China’s waste ban is a blessing in disguise
In January China implemented a policy so drastic that many people simply didn't believe it would happen.
The decision to restrict the importation of 24 categories of recyclable material took a blowtorch to recycling industries globally - Australia included. The headlines that followed ranged from "The system is broken" through to "This is the end of kerbside recycling".
But amid the doomsday prophesising, it's time to start telling a different story about Australia's waste industry. That the China ban in fact represents the massive 'kick up the backside' our country needed and now's the time to start looking for solutions.
This week is National Recycling Week, a campaign working to spotlight the environmental benefits of recycling. That might seem like a simple enough job, but just two years ago it was a very different story. Waste and recycling in Australia - alongside public interest - had flatlined. Getting people to talk about it was a slog and it was difficult to see how this would change.
Yet quickly, and miraculously, waste and recycling in Australia have gone from the bottom of the policy agenda right to the top. That much-needed change came in the form of China's National Sword policy.
For people working outside of the waste world, the news was a shock on several fronts. The biggest being the realisation that as a nation we shipped a significant portion of our plastic, paper and cardboard for our Asian neighbours to deal with.
Many people felt conned. How on earth can we build a sustainable future at home if we can't even manage our own waste?
But what this public outcry told us - and our subsequent research has confirmed - is that people see recycling as an essential service. This was a problem that needed to be fixed.
On a policy level this came in April with an agreement by Australia's environment ministers to update the 2009 National Waste Policy. This was the first comprehensive review of the way our country manages its waste for years.
I have been part of the reference group involved in the revision and have been impressed by the diligence and desire to make a difference by all parties involved. It has strong targets and milestones and includes Circular Economy principles. It represents an incredible opportunity for Australian society and I hope we grab it with both hands.
As a nation we currently generate approximately 64 million tonnes of waste every year and just under 60 per cent of that waste is recycled and recovered. Under the new proposed targets, that figure will need to jump to 80 per cent by 2030. Importantly it sets targets for the recycled content in products that we all buy, so that we can help close the loop and contribute to a circular economy.
From the development of better collection and processing infrastructure, right down to harmonising the colour of recycling bins across Australia and the Australasian Recycling Label being on all packaging - it's difficult to express just how many aspects of society this policy could change. Take jobs for instance - for every 10,000 tonnes of waste sent to landfill, 2.8 jobs are created. If we recycled that waste, 9.2 jobs would be created.
It's clear we have a very big job ahead of us. And from government, the next step will be to develop with business thorough implementation plans and a funding mechanism to make the targets a reality. It's an incredible opportunity and it's critical that we don't waste it.
But it's also important to remember that it's a job that all Australians have a role to play in. The choices we make in what we buy, how we use products and how we dispose of them is critical to improving the way we manage waste in Australia. And this National Recycling Week is the perfect chance to get started.
Paul Klymenko is the CEO of Planet Ark Environmental Foundation.