Australia’s recycling crisis just intensified dramatically, and could cause the decline and even demise of a multibillion-dollar industry employing 50,000 people. Or it could prove its greatest fillip. As the Asian market collapses, with a growing number of nations refusing the world’s refuse, success or catastrophe in Australia is in our hands.
India and Malaysia, two of the biggest importers of our waste, have followed China’s unheralded move of a little over a year ago to crack down on waste imports, creating a towering challenge and opportunity for policymakers and industry. The Asian market provided a cheap, lazy solution by, in effect, underpricing the social and environmental cost of waste, removing an accurate price signal and thus an economic incentive to process waste.
The ongoing inertia, largely caused by demarcation disputes between the federal and state governments, is part of the problem. The issue is not political. It compels co-operation. It is urgent – dangerous stockpiles of waste are building across the nation; recycling centres across Australia are being swamped. Households are becoming dispirited as more and more recyclable rubbish is dumped in landfill.
The situation will probably deteriorate further before it can improve. Australia’s response to China’s move was to send rubbish to other Asian nations – our exports actually increased slightly last year. Our biggest rubbish recipient is Vietnam, followed by Indonesia. It is not unlikely they, too, will quit the international market.