future.

The money from the NSW Government will enable councils to off-set some extra costs associated with kerbside recycling collections, improve council tendering processes to increase the production and use of recycled products, and fund community education initiatives to reduce kerbside recycling contamination.

Upton says she’s written to the federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg to urgently find long-term solutions at a national level.

“NSW has a strong kerbside recycling system and the Government, councils and recycling industry are committed to working together to ensure it continues,” she says.

“I have met with industry and government stakeholders to hear first-hand about how we can address the current global challenges to the recycling market in NSW.”

In Victoria, lobbying by local councils has produced a $13 million package from the state government to support kerbside collection of household recyclable waste, giving councils and contractors time to develop longer-term solutions, including renegotiating contracts.

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