More than 18 months ago China implemented it's infamous China Sword Policy which effectively banned the import of plastics and other materials for recycling. Supply chains that had been in place for decades were suddenly thrown into chaos.

Australia's plastic recycler's scrambled to find new international destinations that had the jurisdictional approvals needed to process the materials. For the most part the recyclables found there way to the right places.

Unfortunately a small quantity of materials sent overseas did not go to reputable destinations and the contamination present in all baled recyclables was not dealt with correctly.

This led to toxic gasses from burning plastics and runaway plastic pollution ending up in water ways and in many places it should simply not be.

Countries all over the world are now moving to ban the import of these materials as the contamination and processing pose to great a risk the their developing economies.

The Australian Government is now moving to ban the export of recyclables such a plastic and other materials so that we must process this material within our borders.

Even the purest recycled plastic feed stock will not be pure enough to meet the China Sword Policy requirements of less than 0.5% contamination.

With Countries now adopting this same policy we must either work to change supply chains that are bringing virgin packaging into Australia or we must find new uses for this recyclate.

Thinking longer term, packaging and our consumption habits will need to change to adapt to the new economic forces a play.

China no longer relies on using cheap feed stock rejected by other nations for use in applications that don't require high quality materials.

China now has it's own internal sources with enough volume of these materials to handle their supply chain requirements.

There is now a range of pathways for those looking at implementing recyclables processing facilities beyond the MRF.

These may include processing plastics back into oil so that it can re enter the purification and processing cycle.

Additionally colour separation and pelletisation may produce feed stock that can be used to re-manufacture various packaging or other consumer goods.

At any rate the end markets for the materials or consumer goods must exist for there to be a commercial appetite to undertake the businesses being suggested.

Boosting our local manufacturing sector to utilise these materials to produce products here in Australia is going to be the key to making the circular economy turn.

I recently attended the Australasian Waste and Recycling Expo and heard from many inspiring and informative speakers who are leaders in sustainability and the wider resource recovery industry. For many years I have said that the current system in NSW of applying a comparatively high levy on landfill was not working.

It seemed for a long time that this concern of mine was not being championed by anyone and that waste management companies were being unfairly targeted in this “war on waste”. It seemed to me that the levy achieved some results but beyond a certain point only served to generate revenue.

By over burdening the public with this waste levy the NSW government has inadvertently redirected valuable resources out of NSW into other states and overseas for many years. If they had fully invested this levy in development of technologies and specific infrastructure to recycle materials they would have achieved their stated outcome.

Due to regulatory requirements and technology limitations it has been cheaper to ship our resources thousands of kilometres to countries half way around the world for “recycling”. The conditions here in Australia have been such that it is too hard to sell recycled materials because the certification requirements were produced for virgin materials and did not include provisions for recycled resources.

Nowhere For Our Resources To Go

More than 18 months after the China Sword Policy, repeated plastic recycling scandals and the collapse of SKM our politicians seem ready to engage with this issue at a federal level. COAG has signalled its intention to ban the export of materials such as plastics and force the market in Australia to find ways to deal with the problem here.

Unfortunately we need time to invest in ensuring that we can build infrastructure to handle existing stockpiles and continuing streams of materials. Due diligence, risk reduction and government funding are going to be key in establishing local markets for our valuable resources. An immediate ban on exports could lead to undesirable outcomes.

The last thing we need at this moment in time is a knee jerk reaction that will only increase stockpiles or worse cause more collapses like SKM to occur. What is needed is a coordinated effort between industry and the government to address various legislative issues.

Is It Really The Industries Fault?

The Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management seemed to think that waste companies had enjoyed some sort of inside track with the government in the past and that somehow the current issues were the fault of industry.

The bottom line is that these resources will always end up in the cheapest place to put them, from a commercial perspective this makes perfect sense. From a sustainability perspective it is the last thing the we want. Unfortunately if the end markets don't exist locally there is little point for the industry to invest in the infrastructure to turn these resources back into a usable feedstock for manufacturing.

Getting To A Circular Economy

Creating end markets and changing the way our population thinks about recycled is going to be key to creating a circular economy. Further investment in recycling technologies to handle contamination and certification requirements will be needed to continue the path to a circular economy.

In the mean time prioritising the process to evaluate applications to create waste to fuel and waste to energy infrastructure as a last resort measure for materials that have no higher order process that can be carried out must be implemented.

Overall with the determined efforts of governments at all levels and industry we will achieve the best outcomes for our country and the planet. We just need to keep at it! 

Will One State Rule Them All?

My final thought. For the last 3 or 4 years most companies delivering skip bin hire Central Coast have sent their resources to Queensland for “additional recycling”. Even now with the waste levy reset earlier this year it is still economically viable to send this post sorted Construction & Demolition waste over the border.

The question in my mind is will there be a state that moves to legislate more progressive policy to be the resource recovery centre?

Let me know what you think at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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