Victorians are great recyclers and we take pride in knowing that we’re reducing waste. But for years we’ve been shipping mountains of recyclable materials to China, allowing us to push the problem from our mind.
China’s new waste standards mean we can no longer do this. It’s thrown our system into crisis, with several cases where councils have had to send tonnes of recyclable materials to landfill. It’s clear that we can’t export our problems anymore, we have to solve them here!
In every crisis lies an opportunity. And now is our chance to create a recycling system that ensures our efforts to recycle are actually helping us live more sustainably.
Fixing our recycling system won’t just protect our environment – it will create new jobs across Victoria. However, these opportunities will pass us by if we don’t get serious. So let’s clean up this mess!
A giant claw operates inside an e-waste processing plant
1. Develop Victoria’s own reuse and recycling jobs and industry, rather than exporting recycling jobs overseas
Around the world, countries have been exporting their recyclable material to China because this was the cheapest option. But sending our recyclables offshore isn’t good enough – we have no way of knowing that our waste is being processed safely and we miss opportunities to build a new industry that uses recycled materials.
Any solution to the recycling crisis needs to drastically increase the amount of recycling dealt with here. This means we need to create recycling jobs in Victoria – from processing to manufacturing.
2. Set strong standards for recycling collection, handling and processing
If we’re going to fix recycling then we need to fix the way we collect recyclable material.
To do this, we need to set minimum sorting standards for all contracts between councils and recycling processors. We also need to help sorting facilities meet higher standards, while ensuring there’s sufficient processing capacity across the state.
We also need to set standards for the way councils and companies handle our recyclable material. For example, we need to stop over-compressing our waste in collection trucks, which makes it impossible to separate glass from other products.
We also need consistent sorting rules for households to make it easier for every household to do the right thing. This standardised sorting system should be supported by an effective mass media campaigns that make sure everyone understands what should go in which bin.
Because nobody wants this... Credit: Chris Jordan,CC BY 2.0
3. Invest in Victoria’s capacity to use recycled materials in manufacturing, government projects and infrastructure
Fifteen years ago we processed much more recyclable material in Victoria than we do today. Sending waste offshore has made us lazy, but with the right investment Victoria build a new manufacturing industry around the use of recycled materials.
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To do this, we need to provide incentives for companies to develop new ways to use recycled materials in manufacturing processes. We also need to create a strong demand for products made with recycled materials by committing to purchasing products made with locally sourced mixed plastic through VicRoads, Parks Victoria, state departments and local councils per year.
Finally, we need to change the Australian Packaging Covenant to require all packaging made in Australia to use at least 50% recycled material.
4. Restore integrity to our recycling system by being transparent and accountable about where our recycling ends up
We have the right to know that our recycling is making a difference. Reports on programs such as the War on Waste showed how little transparency there is in our recycling systems, with recyclable material treated like trash. This undermines people’s confidence in our recycling system and makes people less likely to recycle properly.
To overcome this, we need transparent reporting from all councils that show where our recycling ends up combined with regular, transparent audits of recycling operations. We also need regular data on how much waste is going to landfill in Victoria.
5. Close the loop on waste by progressively requiring all products to be reusable, recyclable or safely compostable
Over time, Victoria needs to move towards fully closed-loop systems. This means that all products are produced in ways that allow then to be recovered and reused or to biologically breakdown in safe ways.
This “cradle-to-cradle” design is the ultimate step towards sustainable use of natural resources and can be supported through grant programs to help manufactures design for disassembly and reuse, combined with a shift to reusable products like refillable bottles and returnable food containers.
Recompute is a new way of thinking about computers that layers sustainable ideas throughout its lifecycle to make an overall sustainable product that can be easily replicated. Credit: Flickr CC, TVZ Design
So how do we make this happen?
The Victorian Government has a $400m Sustainability Fund, which can only be used to finance environment programs (read more in the article below).
The fund is financed through landfill levies paid by councils and tip fees charged to businesses and individuals who dump rubbish at waste transfer stations. For too long it has been used to prop up the State’s budget – now we need to use this money to get ourselves out of the recycling crisis.
We also need to put in place financial disincentives to create new plastics. For example, a tax on virgin plastics would partly address the true cost of virgin materials and provide an extra incentive to use recycled material. Similarly, an advance disposal fee could be applied to materials that are not readily recyclable, such as materials that mix different types of plastics.
A $500 million-plus pot of money funded by landfill levies and tip fees that has been underspent by successive state governments should be used to salvage Victoria's recycling industry, environmental advocates say.